Proponents of interlinking must consider that from the angle of good governance and management, an explicit definition of "public interest" or "public good" is needed and this be used to identify the primary stakeholders and defining their losing or gaining stake in a massive 'development' project. Notwithstanding that the proposal was mooted by the Supreme Court and seconded by the highest office in the land, such matters should always be subject to extensive and intensive public debate before political or economic positions are taken or irreversible financial commitments are made. The ethics of a proposal to spend enormous amounts of borrowed funds for mega-projects that have glossed-over negative impacts and inequitable benefits is questionable.

Recall that the Supreme Court's direction in July 2002 on electoral reforms was vehemently opposed by all parties in Parliament.
And yet, when the Prime Minister proposed networking of rivers, it leads one to wonder whether the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament seconded the proposal with alacrity purely for political reasons. The proposed river network is a mega-project comprising a system of interlinked projects and has therefore to be subjected to multi-disciplinary scrutiny. True, the Task Force now headed by Mr. Suresh Prabhu has experts from several disciplines, but any mega-project like the present one needs people who will dissent with cogent arguments if democracy is to be given any weightage.

Perhaps this a reflection of the fact that ever since Independence, people in high places have taken decisions for the vast majority without consultation and allowed benefit to go to one section of people while the cost is borne by another section, with the heartless argument that "somebody has to pay for progress". Experience on the other hand has shown is that there is invariably resistance of varying degrees to such projects from the project affected people and those who speak on their behalf. Those in power see such opposition as "anti-development" simply because it goes against their concept of development. Perhaps opposition can be brushed aside or quelled with Police force, but it always creates permanent antagonists of State policy. Such people are never friendly towards government and worse, that does no good to any section of society.

Proponents of interlinking must also consider a very important factor -- the nexus between certain politicians, bureaucrats and contractors. This lobby does not operate with the public interest in mind. For this lobby, larger projects are better, and the proposal estimated at over Rs.5 lakh crores is a veritable gold mine. The influence of this lobby is possibly a reason for which Government of India, which does not ordinarily relish directions from the Judiciary, quietly accepted the direction of the Supreme Court to constitute a Task Force and complete the work in 10 years. Recall that the Supreme Court's direction in July 2002 regarding declaration of movable and immovable property, assets and liabilities and criminal records of election candidates was vehemently opposed by all parties in Parliament.

It is worthwhile quoting two people in the context of development and its sustainability, since it is relevant to the proposal for interlinking rivers:

  • "Let us face an uncomfortable truth. The model of development that we are accustomed to has been fruitful for a few and flawed for many. A path to prosperity that ravages the environment and leaves a majority of humankind behind in squalor will soon prove to be a dead-end road for everyone."

    -- Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General at Johannesburg, 2002

  • "In reality, development for the vast majority of the peoples of the world has been a process in which the individual is torn from his past and propelled into an uncertain future only to secure a place on the bottom rung of an economic ladder that goes nowhere."

    -- Wade Davis in "The Ticking Bomb", July 2002

Insisting on pushing the interlinking proposal amounts to nothing but engineering orthodoxy at its worst, in an attempt to realize economic dogma concerning development and its expected benefits. With little space for conscientious dissenters and no effort for debate informed by alternatives, not even in Parliament, we are headed towards a travesty of democracy. The pedantry and conceit associated with knowledge and expertise in special fields causes some people to pronounce solutions to complex, inter-disciplinary problems without due application of mind, without consultation with those who may hold contra views and little true knowledge of the effect on the poor and weak. If such persons happen to be in positions of power or eminence, their pronouncements then become a beacon for others to follow. The weight of opinion currently appears to be running in favour of interlinking of rivers as the only solution to better water availability.

There is no gainsaying that our nation has to urgently and decisively improve its water availability. There is already a National Water Policy (NWP) in place and this policy needs to be examined afresh and urgently. But given the political interference and corruption that accompany large projects, and even assuming India's pipe-dream of zero-error technical design and execution, for more than one reason the river network could fail systemically, as has been pointed in out in previous articles in this series. The current approach taken by lawmakers is precisely the recipe by which massive projects are run unfinished into the ground, with enormous wastage of resources and funds. Democratic action and enlightened self-interest by all citizens is the need of the hour.

Proposed Interlinking of Rivers, Series: