Interlinking national rivers has taken centre stage because of the enormous estimated cost. Proponents claim that there will be great advantages and few disadvantages, while opponents claim that there are serious disadvantages and calamitous economic, environmental and hence political consequences. While this matter deserves national public debate, there is no debate even in Parliament. Harmony and agreement in political matters are desirable in Parliament, but civilized and informed debate on developmental matters and people's issues is essential.

As in the past, in the current case too, every dam-river project has been planned at the topmost levels of Government, and the track record concerning re-location, resettlement and compensation, let alone rehabilitation or allotment of land-for-land shows rank corruption, callousness and inefficiency. Planning should be on the basis of ground capability in implementation with greater stress on the socio-political factors, than merely on engineering. Since Independence, projects have displaced about 50 million people (many more than once) who now inhabit the slums of towns and cities. Social tension can be traced to people who were victims of unthinking state policy according to this pattern of development that benefits some at the cost of others.

Mr. Suresh Prabhu, Chairman of the Task Force on Rivers, stated that the decision has already been taken to implement the interlinking plan "in an absolutely new format" ("Watery Dreams", The Times of India, New Delhi, 27 Feb 2003, p.14). There is vagueness and confusion in this interview. For example, when asked how many people will be displaced by the projects and what will be the cost of rehabilitating them, he says, "This is to be worked out but the benefits outweigh the costs." If it is yet to be assessed, how can anyone be sure that the benefits outweigh the costs, and do the people who pay part of the cost with disruption of their lives get any benefits?

Mr. Prabhu says it will be ensured that "rehabilitation will be complete, if not before the project is started, then definitely before the project is finished." Let us see how project displacement actually works on the ground.

When a family is asked to leave the land and home of their forefathers, the head of the family (HOF) is in a quandary. Often, his wife and children look to him for everything, and he pleads to the sarkar for help, assistance, materials, money, anything, and transforms himself into a whining beggar. He does not know if he is entitled to anything and if so what and how much. Some revenue official representing the sarkar, says that he has to produce documents of ownership of land to receive compensation. Most people do not own land and are effectively "non-persons", and many landowners do not have regularized documents. Eventually, bulldozers arrive to commence work on the ground. The bulk of people are ordered to "Go, and never return!". This, is the reality.

"When you go home, tell your children that we gave our today for your tomorrow." This soldiers' epitaph would be appropriate for the 50 million people who have been displaced since Independence.
Those who are entitled to compensation - they are better off than those who are summarily ordered to leave - are asked to come back "later" for the compensation. While all this is going on, the family is in turmoil. The HOF moves his family to the home of a relative (himself poor) or to a nearby village or town, where they are now like beggars living on the promise and hope of compensation. He reports at the daftar periodically to petition for his rightful due. Even in city government offices in India where educated people are made to wait for just about everything, imagine in distant Bharat, where waiting can be life-long. While the HOF goes from pillar to post, he cannot work even if work is available, and there is no income; the family starves. If they turn to begging or petty crime can they be blamed? If his wife takes to selling pakoras on the sidewalk, she becomes victim of the local dada or the beat policeman who make demands.

Economically secure people like you or me, dear reader, complain that hawkers have encroached upon the sidewalk in violation of municipal law, and worse, sell unhygienic food that threatens public health. Of course, prostitution is another option. The children rummage in dustbins for scraps of food, competing with dogs and pigs. But the engines of progress have started to move, forests and trees are cleared and millions of tons of concrete are poured; the face of the land changes, displaced and uncompensated families are ruined. Secure people heartlessly opine that someone has to pay for progress.

Eventually, the HOF is given a date to report for payment of compensation. Some person known to the disbursing officer needs to identify him as being so-and-so, son of such-and-such of XYZ village. Such "known" persons will gladly identify the HOF for a percentage of the amount due. But he does not complain because nobody will take him seriously and he has no proof of having had to loose a percentage of his money. Take a best-case scenario where he actually receives two lakh rupees before the project commences, as Mr. Prabhu hopes, and see how he might run his life. Two lakh rupees in a secure deposit can fetch him at most Rs.1,500 per month or $1 per day for the whole family, with no shelter, no regular employment and no skills or education. What's worse is this. The HOF has no clue about banking, and has probably never had a bank account in his life.

Before the project, the family was poor, but not destitute, and they had some pride. They are "torn from the 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"). They are the people who have paid with their "todays" for the benefits of development for other people. Let's face it, such projects cause destitution and generate ill will far in excess of possible benefits. Take a million such families, most of whom are "non-persons" not entitled to anything, and we have a destructive synergy of ill will is never additive to democracy nor does it help build a civil society in this nation. The militant amongst the "non-persons" have their own means of squaring off against the governments, as we very well know.

Kohima was a World War II battlefield where many Indian troops laid down their lives to stop the Japanese invasion. The epitaph on the memorial there reads, "When you go home, tell your children that we gave our today for your tomorrow." Would not the soldiers' epitaph be appropriate for the 50 million people displaced since Independence and more to be displaced by interlinking rivers?