Sunday, June 20, 2004

Interlinking rivers

Drought, made government up and down. My native place people we suffered in shortage of rainfall for past 2years. I read a article of Mr. A Vaidyanathan, The writer is Professor Emeritus, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai. "The belief that interlinking is necessary to ensure adequate and safe water supply to everyone and everywhere is wholly misplaced" he said.

Found that the politics are playing game with this (BJP,Rajni are all used this word in elections, failed though). Just check out the report by him (Courtesy- The Hindu)

THE CONCEPT of interlinking rivers is evidently appealing to considerable sections of the general public and to policy-makers. More than three decades ago, K. L. Rao proposed the linking of the Ganga and the Cauvery. It was followed by Dastur's plan for a garden canal, linking all the major rivers in the country. Both the proposals attracted considerable attention. But due to widespread criticism of their feasibility, desirability and viability, these were shelved.

In the 1990s, the Government appointed a Commission to examine the strategy of water resource development, including the possibility of interlinking rivers. Its report — which is not available to the public — is understood to have given cautious support, subject to a careful examination of all relevant aspects, to the idea of link canals to divert surplus waters from some selected rivers to the water-short basins and regions.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court, on a public interest litigation, directed the Centre to draw up and implement by 2015 a programme to interlink major rivers. Subsequently, the Prime Minister announced the Government's decision to act on the court directive and appointed a task force to ensure the implementation of the project by 2015. The task force headed by Suresh Prabhu is now active.

The popular appeal of interlinking rivers is based on the understanding that an enormous amount of water of our rivers flows into the sea and that if only this is prevented, and water transferred from water-abundant rivers to water-deficit areas, there will be adequate supply for everyone in every part of the country. At another level, the project is seen as promoting national integration and a fair sharing of the country's natural water wealth. Both these presumptions are far too simplistic.

Whether the linking of rivers will promote integration or generate more disputes and tensions is a moot question. Besides, several obvious, but prima facie important, questions about the concept, and the feasibility, desirability and viability of the proposal need to be clarified before its implementation can be considered seriously. The belief that interlinking is necessary to ensure adequate and safe water supply to everyone and everywhere is wholly misplaced. Domestic use currently accounts for a mere five per cent of the total use of water harnessed through canals, tanks, wells and tube-wells.

The requirements are no doubt growing rapidly but will still be relatively small compared to those of other uses. Interlinking is hardly justified as the solution for this problem. Even if interlinking were justified for other reasons, it will not be possible to reach the water to all the habitations without huge investments in a centralised distribution network. Decentralised local rain-water harvesting, by reviving and improving traditional techniques, can meet essential requirements for domestic purposes more effectively and at a far lesser cost.

By far, the largest user of harnessed water is agriculture. Currently, more than 85 per cent of water from canals, tanks and wells and tube-wells is used for irrigation. The demand on this account is growing and will continue to be, by far, the biggest claimant on available supplies. There is much scope for increasing the efficiency of the irrigation systems in place by reducing waste and through better water management. Measures needed for this purpose — by way of investment in physical improvements and institutional reform — are not receiving due attention.

The need for irrigation arises in regions and seasons when rainfall is inadequate for raising crops and obtaining optimum yields. The total rainfall is adequate to meet crop water requirements in the kharif season over large parts of the country. Irrigation is required essentially to tide over inadequate soil moisture during dry spells within the season. There are, of course, some areas — especially in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, parts of Gujarat, Tamil Nadu — which need irrigation during the kharif season. Practically everywhere, including the northwest, irrigation is essential between November and June. So far, these imbalances have been met by constructing storages to store monsoon surpluses for use in the dry season and by exploiting groundwater. Some areas, such as Tamil Nadu, have exhausted the potential for harnessing the surface flows. In several others, the possibilities for constructing storage are limited. Groundwater resources are already under a severe stress. The scope for expansion is limited. In many areas, the problem is to check expansion and contain the rate of exploitation. It is in this context that interlinking is seen as a way out.

A closer examination of the interlinking idea raises several questions: First, it is based on the presumption that there are large surplus flows in some basins and that the physical transfer is feasible in terms of physical engineering, and can be accomplished economically without creating any adverse impact.

On what basis and who determines the surplus basins and the magnitude of the surplus? The volume of flows during the flood season is misleading as a basis for judging surpluses. Nor can the regions where floods occur be considered water surplus. Most of them may have floods in the monsoon but have inadequate water for use in the dry season. Substantial tracts in these regions do not have the benefit of irrigation. Estimates of surplus made by Central agencies such as the National Water Development Agency are hotly contested by the States.

A more serious difficulty arises from the fact that most of the flow in practically all rivers occurs during the southwest monsoon. Published data from official sources show that 90 per cent of the flow in south Indian rivers occurs between May and November. Data on the Indo-Gangetic and Brahmaputra river basins are classified. Being perennial, the proportion of the total flow occurring during these months may be somewhat smaller but not all that much smaller. For instance, over 80 per cent of the annual flow in the Kosi is between May and November; and almost three fourths between June and October.

The monsoon happens to be the season when rainfall in the aggregate is adequate for crop growth. Of course in some regions, such as Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat and the Deccan, even the kharif rain is far too low and variable for productive agriculture. In some others, more water could help switch to more productive crop patterns. These "deficit" regions are far from those considered "surplus" requiring transport over very difficult terrain and long distances.

Moreover, since the surplus occurs in the rainy season and the demand is in the dry season, it is not enough to merely carry the water from one point to another. Large storages will be necessary. One needs to know the quantum of water to be stored, and whether and where potential sites on the required scale are available, and their likely impact on environmentand human displacement.

All we have to go by are some maps published in the media, purportedly from the Hashim Report, indicating from which rivers and at which locations surpluses will be diverted and to which river(s), and at what points in these rivers the divertedwater will be taken. There is no information on the quantum of water to be transferred through different link canals; the extent and location of the area to be benefited at the receiving end; and the distribution system through which water is to be distributed to this area.

The maps and the sketchy accounts in the media and official pronouncements tell us little on these aspects. If these maps accurately reflect the concept of the interlinking projects sought to be implemented, it will only mean that instead of the surplus flows flowing to the Bay of Bengal via the Ganges and the Brahmaputra and the Mahanadi, they will flow to the sea through the Krishna, the Godavari, the Pennar or wherever!

ENTHUSIASTS OF interlinking of rivers tend to be dismissive of the concerns over the environmental and human consequences of the project. They claim that these fears are vastly exaggerated or argue that they are unavoidable costs of "development" and that they should not be allowed to hold back the project. One has to be extraordinarily insensitive not to recognise the consequences of ignoring these aspects in our water resource planning in the past. They are reflected in the callous manner in which displaced persons have been treated, land degradation due to misuse of water, depletion of groundwater and the growing pollution of water sources. The experience of the Indira Gandhi Canal is a stark example of the problems arising in the wake of bringing in vast amounts of water without adequate understanding of and concern for its impact on the fragile desert ecology.

There are also good reasons to be sceptical about the state of preparation for the interlinking projects. Anyone familiar with the planning of projects such as Bhakra Nangal and Sardar Sarovar knows that the detailed investigations and site surveys preparatory to the design and the analyses and studies needed for the actual design take many years of intensive effort and expense by a large body of experts in diverse fields. A mega project of such complexity as interlinking of rivers calls for preparatory work of far, far greater dimensions. Moreover, the quality of preparatory investigations and surveys for many, if not most, of the irrigation and water resource projects leave much to be desired. Inadequate investigations, changes in scope and design, huge cost escalations and inordinate delays in completing projects are all-too-familiar features of irrigation planning in the recent decades.

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to believe that the interlinking programme has been worked out in sufficient detail to qualify for serious examination, leave alone immediate implementation. The best way to counter this scepticism is to make all the studies, analyses and reports available for public scrutiny.

