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Interlinking Mirages
Ordered without checks and balances, and conceived dreamily, the plan to link the major rivers will be ruinous, say Medha Patkar and L S Aravinda.
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December 2002 - Startling news for some and somewhat dreamy for others is the resurrected plan of interlinking the rivers of India. Cited by President Kalam and pushed by Chief Justice Kirpal on the verge of retirement, the sheer grandeur of the idea is meant to appeal to people facing drought and flood. 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. One wonders not at gleaming messages from the President on the eve of Independence day. As a scientist, though, has he seen the plan, impacts assessment, projected costs and benefits? Since it is APJ Kalam talking, Arundhati Roy's comparison of big dams to nuclear bombs comes to mind. Is this a scientist talking politics or a politician talking science?

Whenever dams and water policy, Enron or some other project has come before the judiciary, it has taken the position that it is for the executive to decide on policy. Does the Supreme Court have a locus standi to order interlinking of rivers? Without debate preconditional to a decision, with no specifics available for concerned citizens, people's organisations, and independent experts to peruse, the gigantic idea appears bearing the seal of the apex court. Common people have been taught from 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 flown or not flown into Cauvery, one cannot take seriously a grandiose dream of linking all the rivers. But hearing it from the highest echelons of the State and judiciary, one cannot wait for some agency of the same state to bring out the plus and minus of it. A hasty beginning may not be prevented unless civil society, experts, and common people respond.

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 decades ago, even when big dams were in full swing. Interlinking rivers was rejected in the nineties by the centre, on advice of experts and bureaucrats such as Dr. M.S. Reddy, and the recent Supreme Court Order termed an 'error' by Dr. Ramaswamy Iyer (both ex-Secretaries, Water Resources Ministry).

Prior experience teaches that we must study basic aspects of each river basin, including catchment area treatment, command area development, benchmark survey of the affected population, impacts of the reservoir and canal system on farmers, and fisheries, and public health. Environmental Impact Assessment will be inevitable. Compensatory and mitigatory plans must be rationally conceived. Where the canal network extends, will surveyors assess whether soil is irrigable through surface water flows without waterlogging and salinisation that has taken a million hectares ofIndian Land? What would be the impacts on food security already in crisis, of a sudden change in cropping pattern? Enough warnings have been given. The River Valley Guidelines (1983) discuss environmental and social impacts due to transfer of water and people beyond suitability. Unless these become part of the project planning, they are neither considered nor dealt with.

Struggles in the Narmada Valley and on other projects pushed due to political expediency without complete appraisal, have brought out the seriousness of large scale displacement as well as impacts on and injustice to the proposed beneficiaries. Basic questions demand investigation. Will such a linking of rivers actually prevent drought? Or merely transfer drought? 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 whom 23,500 will lose more than 25% of their land, and 2,000 will become landless. None is considered project-affected nor eligible for rehabilitation.

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 total neglect of water harvesting, either because it is considered peripheral or to be a non-replicable, non-profitable micro-level experiment.

Therefore we see the destruction of cultures, communities, and ecosystems, creating conflicts between states, as in Cauvery, and between state and people, as in Narmada. Conflicts are dealt with more politically than scientifically. If this happens in just one river basin, imagine the consequences across several river basins. Interstate disputes could take decades to resolve.

As our national highways have become conveyor belts for enormously polluting noxious emissions, the huge interlink threatens to become an open sewage garlanding India. The canals, designed for carrying irrigation waters rather than large peak flows, will not be sufficient to control or divert floods in the northern states but will transfer silt. Several large dams built to provide the head and storage required to supply the canals will permanently submerge fertile lands, forests, village communities and towns, leaving millions of people displaced or dispossessed. Any attempt to obtain full information, question impacts and demand just compensation requires sacrifice by communities living on the natural resources.

Interlinking Himalayan and peninsular rivers is budgeted at Rs. 5.6 lakh crores, even before the completion of feasibility studies, expected by 2008, at a cost of 150 crores. Have alternatives been assessed? When pending water projects require Rs. 80,000 crores to be completed and made usable as per Parliamentary Committee 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, and who face upstream impacts, which are now known, and lesser-known downstream impacts. Annual Irrigation budgets of state governments are about 1000 crores each. From where will the money for inter-linking rivers come even if states pool resources for the next several decades? At the cost of local irrigation projects of the true and tested kind that have kept India self-sufficient. In this esoteric experiment of Inter-linking rivers, India itself is the guinea pig.

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 support 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 mind of the president, the ministers and sanctioned by the outgoing chief justice within a few days.

It will be nothing short of criminal if water is not treated properly and the water crisis worsens. Already Shivnath river in Chattisgarh is privatised, and the contractor has snatched away 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 reduced prices, whether it is oil, gas, land or mineral resources, to private companies, foreign and domestic.

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 desiltation and maintenance of existing tanks, lakes and reservoirs. Agricultural practices and 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 minimum 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.

Medha Patkar, L S Aravinda
December 2002

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