By Medha Patkar &
STARTLING NEWS for some and
somewhat dreamy for others is the resurrected plan of interlinking the
rivers of India. Cited by the President, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, and pushed
by B.N. Kirpal as Chief Justice of India, the sheer grandeur of the
idea is meant to appeal to people facing drought and floods. Anyone
who knows what river systems are, what inter-basin transfers bring forth,
and the politics and economics of large river valley and inter-basin
projects, will know that whatever water this plan holds is but a mirage.
Without debate pre-conditional
to a decision, with no specifics available for concerned citizens, people's
organisations and independent experts to peruse, the gigantic idea appears
to bear the seal of the apex court. Common people have been taught from
their childhood to accept its "verdict" as conscientious,
constitutional and "legal". Once considered a fait accompli,
a democratic review or scientific assessment and decision become almost
We have seen the politics
that come with any human intervention in rivers flowing since generations
from one administrative unit to another. With all the water that has
flowed or not flowed down the Cauvery, one cannot take seriously a grandiose
dream of linking all the rivers. But hearing it from the highest echelons
of the state and the Judiciary, one cannot wait for some agency of the
same state to bring out the pluses and minuses of it. A hasty beginning
may not be prevented unless civil society, experts and common people
Inter-river basin management
in the context of gigantic water planning is discussed in national and
international laws. Inter-river transfer has come under criticism since
the Irrigation Commission of British days, and plans such as Captain
Dastur's "garland canal" rejected even decades ago, when big
dams were in full swing. Interlinking rivers was rejected in the 1990s
by the Centre, on the advice of experts and bureaucrats such as M. S.
Reddy, ex-Secretary, Water Resources.
Experience teaches that basic
aspects of each river basin must be studied. These include catchment
area treatment, command area development, benchmark survey of the affected
population, health impacts of the reservoir and canal system, and impact
on fisheries. Environmental Impact Assessment will be enormous. Compensatory
and mitigatory plans must be rationally conceived. If a canal network
is involved, will surveyors assess whether soil is irrigable through
surface water flows? What would be the impacts of a sudden change in
cropping pattern? Enough warnings have been given. The River Valley
Guidelines (1983) bring out the need to survey soil patterns and also
warn of environmental and social impacts due not only to scale but simply
due to transfer of water and people. Unless these become part of the
project planning, they are neither considered nor dealt with.
Struggles in the Narmada
Valley and other projects pushed due to political expediency without
complete appraisal, have brought out the seriousness of large-scale
displacement as well as impacts in the beneficiary area. Basic questions
demand investigation. Will a linking of rivers actually prevent drought?
Or merely transfer drought? People may think interlinking of rivers
is free of large dams. Is it? What will be the extent of displacement,
and provisions for rehabilitation? Canals also displace. In the Sardar
Sarovar project, 1,50,000 landholders stand to lose land due to the
canal network. Of these 23,500 will lose more than 25 per cent of their
land, with 2,000 losing all of their land. None of these families is
considered project-affected or eligible for rehabilitation.
How will the water be conveyed
across basins? Whether through large dams or through pumps, thousands
of megawatts of power will be required. How much power is presumed to
be available, in the present scenario of energy crisis? If sea-bound
water in rivers is diverted inland, what will be the impact of sea ingress
on coastal communities and fisheries? Does this diktat mean the sanctioning
process through the law of the land will be followed? Or that, as in
the case of the SSP, once the judgment is pronounced it is an unconditional
go-ahead, and despite all violations there is no law to stop it, nor
any way to address grievances?
For intra-river basin transfers,
the principle of subsidiarity requires that water be harnessed from
where it first drops. The whole crisis of water management today is
due to the total neglect of water harvesting, either because it is considered
peripheral or a non-replicable micro-level experiment.
Therefore, we see the destruction
of cultures, communities and ecosystems, creating conflicts between
States, as in the dispute Cauvery, and between state and the people,
as in the Narmada dispute. Conflicts are dealt with more politically
than scientifically. If this happens in just one river basin, imagine
the consequences across several river basins.
As our national highways
have become conveyor belts for all manner of noxious emissions, the
canal system threatens to become an open sewer garlanding the length
and breadth of India. The quantity of water these canals will carry
will not be sufficient to control floods in the northern States. But
the large dams that may be built to provide the head required to supply
the canals will permanently submerge fertile lands, forests and village
communities in the northern States. The sheer effort required to obtain
full information, raise questions and veto such plans takes a stressful
toll on communities living on the natural resources.
When incomplete, unused and
under-utilised projects require Rs. 80,000 crores to be made usable
as per Parliamentary report, is such a plan viable, scientific or democratic?
There is no time, space or process indicated for participation of communities
whose riparian rights must be considered. While upstream impacts are
now known thanks to struggles of affected people, downstream impacts
are less known.
Water is not like cement
or concrete it is life. Just distribution and full appreciation
of its economic, financial, environmental and social dimensions must
be part of the planning process. The 73rd Amendment and the Tribal Self-rule
Act direct that people's consent and consultation cannot be sidelined.
Rivers involve millions of people. A grandiose scheme such as interlinking
would be likely to involve international lending agencies. Before anything
starts, let people know what is in the minds of the President and the
It will be nothing short
of a crime if water is not treated properly and the water crisis worsens.
Already, the Shivnath river in Chhattisgarh is privatised, and the contractor
has snatched away the people's right even to drinking water. People
of the country deserve to know if this centralised plan will nationalise
the water only to privatise, just as national public property is doled
not sold out at meagre prices, whether it is oil, gas
or mineral resources, to private companies, foreign and domestic and
In nature what is linked
are not rivers but water itself, through the hydrological cycle. A balanced
water cycle demands a holistic policy that promotes forest cover, prevents
erosion, enhances ground water through micro-watershed structures and
provides for de-siltation and maintenance of existing tanks, lakes and
reservoirs. Agricultural practices and the public distribution system
should be in tune with the diversity of diets based on local conditions
rather than on water intensive monocultures. A vigilant Judiciary should
punish corrupt administrations for non-implementation of environmental
regulations, right to life, livelihood and wages in an age where there
is enough food to fill the godowns of India while poor citizens, especially
women and children, sleep hungry and malnourished.