There is little authenticated information on the likely cost of the programme and its various component projects. Figures as high as Rs. 5,600 billion are mentioned but no details are available. This is about 50 times the total allocation for the ongoing water resource development projects in the Tenth Plan.

In a situation of severe resource scarcity, the question of the relative priorities to be accorded to the improvement of existing facilities and the expeditious completion of viable projects on hand as against mega projects based on questionable premises is particularly relevant. This issue ought to be debated seriously. Questions about the sources of funds for interlinking tend to be dismissed cavalierly. The notion that private sources can be attracted is the height of naivete and wishful thinking. A Government already saddled with huge public debt, and whose precarious fiscal situation continues to deteriorate rapidly, can hardly expect the financial institutions to fork out such large sums for a programme, the content and economic viability of which have not been assessed.

There are also important institutional and legal issues to be sorted out. There is no provision for any mechanism to deal with matters concerning inter-basin transfers. The Centre has no legal authority to decide on this and no State will agree to vest the authority with the Centre. There is talk of deciding these matters through consultation and consensus among the States. One can hardly take this seriously, given our experience with the working of existing laws and procedures for dealing with water allocation between the States within the same basin. The allocation of water among riparian States even within a single river basin has so far been determined by law through negotiated legal agreements and treaties, and by judicial and quasi-judicial mechanisms such as tribunals. We know from experience how contentious, prolonged and difficult this process is. The awards themselves have so far been accepted as binding on all the States concerned and the Centre. But the implementation of these awards has given rise to innumerable inter-State conflicts, which the Centre, despite the powers given to it under the law and its financial clout, has been unable to prevent or settle. These disputes and conflicts are the subject of numerous litigations. The courts have been cautious in dealing with these cases and have instead suggested that they be settled through mutual discussion, arbitration, Central mediation and other extra-judicial mechanisms.

This caution is both wise and understandable, given the complexity of the issues involved and the fact that courts have no means to enforce the judgments and the record of compliance by Governments is at best mixed. No judgment or award can satisfy all the interested parties. Indeed, of late, the States are pleading their inability to enforce court judgments on grounds that they are unfair and likely to cause unmanageable law and order problems. Instances of Governments condoning blatant violations of their own rules regarding allocation of uses of water and acquiescing or even permitting the violation of established rules regarding the rights of access and use are distressingly widespread.

These questions are pertinent and basic to a considered assessment of the river-linking programme. In the absence of satisfactory answers, criticisms of the decision to go ahead with the implementation of the project are reasonable and legitimate. The current discussions in the media and on public forums hardly focus on these issues, much less help allay the apprehensions. That would call for a serious, open and informed debate based on facts and analyses. Regrettably, apart from a few sketch maps purported to be taken from the Hashim Commission report, very little information on the specific schemes envisaged, details of their design, environmental impact, displacement, and likely costs and benefits is available in the public domain.

Even the main report of the Commission, though claimed to be a priced publication, cannot be obtained from either the Ministry or the Publications Division. The annexure to the report, in which the details have reportedly been discussed, are considered secret.

Time was when the opinions of the Government's irrigation establishment were accepted without much question. Times have changed. There is much greater awareness now that there is more, much more to water resource development than constructing dams and canals, that the process of scrutiny and appraisal is at once too narrow, too lax and too secretive, and that there is now a sizeable body of knowledge and expertise on water resource management outside the Government. The assessments of the engineering establishments are no longer taken as beyond challenge. Hardly anyone takes seriously, much less accepts, the claim that "the National Perspective Plan (linking rivers) has been drawn up by a scientific and professional organisation, conceptually and technically upheld by the Technical Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Water Resources, the Central Water Commission and the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development Plan... " and that "... the studies have been ratified by engineers, sociologists and economists". If this is so, why should the details of these studies and appraisals be a closely-held secret, instead of being made public to facilitate informed discussion?

The least that Suresh Prabhu, head of the task force on interlinking rivers, can do is to make all the relevant reports and documents available to the public and provide an opportunity for various interested "stake holders" to voice their concerns.

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