Inside Goa and Karnataka’s conflict on Mhadei river water

  • The dispute over water sharing of the Mhadei river, between Goa and Karnataka, was raked up once again during the recent Karnataka assembly elections in May.
  • In the midst of the decades-old dispute which is still sub-judice, canals and conduits that have been built are flooding the low-lying areas in Karnataka’s Khanapur, which thrives on its expanding sugarcane crops.
  • Goa, meanwhile, is accused of not making “better use of the river” and allowing it to flow straight to the sea, has decided to build dams downstream.

On a sweltering Saturday in a scorching May this year, hundreds of people, young and old and from all walks of life, gathered at Goa’s Miramar beach, where the river Mandovi meets the Arabian Sea. They sang, danced and read poetry in honour of the river. They formed a formidable human chain that would be a testament to how much the river, meant to the state. The activity was timed with the assembly election in the neighbouring state, Karnataka, where, in the run-up to the elections, a four-decade-old river water dispute between the two states was drummed up, not for the first time, for political leverage.

Also known as the Mhadei or Mahadeyi, the river descends from the Sahyadri range of mountains in Karnataka, travels a total of 111 kilometres westward, including 76 kms through Goa, nourishing ecosystems in more than one wildlife sanctuary, balancing the salinity of the khazan farmlands and providing drinking water to 43% of Goa’s population, before it meets the sea.

For decades, there has been a conflict between Goa and Karnataka on sharing of water from the Mhadei by diverting water from Mhadei’s upstream tributaries, the Kalasa and Banduri, into the Malaprabha that flows east to join the river Krishna that flows through Karnataka and three other states. The proposed dams, canals and conduits that make up the Kalasa-Banduri project have seen more than one major development in recent years when both states were governed by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments, with a BJP government at the Centre.

The Mhadei river flowing from its source in the Jamboti Ghats. Photo by Milindpk/Wikimedia Commons.

On August 14, 2018, an interstate water tribunal awarded 24 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) of water to Goa, which has the largest chunk of the river basin, and 1.3 TMC water to Maharashtra which shares a small part of the basin. Karnataka’s share was 13.42 TMC, of which, 1.5 TMC was allowed for in-basin consumption, 8.02 TMC for use in a hydropower project at Kotni where waters are to be released back into the river and 3.9 TMC for the purported drinking water needs (for a projected population of 21,27,878 by 2024) of the twin cities of Hubli-Dharwad that lie in the Krishna Basin and Malaprabha, Ghataprabha and Tungabhadra sub-basins the Kalasa Banduri project. All three states moved the Supreme Court against the decision.

Following the Mahadayi Water Dispute Tribunal’s order in 2018, Karnataka stepped up its efforts to get the Kalasa-Banduri drinking water project going. It seemed to have the support of the central government, much to the discomfort of the BJP state government in Goa.

In October 2019, a tweet by the then Minister of Environment declared that the project has received environmental clearance. This prompted Chief Minister of Goa, Pramod Sawant, to lead an all-party delegation to New Delhi and claim, also on Twitter, that Goa is not aware of the environmental clearance granted to Karnataka.

Then, in December of 2022, the then Karnataka Chief Minister, from the BJP party in power, announced, in an address to the Legislative Assembly, that the Central Water Commission had approved the detailed project report for the Kalasa-Banduri project. A month later, in January 2023, the Union Home Minister Amit Shah, while campaigning in Belgavi for the BJP party, declared that the Mhadei dispute was “solved” and Karnataka could have its share of water. In the Assembly elections that followed in May, the BJP lost and the Indian National Congress came into power.

Fisherfolk gather crabs along the Mahadei River also known as Mandovi river in Goa. Photo by Shankar S/Flickr
Fisherfolk gather crabs along the Mahadei River also known as Mandovi river in Goa. Photo by Shankar S./Flickr.

Mhadei evokes strong emotion

At May’s Miramar event, Goa’s leading physician, Dr. Oscar Rebello expressed a sentiment shared by many others there. He said, the Goa government, with its silence on the Mhadei issue during the Karnataka elections campaigning, had let them down. “Mhadei was clearly used as a political ploy in Karnataka. Goa be damned,” he said.

