THE MOVING FINGER WRITES
On 27th February 2012, the Supreme Court directed the Union Government to implement the ambitious River Inter-linking Project (RIP) in a time-bound manner and appointed a high-powered committee for its planning and completion. Inevitably, it evoked an outcry against the very concept from important segments of the public. It is not that the Supreme Court was stepping beyond its prescribed duties. In its ruling the Supreme Court conceded that it is not equipped to take such decisions “which essentially should be left for the Central Government and the concerned state”.
The verdict further said that “this Court may not be very appropriate for planning and implantation of such a programme, having wide national dimensions and ramifications”. The Court also acknowledged that “some Indian states are opposed to the project and showed its awareness of possible” development induced displacement and the “cost of resettlement of displaced people”. As is not so well known in India there are three major river “systems”, the Indus rivers, the Himalayan rivers and the Peninsular rivers. Insofar as the Indus and more especially the Peninsular rivers are concerned, India does not have to give thought to the concerns of neighbouring countries like Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. That does not mean that peninsular states are ready and willing to cooperate. Linguistic and sectorial chauvinism, it seems, is very much a part of our federal character. As early as 2003 when the RIP was first mooted, Lalu Prasad Yadav, president of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) had stoutly asserted that he would not allow his state’s water to ‘go elsewhere’, insisting that “this water is our petrol”. A more rational explanation is that in a state where landlessness is high, a large number of small and marginal farmers would face pauperisation, inflate migration and crowd the footpaths of major townships in the country.
According to a study reported in Economic & Political Weekly (21 April), of 54 large dams, the average number of people displaced by one dam is 44,182. The study conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Administration showed that in the last 50 years, as many as 33 million had been displaced. Apart from that, many are of the opinion that just the cost of implementing the RIP should make the government wary of taking up the assignment. A well-known engineer, Shripad Dharmadhikary who has been working on water-related issues for over a decade is quoted by the media as saying that RIP is “a very ill-conceived project” which will be “very expensive in terms of financial cost as well as in social and environmental terms” and its benefits “may not equal the investments”.
When the Project was envisioned in October 2003, the estimated cost of RIP was Rs 5.6 lakh crore. As of now, it is claimed, the cost could go up by more than ten times the earlier figure. Would that be balanced by the advantages that could accrue in linking 30 major peninsular rivers? One advantage, it is claimed, is that the Project would help generate 40,000 MW of “clean and green energy”. Another is that “we can bring in nine crore acres of additional wet lands into farming, benefitting 45 crore people. According to PM Natarajan, reputed hydrologist, if the flood waters of Godavari in Andhra Pradesh is diverted to Mettur Dam in Tamil Nadu, the dam would get filled in ten hours and “Tamil Nadu’s entire irrigation requirements not thereby”.
Suresh Prabhu, former Chairman of the Task Force on Inter-linking of Rivers (ILR) set up by the NDA Government has been quoted as saying that if the Project is implemented, agricultural production will be increased manifold, the problem of shortage of drinking water will be solved and the Indian economy could be raised to new heights. Besides that, Prabhu is reported as saying that we can expect an increase in forest cover and bringing down of pollution. Another advantage, according to other sources, is that the suicide rate of farmers will come down drastically. It would seem that the pros and cons of RIP are pretty evenly balanced. One argument is that construction of a maze of canals covering 1,000 kilometers, erecting hundreds of reservoirs and a series of pumping stations will provide jobs to ‘millions’, which would take care of possibility of displacement of the unemployed and hitherto ‘unemployables’. It all depends upon one’s approach to the subject.
There are traditional perceptions that are hard to challenge. One of the most dangerous arguments in favour of RIP is that by linking rivers, one saves water from being wasted, the point being made is that letting rivers flow directly to the sea unused, helps nobody. The larger question is: does or does not the sea also need river waters that bring in a lot of organic waste for the fish to feed on? The sea may not necessarily dry up if river water in millions of gallons is denied to it, but have our do-good politicians and hydrologists given thought to the needs of the fish? It has been proved that prawns growing a few miles away from the west coast of India depend largely on the organic material several short rivers bring from the Western Ghat to the Indian Sea.
Is it wise then to take a purely one-sided view of RIP? Has anyone worked out the plusses and minuses arising out of the implementation of the project? It is romantic to think of the Ganga being ultimately linked to Kaveri. But are we sure that the Ganga has “excess water” available for use across the country from the north to the south? Isn’t that a very unscientific assumption? It is noble to think that by linking rivers we not only bring prosperity across the country but we also link hearts and minds and thus strengthen the unity of India. But wisdom dictates that one goes slow in implementing RIP. Small consecutive steps could be undertaken in the next 50 years or more to test the veracity and positive applicability of the RIP.
The normal annual Indian surface water resources are about 68,969 Thousand Million Cubic feet (TMC) of which only 8,814 TMC or 13 per cent is used. We have all the water we need. What we additionally need is care and concern to see that good intentions do not end up as social disasters. We can do without the latter. The one practical step we can take is not to insist on ‘time-bound’ execution of RIP. That puts needless pressure on people and places, besides raising social tensions. Undertake tasks that are largely acceptable, quickly implementable and noticeable rewarding. That way lies wisdom.