The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Shama Perveen is junior research fellow and Bidisha Mallik is research assistant at the Centre for Development and Environment Policy, Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta

Conflicts, clashes and wars are extreme situations but who can deny that they tend to fire our imagination' “Star wars”, “Cola wars”, “war of words” and the more recent “water wars” — such expressions are the media’s delight. Water scarcity, however, is cause for more serious concern. Given predictions that war in the 21st century would be fought over water and not oil, the situation seems both dramatic and tragic.

The recent directive of the Supreme Court for interlinking 37 major rivers in India is in direct response to the looming water crisis. Political bigwigs, bureaucrats and the like are today swearing in support of the costliest ever endeavour undertaken in the country. Presumed to follow from the edict of the apex court, the decision to interlink has no doubt sparked off heated debates among the public and policy makers. The official endorsement of the plan by the president and the prime minister as a “permanent solution” to the problem of water scarcity has further prodded its projected implementation in an unbelievable span of 10 years.

Drawing greatly from K.L. Rao’s pet proposal for a Ganga-Cauvery link canal, the scheme hopes to transfer “surplus water” from the eastern river basins of India to the drier peninsular and western parts of the country. The pre-feasibility reports conducted so far on the 30 canal links have led to an estimated construction cost of a whopping Rs 5.60 lakh crores. Given the frequently observed cost overruns of 400 to 500 per cent, the final construction cost can verily throw up a figure larger than the gross domestic product of India. However, it is unreasonable to assume that civil society would offer its mute support to the largest water resource project undertaken ever without raising questions about its viability.

Unfortunately, although each rationale for the project may sound plausible within its own confines, serious problems arise when the predicted gains and ad hoc estimates are judged against thorough scientific assessment. The information, so far supplied in the public domain, regarding the river link plan has managed to avoid an indepth technical analysis of the proposed links and the appurtenant structures, thus limiting arguments, counter-arguments and rationalization to the surface. In view of the controversy that has been kicked up, one fears that the river link project might end up providing enough evidence to back up allegations of a “water war” in progress.

Since the decision to link up rivers has come up minus a healthy debate pre-ceding it, the whole question of securing informed consent has got trapped in the straitjacket presented by the National Water Development Agency. Without a preliminary understanding of the linkage proposal, the arguments which are being placed do not even allow a respectable debate, leave apart a scientific appraisal of the proposed links.

The river link plan’s major claim to fame has been its assurance to supply 173 billion cubic metres of water for irrigating an additional 34 million hectares of land. This, despite the fact that India as an agricultural country already holds the largest irrigated area and the second-largest arable land in the world. In support of its claims, the proposal argues that India needs more water and more irrigated land to feed its hungry millions. But there appears little logic in finding justification between demand-oriented increases in water supply and augmentation in food productivity when simple concepts and practices like an efficient conveyance system and wise use of water would have proved worthwhile. While countries with a similar land and population profile all over the world are witnessing sharp changes in their food production strategies, how long can India ignore such challenges for ensuring sustainability of its resource-use'

One is reminded of the exemplary results of local water harvesting methods to alleviate such regional imbalances in fresh water availability as demonstrated by Tarun Bharat Sangha in Rajasthan and the Pani Panchayat model in Maharashtra. The proposed river link scheme belittles the potential of such proven time-tested techniques. Instead, it conjures up visions of storing large volumes of water behind dams and transferring it through circuitous canal networks, the great amount lost through seepages from canals and through evaporation from reservoirs notwithstanding. Such an increased water supply, subject to usual wastefulness, would in no time undoubtedly call for another flashy exhibit of our engineering prowess. As victims of myopic policies, we are then, once again, blindly treading on a path, which is unsustainable and ineffective.

Another important stake in the basin link proposal has been that of flood control. With little information on the provisions for flood cushions in the proposed dams, and the dampening show put up by the existing dams with flood cushions in abating flood, such assurance seems deceptive. Besides, water transfer is expected to be affected during the peak monsoon season when the quantum of water transported by the canals would be rather small as compared to the massive flood flows and sediment flux in Himalayan rivers like Ganga or Brahmaputra. These and other questions like linkage of the mercury contaminated Par river or the poisonous waters of the Yamuna river with other not so toxic streams also tend to be dismissed cavalierly.

Even the very concept of “surplus” water, over which this proposal has been mooted, appears hard to believe as leaders express their anxiety about billions of cubic metres of fresh water going “waste” into the sea every year. The important systemic functions performed by the water have been ignored to satisfy the bias that dominates the tenets of water development in India. The proponents of this logic seem unconcerned about the vast ecological impact this diversion would lead to in terms of the change in morphology of deltaic flood plains and of the associated livelihood patterns related to the fragile delta. In the event of such a change, the possibility of promoting commercialization of agriculture or positioning of industries in dry areas cannot be ruled out. This shows economic and political factors will have a major say in the decisions being undertaken.

In spite of the projected neutrality, the technological choice will have farreaching implications with social, environmental and economic fallouts. With a past record of inter-basin conflicts, unsatisfactory resettlement and rehabilitation, bitter squabbles over the sharing of many a river’s waters, there are ample reasons to expect problems in the future. The Cauvery dispute gave rise to a surfeit of institutional mechanisms but a proper agreement still eludes us. The problem is we have hardly reflected on the reason why the Cauvery crisis seems beyond solution.

The Sutlej-Yamuna link-canal is another burning example of inter-state water dispute that has been continuing for years. Such a situation portends an embittered relationship in the international arena as well. The imperative of bringing neighbouring countries into a dialogue is being deliberately pushed aside by the task force which is busy trying to convince people about the theorized benefits.

In the absence of specific details on the individual projects embodied in the interlinking scheme and their questionable economic feasibility, questions are bound to be raised. So long as the project ignores these questions, it will remain divorced from reality. It is thus a prerequisite that it bases itself on a sound interdisciplinary knowledge base, with clearly spelt-out social, economic and environmental criteria of the projects.

It is about time that the task force on the interlinking realizes the symbiotic relationship between water and politics in India. It should, therefore, come up with viable home-grown solutions to the problems countered by it. These should neither be based solely on electoral promises or on impressive engineering feats. The project of interlinking of rivers should thus undergo a thorough and transparent professional assessment before it is considered a fait accompli. We should not be forced into having the wrong medicine for curing our water problem while paying through the nose for it.

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