Organisers of the human chain at Miramar, Earthivist Collective, Goa Heritage Action Group (GHAG), and Save Mhadei Save Goa had been careful not to call the event a “protest” lest they be prevented from holding it all together. But a protest it was, in the contemporary Goan language of protests, combining art and environmental activism.

Miriam Koshy of Earthivist Collective explained they had organised this ambitious “community engagement” to seize the moment and be heard by a newly-elected government in Karnataka that she hoped “was not environmentally as blasé as the previous government.”

A tale of the upstream

Travelling from Goa to Karnataka on the Panjim-Belgavi highway, one encounters the multi-site Kalasa-Banduri project as soon as one climbs the Chorla Ghat and crosses the state border. To the left is the Hartala nullah, a tributary, where a dam is proposed. A little further lies Surla, a tributary of the Mhadei that flows into Goa through a waterfall where Karnataka proposes to build a series of barrages. These barrages, however, were not part of Karnataka’s original plans submitted to the tribunal, according to sources in Goa’s Water Resource Department.

Kalasa, Mhadei’s upstream tributary, originates, where Krishna river’s tributary, Malaprabha does – at the Rameshwar temple in the small town of Kankumbi in Karnataka. Through canals and conduits, which Karnataka built between 2006 and 2010, the Kalasa’s water is being directed into the Malaprabha.

A similar dam and diversion are planned on the Banduri nullah, the Mhadei tributary closest to the origin of the river in Karnataka’s Degaon in an area that is dense forest. Work on these projects was started without permission from the Ministry of Environment and Forest and “stayed” by the Supreme Court only when the Mhadei Bachao Andolan, an activism group lobbying for Goa’s share of Mhadei, intervened, president of the organisation and former minister from Goa, Nirmala Sawant, told Mongabay India.

A canal near the Surla river in Karnataka, plugged on court orders after objections raised by Goa. Photo by Meera Mohanty
A canal near the Surla river in Karnataka, plugged on court orders after objections raised by Goa. Photo by Meera Mohanty/Mongabay.

It rains so furiously at Kankumbi that houses put up a supportive scaffolding and wrap themselves in tarpaulin. And yet by April and May, there is severe water scarcity, says C.G. Chigulkar, a school headmaster, who seeks check dams on the Malaprabha, in their area, rather than for Hubli and Dharwad, that are over a hundred kilometres away, where the drinking water project is proposed. Ever since the Kasturirangan Committee suggested that 37% of the Western Ghats be declared an eco-sensitive zone, Kankumbi residents claim that forest officials crack down on any activity that could affect wildlife, including digging borewells. They make a case for the need to tap river water to meet their needs.

“It is unfair that the bhumiputra (sons of the soil) stand to gain nothing from a project that takes water from their lands to fulfil the needs of others,” says Vithal Somanna Halagekar, the newly elected BJP legislator of Khanapur, stating his objection to the Kalsa-Bandurai project He plans to plead with the currently-in-power Congress government, in the state capital, Bengaluru, on behalf of his constituents, write to the tribunal, sit in dharna and do whatever it takes to fight for Khanapur’s first right to this diverted water.

Like many of his colleagues in the Karnataka Assembly, Halagekar, too, is in the sugar business. His company Mahalakshmi Agro is setting up another factory of five-fold capacity with plans to also produce ethanol, a future fuel, with all the support of the central government. When asked, where will it source water from, he says, “The plant will be fitted with newer, more water-efficient technology. We will also draw water from the Malaprabha river. Khanapur has a lot of water sources, but its utilisation is not happening.”

Reminded that the Tribunal’s order allows diversion from the river only for drinking water purposes, Halagekar says, “A tribunal should not dictate that you can only use it for drinking water. Water isn’t something you steal to buy gold, water will be taken for drinking or what a farmer will take to use in agriculture.”

A sugarcane field in Khanapur. Photo by Meera Mohanty.

Karnataka’s unrestrained use of Malaprabha’s water for cash crops like sugarcane, to the point that it now finds its own water basins deficient to fulfill drinking water requirements, had been pointed out to the Tribunal by Rajendra Kerkar, environmentalist and a writer from Goa, who has campaigned relentlessly for Mhadei’s cause.

