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TAKING ON NATURE
- The mega dream of interlinking rivers can wait

Democratic freedom should include the freedom to dream. There is however a problem. Some people's dreams can turn out to be some other people's nightmares; democratic freedom, we could be told, also includes the freedom to suffer nightmares. And not only that: in some instances, the nightmares may well descend on real life.

The human race benefits because, every now and then, visionaries spring from within its fold and dream what, in the beginning, appears to be an idle, innocent, nondescript dream. One such dream, of recent vintage, is the vision to bring together the water flowing through all the rivers in the country by building a great, complex, equity-creating interlinking system. Why should some states be regular victims of floods while others are afflicted by drought, some states be served, courtesy the bounty of nature, by an array of turbulent overflowing rivers, while some other states remain content with narrow, shallow-bedded rivulets which dry up in the summer months' Whatever the economists might claim, ours is still a basically primary goods-producing country with more than three-fifths of the population dependent on agriculture as their source of livelihood. India is a union of states; to vest this unity with due significance, economic development, including agricultural development, must be harmonized among all states. Attainment of this goal should be the central objective of national planning. In pursuit of the objective, a group of noble persons have come up with the idea of pooling together the waters from each and every river in India, big and small, irrespective of whether they flow from north to south or in the reverse direction, from west to east or vice versa, or whether they whimsically criss-cross the country, or any parts of it, or behave in an even more haphazard manner.

The essential point to keep in mind is simple: whatever the length of the individual rivers or the course they follow, the flow of water is most unevenly distributed among the regions. As a result, farm output, the frequency of cropping and the cropping pattern vary sharply in the different parts of the country. Admittedly, the anarchy in the availability of water is not per se against nature, since nature itself has bequeathed this state of things. But it certainly does violence to the concept of equity and equality so effusively elaborated in our Constitution. The natural lie of the nation's rivers is held to go against the directive principles of state policy which form the core of that august document.

The afore-mentioned noble people set their minds to correct what they considered to be an outrage of nature. They drew attention to the most ambitious hydraulic engineering widely featuring in the country, such as the multi-purpose river barrage works, including the great Bhakra-Nangal project. The principle of water regulation therefore was, they argued, already very much in place. What the wise men were now suggesting was, in their view, only an extension of the kind of activities already going on in the country: join the Ganges with the Cauvery, join the Tungabhadra with the Kosi, join the Narmada with the Brahmaputra, and so on. Let there be a grand design to distribute the total water available to the country equitably over all its territories. Let there be a national decision-making body at the apex to decide how much of the total water is to be made available to which state on which day of which week of which month of which year. True, this gigantic operation was not going to be a cheap affair. According to preliminary estimates, it was likely to cost the nation plus-minus Rs 500,000 crore, which is roughly one-third of the country's gross national product. There is, however, no reason to be upset, the outlay will be spread over a ten-year period. This amount of time will in any case be needed to sort out the technical, topological, geological, environmental, social and economic snarls that the execution of the stupendous project will call for.

The project will involve not only a massive movement of water systems. It will also necessitate movement of earth, rock, forests and settlements, and of course will involve the movement of millions and millions of people. It will mean brushing aside the barriers of limited sovereignty enjoyed by state governments, district administrations and panchayat bodies: they will cease to have authority not only over the movement of water in the rivers within thick nominal jurisdiction; but also over the location of the people constituting their electorate. Their control over the land masses delineated as under their command could, if necessary, be de-recognized so as to serve the cause of the great dream of one India-one river system.

Idealists weave the dreams. It is however politicians, administrators, engineers, contractors and promoters of diverse descriptions who execute the dreams. More often than not, these latter categories demand a commission or a cut for their labours. Many of them are agog with excitement: the gravy to flow from out of the total kitty of Rs 500,000 crore will mostly travel toward their direction. True, it will be only over a ten-year period. Even so, a sum of Rs 50,000 crore each year is not to be scoffed at

But there are several other problems, and they will not go away. The country has had enough of trouble arising out of the Narmada Valley project, which too has involved re-allocation of human settlements and churning of a large number of social, economic and environmental issues. The Rs 500,000 crore mega dream will be in magnitude easily a thousand times greater than the dimensions of the Narmada project; the dimensions of the problems the execution of the dream are likely to engender will be, rest assured, more than a thousand times more formidable. The ecological challenges alone are mind-boggling. That apart, given the various divisivenesses already plaguing the nation, the political convulsions to ensue in the wake of the first endeavours at interlinking of rivers are altogether unpredictable; some actually fear a collapse of whatever little cohesion there is still left in the nation. Capping all will be the challenge of moving millions of men, women and children from old river basins to new settlements maybe a thousand miles away, and finding for the populations thus uprooted from old moorings new livelihoods. All things considered, such as the circumstances in Jammu and Kashmir in the north, the explosive situation in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland in the east, and insurgent groups bestirring themselves in several other parts of the country, the wisest thing, one would have thought, will be to bury this particular mega dream for some while. What is intriguing is the report that this dream is also shared by the incumbent president of the republic. He has apparently chosen to don the garb of an activist in the matter and has gone public with his views. The Union council of ministers is expected to aid and advise the president on sensitive issues. It should do so with immediate effect in this particular matter; otherwise the danger lurks of not just a breach of propriety, but of much more.

A doubt, besides, rears its head: here should not the noble thinkers, before embarking on mega dreams, give more modest ones a chance' Taking on nature itself, no less, is a testimony to the dreamers' imagination, but what about such lesser ventures that call for only a few administrative decisions to ensure better inter-regional equity; for instance, a more liberal allocation of bank advances for economically retarded states, or a directive that, for the next ten or twenty years, three-quarters of total Central investments taking place in the country must go to states with per capita income less than the national average'

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