Odisha’s Kharasrota river stuck in tussle between protecting ecology and providing drinking water

  • Protests over a drinking water project on the Kharasrota river in Odisha, proposed in 2019, continue with allegations of its threat to local ecology and agriculture.
  • While the project is meant to meet the drinking water needs to water scarce Bhadrak district, it is located in Kendrapara district where the residents worry that the project will impact the farmers and biodiversity of Bhitarkanika National Park, a notified Ramsar wetland.
  • While intra-state water related conflicts continue to rise in India, there is an urgent need for legal or institutional mechanisms to resolve it.

Unlike inter-state river water disputes, which are continuing to challenge the federal water governance structures of India, the conflict over Kharasrota river in Odisha is intra-state. It is between two coastal districts – Kendrapara and Bhadrak – over a drinking water project worth Rs. 892 crore. Bhadrak is the beneficiary of this project, while the location of the project is at Kendrapara.

While farming and ecology are on one side of the conflict, drinking water is on the other side.

The government claims the project will solve the drinking water crisis of 650,000 people in 91 gram panchayats of Bhadrak district which it terms as “water-scarce.” But, residents of Kendrapara complain the project will badly impact the farmers and biodiversity of Bhitarkanika National Park (BNP), a notified Ramsar wetland.

“Once this project is done, water flow of the river will drastically reduce. It will destroy farming in 220 riverside villages affecting over four lakh (400,000) people,” alleged Dolagobinda Nayak, a former MLA of Aul in Kendrapara, who is also a member of the Kharasrota Banchao Sangram Samiti (KBSS), a people’s body that has been at the forefront of the struggle.

The government had proposed the project under Basudha Yojana in 2019. But it had been a non-starter due to protests. The conflict escalated in January 2020 as the government started the construction activity, said Haladhara Mallick, a retired school teacher, who is also one of the protesters.

The people of Kendrapara’s villages had taken to streets several times. They had formed human chains, gheraoed Kendrapara district collectorate and staged dharna outside the State Assembly. Currently, the construction is going on under tight police protection.

Questions over legal provisions of project

Amlan Mishra, a student of National Law University (NLU) who has studied the controversy from a legal point of view, maintained that the government has flouted the legal provisions in a number of ways. In order to provide a legal cover to exempt it from Environmental Clearance, the district officials claim that the project is a linear one – in the nature of roads, highways and transmission lines etc. Therefore, it is not subject to the rigorous Environmental and Social Impact Assessment provisions envisioned in the ESIA policy, Mishra said.

As a matter of fact, the problem is not with the pipeline part of the project, but with the diversion of river water which feeds the ecologically sensitive zone of Bhitarkanika. Environmental and Social Impact assessment that is crucial for an Eco-Sensitive Zone has not been done in this area. All developmental activities, even highways and pipelines (less than 100 kms) in eco-sensitive zones are labeled as ‘Category-A’ projects in the Environmental and Social Impact policy, 2006 and are subject to strict assessment and environmental clearance. The assessment for Category-A projects involves public hearings and appraisal by the Central Level Expert Appraisal Committee. These hearings are crucial to generate public confidence and understand the impact of this project on local residents, pointed out Mishra.

However, a public announcement of this pipeline, social assessment, public hearing or Central Level Expert Appraisal has not been done in this case, added MLA Nayak.

It was the officials of the project’s executing agency who tried to negotiate with the villagers, said Khirod Rout, an advocate with the Odisha High Court and the legal advisor of the KBSS.

As the protest escalated, the administration – the Superintendent of Police, district collector and the sub-collector – was forced to discuss with the people. But, in all the three meetings conducted with the villagers, the administration only tried to impose its decision on them, pointed out Rout.

Salinity, water scarcity may impact overall ecology

Rural Water Supply and Sanitation (RWSS) executive engineer, Kendrapara division, Basant Kumar Nayak said 106 MLD water, that is less than even 5% of the total flow from the river to the sea, will be drawn for the project. This will have minimal impact on farming and ecology of the region.

Countering his claims, Prafulla Samantara, president of Lok Shakti Abhiyan, a people’s forum that campaigns for sustainable development, maintained that while planning on Kharasrota, water exploitation from its parent river Brahmani should be taken into consideration. Due to industrial exploitation of water in Brahmani, Odisha’s second largest river, it fails to cater to the agricultural and domestic requirements of its riparian communities. The Talcher-Angul coal mines, steel and power-generating units as well as the Kalinga Nagar steel and power hub in Jajpur district have been drawing enormous quantities of freshwater from the Brahmani river. Now it is highly polluted, Samantara maintained.

“Five years ago, the state government had signed a MoU to build a river port on Brahmani for coal transportation to Dhamara port. When the port comes up, water flow in Kharasrota will come down drastically,” pointed out Samantara, the Green Nobel winner for Asia continent in 2017.