The idea to divert Mhadei water stems from the farmers’ agitation of late 1970s in Nargund in Karnataka’s undivided Dharwad, against a “betterment levy” for the Malaprabha Reservoir (Navilu Teertha) that did not quite improve their lives. In 1980 the farmers’ protest turned violent leading to the death of a farmer and two policemen and eventually to the Congress government being voted out and replaced with Karnataka’s first non-Congress government.

Not surprisningly then, the Kalasa-Banduri project also has the Karnataka Congress’s commitment. Its manifesto says it will spend Rs. 30 billion over the next five years to complete the Mahadayi river diversion projects.

Kerkar says, “It is laughable. If you walk five kilometres down the Kalasa and five kilometres down the Malaprabha from where they originate, you will see the rivers are destroyed. Where will you get the water to divert until you protect the forest and allow the river’s natural flow?”

Unravelling downstream tale

Meanwhile, accused of not making “better use of the river” and allowing it to mostly flow straight to the sea, Goa now is getting its act together on proposed dams on the Mhadei. Five sites have been identified: at Sonal and Nanora for the purpose of hydropower and Rivem in Sattari taluka, dams at Matojanwada and Bolkarne will be used for irrigation. Some of them fall within the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary, according to the state’s Water Resource Department.

The government has moved faster on three smaller dams (of the scale of Moisal reservoir in Sanverdem) at Kajumol, and Tatodi in Dharbandora and Makengawal in Shiroda for which land has been surveyed and soil testing is underway, according to the state’s Water Resources Minister, Subash Shirodkar.

Shirodkar says this has nothing to do with the awkward position his government was recently put into by its own party at the Centre which declared that Karnataka could divert Mhadei water, even as Goa opposed the idea. “Our honourable Prime Minister has directed all states to prepare drinking water and irrigation profiles up to 2047 when India will celebrate 100 years of Independence. With climate change, nothing is certain. Last year it rained unusually in January and February, and even March. This summer, the Moisal reservoir in my constituency went dry-for the first time after ten years and I had to shift my village Shiroda, which has been relying on the reservoir’s water all these years, onto the Opa drinking water supply,” says Shirodkar.

Mhadei’s tigers

Goa’s strategy to fight for Mhadei in the Supreme Court, which will hear the matter in early July, banks on its argument that all of Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary’s 208 square kilometres, that form part of the Western Ghats, internationally recognised as a biodiversity hotspot, lie completely within the river basin.

The river flows the Bhagwan Mahaveer National Park in Mollem and Wildlife Sanctuary and the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary in Ponda. Any diversion would not only be in contravention of the Public Trust Doctrine but also in violation of the provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, Goa’s Advocate General (AG) Devidas Pangam, told Mongabay India.

Responding to Karnataka Neeravari Nigam Ltd (KNNL) advertisement calling for quotes for constructing the Kalasa-Banduri project in March this year, Goa’s Chief Wildlife Warden issued the KNNL with a show cause notice, marking their objection.

The Mhadei river flows the Bhagwan Mahaveer National Park in Mollem and Wildlife Sanctuary and the Bondla Wildlife Sanctuary in Ponda. Photo by Sarangib/Pixabay.

Kerkar and fellow campaigners in Goa, who showed up at Miramar on that particular Saturday in May, say declaring Mhadei a tiger corridor would strengthen Goa’s case. The Goa government, whose petition to the Tribunal on the Mhadei river situation, mentions tigers more than once, however, refrains from indulging in the idea. Goa’s current Minister of Forest, Vishajit Rane told the media last year (not while he was minister) that Goa had no “resident tiger”, diluting the demand for a protected tiger area.

Rane and his wife represent the two constituencies that make up the Sattari taluka where the Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary lies. At Chorla Ghat where the Kalasa meets the Surla river and thousands of trees have been numbered to be felled, locals scoff at Rane’s refusal to acknowledge Goa’s tigers. “Who then has been picking up their cattle in Surla?” they ask.


Banner photo: Fishing on the Mandovi River in Goa. Photo by Vyacheslav Argenberg/Wikimedia Commons.

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