The recent acceptance by Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan on diverting the Parvati, Kalisindh and Chambal rivers shows that political allegiance is being conveniently used to prove that the States are supportive of the idea of interlinking rivers. Only few weeks ago, the predecessor government in Madhya Pradesh had expressed concerns over the same river diversions; can the state's interest have changed so completely in such a short time?

Uttar Pradesh’s refusal to agree on linking Ken and Betwa rivers had sent the Interlinking Task Force shopping for alternate venues to launch the ambitious project. The newly elected governments of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, besides being ruled by the same party as the Centre, also have their risks better covered, as they have just been voted to power, and have a few years before voters can once again judge them. As a result, social and ecological issues emerging from proposed links have taken a backseat.

The writing on the wall is clear! From his Independence Day address in August 2002 to the recent speech at the Indian Science Congress in January 2004, the President reiterated his view that interlinking of rivers holds the future for the country. The Supreme Court was hasty in weighing in on this issue, leading to a trinity of constitutional support - from the executive, the judiciary and the legislative branches - for the plans. For the public at large this may mean a stamp of approval for the proposed mega-project even though a majority of the State governments have yet to concur with the President’s views! The Kerala assembly has in fact - besides rejecting the plans for interlinking - questioned the constitutional validity of transfer of waters from one State to another in its August 2003 resolution!

Although the initial response from the state governments of the NDA ruling alliance members was itself lukewarm, it now appears that the political winds have turned with the elections looming. The recent acceptance by Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan of a plan viewed as unacceptable only a few weeks ago is clear indication of the shape of things to come.

The Task Force has consistently refused to make pre-feasibility assessments for the interlinking plans public! Instead, it has created a distinct divide between engineers and environmentalists, and engaged in propaganda on elusive benefits.
 •  Kerala assembly says no
All this reflects poorly on the pre-feasibility assessments conducted by the Task Force on river linking. No wonder, then, the Task Force has consistently refused to make such assessments public! What it has made public though are its intentions! It has created a distinct divide between engineers and environmentalists; it has co-opted the fence sitters to counter the non-conformists; and it has engaged itself in false propaganda on elusive benefits at the cost of irreversible ecological damages. In doing so, the Task Force has been successful in evading public attention from the key socio-economic and ecological issues.

As a result, rather than sound economic or environmental principles, what is now driving the project is political calculation, with plenty of double-standards evident. Political parties that support trade unions' right to strike in the name of the rights of the working class, do not speak up for other underpriveleged classes that may be affected by this grand design. The populist calculation is that opposition to interlinking may in fact wash away their accumulated gains from other positions! This political determination to implement the river links has created a strange situation; environmentalists and water experts are engaging the chairman of the Interlinking Task Force, Suresh Prabhu, in a 'debate' this month. What should be a consultative and transparent process has become one where the advocates of the project are challenged to demonstrate its merits; such has been the level of propaganda and secrecy behind the whole thing.

The issue is not as much about which link between rivers may work or which States will support the project, as it is about the accountability of the decision that has been thrust on the people of the country. Whatever might be the ultimate outcome of the most controversial decision for which judiciary and executive officers have provided impetus outside their domains, they themselves are absolved of any responsibility for the impact of the decision. In similar vein, much before the ambitious gains (if any) from interlinking of rivers will get realized the proponents of the proposal might not be at the scene. Consequently, the accountability of those who are vigorously pursing the project may end just before the unintended impacts of the gigantic project begin to surface.

While the issue of accountability has yet to be fully addressed, there is an associated concern - namely, the bypassing of usual democratic decision-making process. Can an executive decision that may impact the lives of millions for centuries ahead be allowed to supersede critical assessment by both houses of the Parliament, or by the state legislatures? Do apex offices of the country alone possess unquestionable wisdom?

Riding a wave of economic upswing, the governing elite sense possibilities even in the most arduous tasks – changing the geography of the country by interlinking rivers. The $100 billion in foreign reserves is offered to the public as adequate reason to feel optimistic even about such enormous measures, but the other side of the coin - an accumulated national debt of over $862 billion - is not trotted about within earshot of the same public. The welfare of the whole nation for many years to come is thus hostage to the 'good feeling' of the few and the political aspirations of others.