Mohan Guruswamy | Will ‘linking rivers’ work, or end up as a disaster?

I keep hearing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is going to unveil the often spoken and then shelved ‘Rivers Link Up Scheme’ as his grand vision to enrich the farmers of India and unite the country. Three years ago, he had promised to double farmers’ incomes by 2022, and has clearly failed. He now needs a big stunt. With the general election due in 2024, he doesn’t even have to show delivery. A promise will do for now.

This is a Sangh Parivar favourite and I am quite sure the nation will once again set out to undertake history’s greatest civil engineering project by seeking to link all our major rivers. It will irretrievably change India. If it works, it will bring water to almost every parched inch of land and just about every parched throat in the land.

On the other hand, if it doesn’t work, Indian civilisation as it exists even now might then be headed the way of the Indus Valley or Mesopotamian civilisations, destroyed by a vengeful nature, for interfering with nature is also a two-edged sword. If the Aswan High Dam turned the ravaging Nile into a saviour, the constant diversion of the rivers feeding Lake Baikal have turned it into a fast receding and highly polluted inland sea ranking it one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters. Even in the United States though the dams across the Colorado have turned it into a ditch by the time it enters Mexico, Nevada and California are still starved for water. I am not competent to comment on these matters and I will leave this debate for the technically competent and our perennial ecological Pooh-Bahs.

But the lack of this very debate is a cause for concern. It is true that the idea of linking up our rivers has been afloat for a long time. Sir Arthur Cotton was the first to propose it in the 1800s. The late K.L. Rao, considered by many to be an outstanding irrigation engineer and a former Union irrigation minister, revived this proposal in the late 1960s by suggesting linking the Ganga and Cauvery rivers. It was followed in 1977 by the more elaborate and gargantuan concept of “garland canals” linking the major rivers, thought up by a former airline pilot, Captain Dinshaw Dastur. Morarji Desai was an enthusiastic supporter of this plan. Indira Gandhi’s return in 1980 sent the idea back into dormancy, where it lay all these years, till President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam revived it in his Independence Day-eve address to the nation in 2002. It is well known Presidents only read out what the Prime Ministers give them and hence the ownership title of Capt. Dastur’s original idea clearly vested with Atal Behari Vajpayee.

That India has an acute water problem is widely known. Over 60 per cent of our cropped areas are still rain-fed, much too abjectly dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon. The high incidence of poverty in certain regions largely coincides with the source of irrigation, clearly suggesting that water for irrigation is integral to the elimination of poverty. In 1950-51 when Jawaharlal Nehru embarked on the great expansion of irrigation by building the “temples of modern India” by laying great dams across our rivers at places like Bhakra Nangal, the Damodar Valley and Nagarjunasagar, only 17.4 per cent, or 21 million hectares, of the cropped area of 133 million hectares was irrigated. That figure rose to almost 35 per cent by the late 1980s and much of this was a consequence of the huge investment by the government on irrigation, amounting to almost Rs. 50,000 crores. Ironically enough, this also coincided with the period when water and land revenue rates began to steeply decline to touch today’s almost-nothing level. Like in the case of power, it seems once the activity ceased to be profitable to the State, investment too tapered off.

The scheme is humongous. It will link the Brahmaputra and Ganga with the Mahanadi, Godavari and Krishna, which in turn will connect to the Pennar and Cauvery. On the other side of the country, it will connect the Ganga and Yamuna with the Narmada, traversing in part the supposed route of the mythical Saraswathi. This last link has many political and mystical benefits too.

There are many smaller links as well, such as joining the Ken and Betwa rivers in MP, the Kosi with the Gandak in UP, and the Parbati, Kalisindh and Chambal rivers in Rajasthan. The project, when completed, will consist of 30 links, with 36 dams and 10,800 km of canals diverting 174,000 million cubic metres of water. Just look at the bucks that will go into this big bang. It was estimated to cost Rs. 5,60,000 crores in 2002 and entail the spending of almost two per cent of our GNP for the next 10 years. Now it will cost twice or more than that, but our GDP is now three times more, and it might be more affordable, and hence more tempting to attempt.

The order to get going with the project was the output of a Supreme Court bench made up of then Chief Justice B.N. Kirpal, and Justices K.G. Balakrishnan and Arjit Pasayat, which was hearing a PIL filed by the Dravida Peervai, an obscure Tamil activist group. The learned Supreme Court sought the assistance a senior advocate, Mr Ranjit Kumar, and acknowledging his advice, recorded: “The learned Amicus Curiae has drawn our attention to Entry 56 List of the 7th Schedule to the Constitution of India and contends that interlinking of inter-state rivers can be done by Parliament and he further contends that even some of the states are now concerned with the phenomena of drought in one part of the country while there is flood in other parts and disputes arising amongst the egalitarian states relating to sharing of water. He submits that not only these disputes would come to an end but also the pollution levels in the rivers will be drastically decreased, once there is sufficient water in different rivers because of their inter-linking.”

The only problem with this formulation is that neither the learned Amicus Curiae nor the learned Supreme Court are quite so learned as to come to such sweeping conclusions.

Our politicians, ever ready to welcome something so gigantic with the promise to change the lives of, not just succeeding generations of Indians, but their own succeeding generations, have welcomed this enthusiastically. If it happens, we then owe it to an Amicus Curiae!

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
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