On Kharasrota river, the government in 2019 had planned two mega lift irrigation projects at Argala in Ali and Deulatara in Rajkanika block in Kendrapara district, said former MLA Nayak. Besides, the government had promised a drinking water project worth Rs. 268 crore to the project site villagers in Aul and Rajkanika who lack water supply facility. Two other projects – at Binjharpur and Bari in Jajpur district – are also planned on the river. When all these eight projects become functional, it could leave no water in the river, Nayak added.

Noted geologist Nachiketa Das, in his 2021 book Save This Land,  on India’s environment, raised an alarm that water scarcity in the Brahmani basin in general and Kharasrota in particular will lead to severe salinity in Kharasrota basin that is composed essentially of sand and is highly porous.

“Even now, during summer the crop fields get saline as sea water ingresses into the river when there is less or no water and the porous land absorbs the salinity,” said former Aul MLA Devendra Sharma, who is an advisor of the KBSS.

Water exploitation from the Brahmani river basin will pose a threat to the 195 sq km Bhitarkanika National Park that is home to 62 mangrove species, 1,600 salt water crocodiles, and hundreds of birds and animals.

Massive siltation of the river bed is also a matter of concern, said Rout, a native of project site Mandeidiha village. “The 300-350 metre wide river has now shrunk to 20-40 metre in many places. The project will further catalyse the shrinking process,” he said.

Locals demand proper study, anicut

Local residents of Kendrapara villages demand that an integrated scientific study by an expert committee comprising hydrologists, engineers, geologists and villagers should be conducted taking into account the concerns raised by the ecologists and locals before planning such a project. They also demand that surface water measurement be conducted between April 15 and May 15 when water flow is minimal, maintained Rout.

The residents have also been demanding that a barrage or a reservoir/anicut (a dam made in a stream for maintaining and regulating irrigation) be constructed on the downstream to store the fresh water, said Sharma. Exploiting water without storing will sound the death knell of riparian ecology, he added.

A 2016 picture of Kharasorta river where a drinking water project is proposed to come up. Photo by Deepak Das/Wikimedia Commons.

Geologist Das in his book suggests for some 10,000 micro dams in the upper catchment areas of Brahmani and Baitarani to store water in the aquifers and ensure fresh water flow in Kharasrota round-the-year. He also suggested that the riverbed must be excavated up to a depth of three metres from its source at Jenapur to the project site to enhance its water-holding capacity.

According to Ranjan Panda, a noted water and climate change expert of the country, recharging a river basin through small structures both instream and in the catchment could provide a lot of solution.  Before going ahead with large scale water extraction projects such as this, it is always wise to take into consideration an integrated multi-disciplinary assessment that ensures viability of the project and ecology both without antagonizing with the locals.

Rainwater panacea

While there has been substantial depletion of water table in coastal Bhadrak district due to rampant withdrawal of groundwater and massive saline ingress, Kendrapara marks its presence in the list of 257 most water-scarce districts of India as the only district from Odisha, said Hemanta Kumar Sahu, a researcher with the Society for Research in Ecology and Environment, a non-profit.

In such situation, it is unwise to exploit the ground or surface water through large infrastructure projects to meet domestic water needs, said K.J. Joy of Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, a non-profit.

Advocating for rainwater harvesting as a solution, Joy said Bhadrak district receives around 1600 mm rainfall in a year and the water requirement to meet the domestic needs is only a small portion of it.

Need for legal mechanisms

Intra-state water related conflicts are on the rise in India and the country lacks legal or institutional mechanisms to resolve it, note experts. The main legal instrument to resolve only the inter-state conflicts is the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act. But this legal instrument is not working effectively as observed in the cases of disputes over Mahanadi river (between Odisha and Chhattisgarh) and the Cauvery river (between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka), pointed out Panda. He added that there is a need for a river conservation law, which is currently lacking, otherwise more such conflicts will rise making it difficult for governments to govern water resources balancing all competing needs while also maintaining ecological balance.

Though the Draft National Policy Guidelines for Water Sharing/Distribution amongst States, formulated in 2013, states that distribution of water within a state should be left to the concerned state, one of the key challenges in inter-state as well as intra-state conflicts is that there is no agreed norm of water allocation, added Joy. All water polices talk about water use prioritisation with domestic water being the first priority, but this is hardly implemented, he said.

Solution of the current crisis also needs a legally mandated institutional space like a democratic river basin organisation for different stakeholders to come together, negotiate and decide on allocations, pointed out Joy.

Banner image: Local residents sit in protest against the mega drinking water project on the Kharasrota river in Odisha. Photo by Ashish Senapati.

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