By Arabinda Ghose
THE malicious propaganda launched by a section of the media against the Inter-linking of Rivers scheme saying that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government would abandon it since it was an ?NDA baggage? has been debunked by the Government itself.
Appearing before the Supreme Court on August 30, Solicitor General G.E. Vahanvati said that the Centre had in principle decided not to go back on the project. However he pointed out that the matter would be placed before the Union Cabinet for a comprehen-sive review in September.
The bench consisting of Justices Y.K. Sabharwal, D.M. Dharmadhikari and P.B. Naolekar, allowed the government six weeks? time to inform the court about the project.
Amicus curiae Ranjit Kumar and Nikhil Nayar told the court that a Task Force constituted by the government was now without a chairman since the incumbent, Shri Suresh Prabhu, had resigned with effect from March 31, 2004. This has caused the entire project to be stalled.
The Centre'sassurance has raised new hopes among those who had welcomed the initiatives taken by the Vajpayee government in re-vitalising the scheme, first initiated in 1980-82 by the Indira Gandhi government as the only remedy for breaking the syndrome of flood and droughts simultaneously in various parts of the country.
Even this year, the country witnessed unprecedented floods in Assam and north Bihar, while large regions in the country continued to be ravaged by drought. In the first week of September, when fresh floods in Bihar have washed away hundreds of villages north-western India as also Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu continue to reel under the impact of drought in many districts.
The UPA government had not been explicit so far about its attitude on the project. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the drought-affected areas of Andhra Pradesh where ?for miles? he did not come across any water. At the same time in Assam and north Bihar he saw miles and miles under water during his visits there. Yet, no word has come from him about the inter-linking scheme.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram floated a new scheme called the National Water Resources Development Project for renovating and repairing lakhs of water bodies in the country?another ?dream? of his ?dream Budget??without actually making any budgetary provision for it. He, however, had kept quiet about the inter-linking project.
However, one must admit that he had actually allocated more funds to the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) this year than in the previous year?Rs 30 crore instead of Rs 20 crore in the previous year. It is the NWDA that is conducting surveys and preparing feasibility reports on the 30 inter-river links proposed under the scheme and the Task Force expenditure is met by the NWDA.
Shri Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, who is the Union Minister of Water Resources, perhaps wisely has kept his mouth shut on this issue so far. In any case, he was busy with the Olympic Games since he is president of the All India Football Federation.
The most amusing aspect of the entire episode is that the UPA government did not bother to update the Annual Report of the Ministry of Water Resources for 2003-2004, which shows that the inter-linking project was very much in vogue. The map showing the proposed links too appear in this report.
The report says that Shri Arjun Charan Sethi (of the Biju Janata Dal) is still the Minister of Water Resources and Smt. Bijoya Chakravarty of the BJP is still the Minister of State for Water Resources. The report, obviously ready before the NDA government had bowed out of power, was however released for the media only during the last week of August.
However, the report contains a four-line ?footnote? on page 19 saying: ?The UPA government, in its Common Minimum Programme has indicated that a comprehensive assessment of the feasibility of the project of inter-linking of the rivers of the country, starting with the southern/peninsular rivers, will be carried out. This assessment will be done in a fully consultative manner and the possibility of linking sub-basins/basins of some rivers in states like Bihar will also be explored.?
Although the UPA government, obviously under pressure from Lalu Prasad and the Left, who are opposed to the scheme, has refrained from making its stand public on the inter-linking scheme, it should now feel relieved that the Supreme Court has stepped in once again to make the government undertake the scheme.
One must recall that it was the Supreme Court which had made the NDA government take up the project, set up the Task Force, and draw up a time-table for completing the inter-linking project by December 31, 2016. The change in government does not change the pledge made to the highest court in the country, and the Manmohan Singh government may face a contempt of court charge if it abandons the scheme.
Besides, the Standing Committee of Parliament for the Ministry of Water Resources has come out with open support for the scheme. The Committee is represented by members of all parties and its decisions are unanimous, as in the case of most Parliamentary Committees. With such a massive support for the scheme, one feels that the government would re-activate the hibernating Task Force, maybe by appointing a new Chairman and Secretary-General, but it must continue with the project, no matter who opposes it.