By Arabinda Ghose
THE two consecutive droughts of 1965 and 1966 had left India devastated and on the brink of a famine like the one the country had witnessed in 1943. Foodgrains supply was at a very critical state and the timely and enhanced shipments of wheat from the United States under PL (Public Law) 480 had saved the day for the country then. The advent of the Green Revolution in 1968 ensured that India would always have surplus foodgrains, which has been the case till now.
However, Dr K.L. Rao, a noted irrigation engineer who was the Minister of State for Irrigation for about nine years till 1971, was still not satisfied. He stressed on the importance of irrigation as a food security measure and had been emphasising that the southern peninsula was chronically short of water while billions of cubic metres of water from the Ganga and its tributaries and other rivers were flowing down into the sea without serving any worthwhile purpose.
He, therefore, proposed that about 65,000 cusecs (cubic foot per second) of water of the Ganga be diverted?only during the monsoon months?towards the southern peninsula by a canal system ending at the Grand Anicut across the Cauvery. This proposal, made public at a press conference in New Delhi in 1972 (which was attended by this reporter), became known as the Ganga-Cauvery link.
A more colourful programme for ensuring water supply all over the country was made by an Indian Airlines pilot called Capt. Dastur in 1977, which had the grandiose name of Garland Canal. Several other projects of this nature were also proposed during the few years following Dr Rao'sproposal. River interlinking is a national
resolve, not a party programme
At that point of time, Dr C.C. Patel was the Secretary in the Ministry of Irrigation and Power (later known as Ministry of Water Resources, power being separated), who told Prime Minister Morarji Desai in 1977 that he had got the two proposals examined by his ministry and found both unworkable and highly expensive. In that case, Morarjibhai asked Dr Patel to look for an alternative.
Dr Patel, therefore, asked the ministry to draw up a new plan for transfer of water from the surplus to the deficit basins, after abandoning the Ganga-Cauvery link proposal. (Unfortunately many people, including politicians, still mention the Ganga-Cauvery link in connection with inter-basin transfer of water). By the time, the new scheme could be drawn up, the Morarji Desai government lost power and in January 1980, the Congress was returned to power and Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister once again.
The ministry completed the new scheme?named the National Perspective for Water Resources Development?which included two sets of inter-basin transfer of surplus water, one involving only the Himalayan snow-fed rivers and the other, the peninsular rivers, all rainfed.
When Dr Patel presented this report to Smt. Indira Gandhi, she was so overwhelmed with the proposal that she immediately promised an allocation of Rs 106 crore for surveys of these links (based on Dr C.C. Patel and Shri Suresh Prabhu'sinterviews with this reporter and which was telecast on Doordarshan in early November, 2003).
The ministry set up in 1982 the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), an autonomous agency under the Registration of Society'sAct, 1860 (repeat 1860, not 1960) for carrying on investigations and surveys for the proposed links, numbering 30. The surveys were taken up since 1982 and have been continuing even till recent years.
It is true that while the engineers had been carrying on the surveys?often in the face of hostilities by state governments?at a somewhat slow pace, the proposals were never given up. Only in 1991 there appeared some doubts about the continuation of the surveys. Yet work continued.
Came the drought of 2002 and the proposal for reviving the Ganga-Cauvery link was revived by political parties, more particularly the BJP and its president, M. Venkaiah Naidu. The Ministry of Water Resources produced a CD (compact disc) on the link proposal which was witnessed both by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam and Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Both lent powerful support to this scheme.
Meanwhile, Shri Ranjit Kumar, amicus curiae, filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court (no. 512 of 2002) seeking implementation of the inter-basin transfer project on which, on October 31, 2002, Chief Justice B.N. Kripal and Justices Y.K. Sabharwal and Arijit Prasayat obeserved that the programme of completion of interlinking rivers, when drawn up, should ensure that the project would be completed within a reasonable time-frame of not more than 10 years. The Supreme Court had also asked the Government of India to set up a task force before December 16, 2002.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee announced in the Lok Sabha on November 20, 2002 that the Government of India would take up the inter-linking project on a war footing and for this money would not be a problem.
Smt Sonia Gandhi, leader of the Opposition then, had enthusiastically supported this proposal and extended her full support for implementation of the scheme.
The Government of India subsequently set up the task force on interlinking of rivers on December 13, with Shri Suresh Prabhu, former Minister of Energy, as the chairman and Dr C.P. Patel, as the vice chairman. Dr C.D. Thatte, a former Water Resources Secretary, was named the secretary-general.
We thus see that the inter-linking project is really a national resolve and not a party programme, either for the Congress or the NDA. Secondly, it has the force of the interim order of the Supreme Court (the petition is still pending in the Supreme Court).
Contrary to inspired reports in a section of the print media, the newly-appointed Minister of Water Resources, Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, has not said that the interlinking project proposal would be reviewed. He had told the Anand Bazar Patrika on May 24 that he had called for reports of the task force. ?This report is very important. I will go through it carefully before undertaking the overall implemntation of the project,? he had told the Ananda Bazar Patrika.
Asked if there would be any change in the task force, he had replied: ?The task force chairman (Shri Prabhu) has already resigned. So I would have to think about any change. I will discuss the matter with the Prime Minister too. We are neither accepting anything (task force reports) nor are we rejecting any (proposal).? He said both national interests and the sentiments of the neighbouring countries have to be kept in mind (before implementing the project).
One may add here that both the terminologies?interlinking of rivers and inter-basin transfer of (surplus) river waters?are not quite appropriate, although the second one is technically more accurate. This reporter had proposed the name Sujalam Suphalam for this scheme, while other names too have been suggested by members of the Comunications Core Group of the task force, of which this reporter is a member.
The NDA agenda had proposed that work on the two links in central India would be taken up before August 15 this year. One hopes that there would be a political consensus on these and other 28 links proposed by the NWDA. The two links proposed to be taken up are the Ken-Betwa link affecting Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh and the Parbati-Kalisindh-Chambal link in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
These proposals are meant to prevent drought on the one hand and floods on the other, and also produce hydro-electricity with a built-in programme of rehabilitation of the affected people. One only hopes that proposals which have not been opposed by the major political party of the country since 1972 and 1980, will be taken up without any further delay.