The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A unified river system is likely to be a mirage

Integrating the nation is a laudable enough objective. Is it however necessary to go overboard in the effort'

A spectre is haunting India, the spectre, calling itself the task force on interlinking of rivers, has the direct sponsorship of the Union government. Water, the common liquid, which falls from the sky as rain, forms rivers, lakes and seas, is drunk by people and animals, is scandalously ill-distributed in the country. Some states receive plenty of rainfall, some receive little, some regions are visited by floods, others are regular victims of drought, some parts of the country are awash with swelling rivers, others are little better than parched desert land.

Some bees must have stirred on one or two New Delhi bonnets, and the result is the task force. It is working on a blueprint for linking the different river systems in India so that water gets evenly spread all over. Mind you, this is no easy task. Rivers have to be trained anew, land gravity has to be studied on a national scale, irrigation experts need to be marshalled, cartographers, soil scientists and agronomists have to be on call, civil engineers, along with hydro-electricity specialists, are to be consulted.

At a much more serious level, counsel must be sought from politicians, administrators and constitution lawyers. When you move rivers, you also move land mass, you move human congregations too. The hassle over the Narmada valley project is recent history; there is every indication that it is going to be a continuing story. While some Narmada water has started trickling into the Kutch, the attendant cost, in terms of both human suffering and resulting socio-political tension, is enormous; this statement can be made even if one is not a Medha Patkar partisan.

Besides, does not the nation already have enough trouble in its kitty' The task force on interlinking of rivers is keen to ensure inter-basin justice in the allocation of river water available in the aggregate in the country. Have we solved though the innumerable intra-basin problems plaguing us ever since independence, or even from prior to that' Consider the tangle over the distribution of Cauvery waters. High-powered judicial tribunals have convened for years on end. Chief ministers of the states concerned have met the tribunals from time to time. Sometimes they have met, severally and together, the nation’s prime minister. But the dispute over the division — periodic and overall — of the water carried by the venerable Deccan river is as seemingly intractable today as it was several decades ago. It was, and remains, an explosive political issue.

To pick yet another example: water flowing through the Ganga basin has not only been the cause of domestic wrangling, it has had external ramifications as well; East Pakistan in the past, and now Bangladesh, has contributed to the internal dialectics between the upper-riparian Indian states and the states downstream.

Bangladesh’s complaints over the sharing of Ganga water have not quite died down, despite a gesture of magnanimity on the part of West Bengal a few years ago. The state government of West Bengal continues to hold responsible as much the upper tenants of the Ganga basin, such as Uttar Pradesh, for the progressive siltation of the Calcutta port as it does the Farakka treaty.

Other instances too of such discord can be cited, involving the rivers Mahanadi and Tungabhadra. States have fought like cats and dogs over their share of water borne by a river which traverses their territories. A fear of deprivation sways the states. This feeling often manifests itself in cultural, ethnic, linguistic, caste and even religious overtones.

We have failed in the course of more than half a century to resolve amicably the intra-basin quarrels. It will be sheer lunacy if, on top of that, a more contentious issue, that of inter-basin water equity, is added to the already confused picture. An hypothesis has been made to do the rounds: the incidence of poverty is correlated to the inequality in the distribution of riverine waters: enforce inter-state equity in water-sharing by building a network of dams and canals; floods and droughts will then disappear, all states will in consequence experience an economic boon.

This is however a theorem statistically difficult to prove. Income equalities are a function of inequalities in the distribution of assets, including land, and of opportunities, including government and institutional finance. Sometimes a sub-argument, with a humanitarian tinge, is also thrown in: the poor people of Assam, Bengal, Bihar and Orissa suffer heavily from the frequency of floods; if only the excess water could be taken and distributed to rain-starved states, that would, it is said, help expand welfare and prosperity at both ends. The do-gooders however should think again. What they propose has the attributes of a hit-or-miss venture. Whether it will be a hit will depend on political, administrative, technical and emotional factors at work at different levels. And should it be more of a miss, the economic and social turmoil likely to ensue would hardly be a step towards national integration.

An even more basic question is whether our policy-makers have run through the rest of the national agenda and the residual tasks are only just two: (a) harmonizing the structure of commodity taxation across the country and (b) a similar harmonizing of the supply of river water to the states. Governments of the eastern states keep hollering about the poor state of the credit-deposit ratio in their region: some states in the south and the west receive advances from the bank as high as 80 per cent of deposits, while the eastern states are in doldrums, receiving as credit barely 40 per cent of the deposits accruing in their respective territories. Should or should not this ratio be equalized'

Or take the allocation of funds from the Life Insurance Corporation of India and the General Insurance Corporation of India; are these investments at all pro rata with the premium collected in the different states' What about advances from financial institutions such as the Industrial Development Bank of India, the Industrial Credit and Investment Corporation of India, the Industrial Finance Corporation of India and so on' If disproportion is to be the rule in all other spheres of the economy, why should sleepless nights be spent over the alleged inequality in river water distribution'

Is the funnelling of rural credit in alignment with the needs of the population in the different states' Are health facilities on an even keel all over the country' Is the availability of power everywhere in consonance with the demand emanating from different parts of the country' How come a number of states, and important slices of a number of other states, are still denied a railway system worth the name'

Even economic theory will not provide a straightforward answer to the problem posed. One school of thought would draw attention to the heterogeneity of factor endowment in the different parts of the country and, leaning on the doctrine of comparative cost, advocate a pattern of economic growth in harmony with such factor endowment. At the other end are those who propose the ruthless obliteration of varying factor endowments so as to enable entrepreneurs to enjoy the benefit of a single, integrated market for the entire country. This debate is yet to reach its denouement. There is therefore little reason to hustle ourselves over river water distribution. We do not take seriously the proposition that, in order that people in all parts of the country enjoy exactly the same quality of the soft breeze wafting from the high Himalayas, we should dynamite our great heritage and offer a mass of splintered rocks in even measure to each and every state. Why suggest a separate dispensation for the country’s rivers then'

Some forty years ago, a Central minister was carried away by the dreamful charm of national integration. He was not satisfied with proposals for a separate national electricity grid and a separate milk grid. In one of his perorations, he expressed the desire to have a unified, multipurpose, integrated national grid, for distributing both electricity and milk. He was either a hopeless utopian or plain nuts. But are lobbyists for a unified river system any different'

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