By Arabinda Ghose
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram is a great salesman. He more or less plagiarised Jaswant Singh'sinterim budget, announced ?new programmes? to be financed out of the slew of projects introduced by the NDA government in the last six years, and packaged a ?dream? project of restoring the country'swater bodies under the attractive name of National Water Resources Development Project.
When he unwrapped the package during his budget speech of July 8, one found that this ?ambitious project? of his involved repairing, renovating and restoring about half a million water bodies in the country which he made people to believe would solve the problems of irrigation and drinking water faced by both rural people and the urban inhabitants of the country.
There was no mention at all about the 25-year old scheme of inter-linking of rivers. Does it mean that he, and therefore the UPA government, has decided to abandon this scheme altogether? One would get the answer towards the end of this article. But first, let us analyse Chidambaram's?dream 2004? scheme and how it is going to address the problems of floods and drought that the country faces every year, including the second week of July 2004 when north-west and west India are reeling under a virtual drought while eastern and north-eastern India are being inundated as a result of prolific monsoon precipitation.
Expressing his “deep concern” over the impending crisis regarding drinking water and water for irrigation, Shri Chidambaram stated that Indian agriculture had been sustained by natural and man-made water bodies such as lakes, tanks, ponds and similar structures through the ages. He estimated the number of such structures at about a million and said that 500,000 of these are used for irrigation. Many of them have fallen into disuse, many have accumulated silt and many require urgent repairs. These are unexceptionable statements.
He proposes to launch a massive programme to repair, renovate and restore these water bodies and will begin with five pilot projects to be located in five regions of the country and has allocated Rs 100 crore for these projects. However, the costs would not be borne by normal budgetary allocation
Now the ?ambitious project? part. He proposes to launch a massive programme to repair, renovate and restore these water bodies and will begin with five pilot projects to be located in five regions of the country and has allocated Rs 100 crore for these projects. However, the costs would not be borne by normal budgetary allocation, but from the Sampoorna Grameen Rojgar Yojana (SGRY), the Prime Minister'sGram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) (both introduced by the NDA government), the Drought Prone Area Programme (DPAP), the Desert Development Programme (DDP) and Integrated Wastelands Development Programme (IWDP)?which are on-going programmes.
Besides, he hinted at seeking foreign aid too for this project. The Finance Minister expressed hope that by the beginning of the next decade, this programme would be completed and the storage capacity of these water bodies would be augmented by 100 per cent.
However, the expert salesman did not mention if this programme would provide irrigation and drinking water to the country by 100 per cent augmentation of storage capacities of these water bodies. For, he knows more than anyone else, that even a hundred per cent success in this otherwise laudable programme would merely touch the fringe of the problem and willy-nilly, the government has to continue with the inter-linking project, often described by ?secular? journalists as the ?NDA baggage?.
If Shri Chidambaram feels he is the first person in the country to focus attention on irrigation and drinking water supply from tanks and other structures, he is wrong. The Central Soil and Water Conservation, Research and Training Institute, Dehradun, an institute set up by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), has been undertaking various schemes of water harvesting and allied subjects and has not failed to mention the importance of tanks and other water bodies in irrigation. Three engineers?J.S. Samra, V.N. Sharda, and A.K. Sikka?in their highly informative volume, Water Harvesting and Recycling, the Indian Experience has dealt with what may be called the Tank Irrigation Scheme among other topics. Of course, Dr M.S. Swaminathan has often referred to the utility of these water bodies, particularly in water-starved states, such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka for long.
We have, from the book mentioned here, the actual number of such water bodies in the country and the areas irrigated by them. According to this volume there are 5,04,500 tanks in the country and the area irrigated by them was 45,54,000 hectares in 1963. The area could not have increased since then because of silting and disuse of these water bodies. Even if all of them are restored to their ancient glory, they would account for irrigating only about nine million hectares, if the capacities of these water bodies do increase by 100 per cent. The reality is that tanks irrigation is already in vogue in many states and even with their renovation, the total irrigated area in the country is unlikely to go up very substantially from five to six million hectares.
Since there is no mention of the inter-basin transfer of river waters (the more appropriate name for the ?inter-linking? scheme) in this context, does it mean that this scheme is off? Well, the answer to this question is a vigorous NO.
For one thing, Shri Chidambaram's?dream project? is unlikely to meet the demand for irrigation, drinking and industrial use for the entire country, as we have shown in this article, and for another, abandoning the project might invite a contempt of court notice from the Supreme Court of India. Besides, what will Smt. Sonia Gandhi say to Dr Manmohan Singh if the inter-linking project is abandoned?
The three-judge bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Chief Justice B.N. Kripal, Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Justice Arijit Prasayat, ordered on October 31, 2002 that the government should complete the inter-linking project within ten years. The interim order of the Supreme Court came in the context of a public interest litigation filed by Shri Ranjit Kumar, amicus curiae. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had announced in the Lok Sabha on November 20 that year that this scheme would be taken up and vigorously pursued. The announcement made by him was enthusiastically supported by Smt. Sonia Gandhi. One will find these statements in Lok Sabha records of debates.
Besides, the programme was launched in 1980 by the Government of India headed by Smt. Indira Gandhi. Shri Chidambaram and Dr Manmohan Singh might better remember that.
Lastly, one question to the Finance Minister. According to entry 17, List II (State List), Seventh Schedule of the Constitution of India, water is a state subject. Almost all the tanks are located within state boundaries. What if a particular state refuses to accept the ?dream? project of the Finance Minister?