Gujarat Pogrom













Contact Us


Interlinking mirages

By Medha Patkar & L.S. Aravinda

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 redundant.

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 respond.

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 Ministers.

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 multinational corporations.

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.