Mohan Guruswamy is Chairman and founder of Centre for Policy Alternatives, New Delhi, India. He has over three decades of experience in government, industry and academia. He can be contacted at mohanguru[at]gmail.com.
When the BJP’s Election Manifesto was released it was most notable for the emphasis on big projects like a hundred new urban centers and a high-speed rail network. If the money can be found, this will no doubt give the economy the big push it badly needs. Hence thinking along these lines needs to be sustained and encouraged. India needs a big push to put it on the rails again. But we must also be mindful of the long-term ecological consequences of big projects and do more rigorous cost benefit analysis. We often embark on big projects without much thought or on the prodding of institutions like the Supreme Court, which even when least knowledgeable, arrogates the right to dictate policies to the Executive. One such project is the project to link all our major rivers.
This is a Sangh Parivar favorite and I am quite sure the nation will once again set out to undertake history’s greatest civil engineering project by seeking to link all our major rivers. It will irretrievably change India. If it works, it will bring water to almost every parched inch of land and just about every parched throat in the land. On the other hand if it doesn’t work, Indian civilization as it exists even now might then be headed the way of the Indus valley or Mesopotamian civilizations destroyed by a vengeful nature, for interfering with nature is also a two edged sword. If the Aswan High Dam turned the ravaging Nile into a savior, the constant diversion of the rivers feeding Lake Baikal have turned it into a fast receding and highly polluted inland sea ranking it one of the world’s greatest ecological disasters. Even in the USA, though the dams across the Colorado have turned it into a ditch by the time it enters Mexico, Nevada and California are still starved for water. I am not competent to comment on these matters and I will leave this debate for the technically competent and our perennial ecological Pooh-Bahs.
But the lack of this very debate is cause for concern. It is true that the idea of linking up our rivers has been afloat for a long time. Sir Arthur Cotton was the first propose it in the 1800’s. The late KL Rao, considered by many to be an outstanding irrigation engineer and a former Union Minister for Irrigation, revived this proposal in the late 60’s by suggesting the linking the Ganges and Cauvery rivers. It was followed in 1977 by the more elaborate and gargantuan concept of garland canals linking the major rivers, thought up by a former airline pilot, Captain Dastur. Morarji Desai was an enthusiastic supporter of this plan. The return of Indira Gandhi in 1980 sent the idea back into dormancy, where it lay all these years, till President APJ Abdul Kalam revived it in his eve of the Independence Day address to the nation in 2002. It is well known that Presidents of India only read out what the Prime Ministers give them and hence the ownership title of Captain Dastur’s idea clearly vested with Atal Behari Vajpayee and Suresh Prabhu, was its moving spirit.
That India has an acute water problem is widely known. Over sixty percent of our cropped areas are still rain-fed, much too abjectly dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon. The high incidence of poverty in certain regions largely coincides with the source of irrigation, clearly suggesting that water for irrigation is integral to the elimination of poverty. In 1950-51 when Jawaharlal Nehru embarked on the great expansion of irrigation by building the “temples of modern India” by laying great dams across our rivers at places like Bhakra Nangal, Damodar Valley and Nagarjunasagar only 17.4% or 21 million hectares of the cropped area of 133 million hectares was irrigated. That figure rose to almost 35% by the late 80s and much of this was a consequence of the huge investment by government on irrigation, amounting to almost Rs.50, 000 crores. Ironically enough this also coincided with the period when water and land revenue rates began to steeply decline to touch today’s nothing level. Like in the case of power, it seems that once the activity ceased to be profitable to the State, investment too tapered off.
It was therefore good to know that after a long hibernation the State had woken up to the problem. But it did seem that to make up for this long neglect the State now wanted do it with a big bang or with one great leap forward? It also does seem that as with the other big bang in Pokharan little thought has gone into it, but this big bang is fraught with far more grave consequences. Any physicist, even one as qualified as Murli Manohar Joshi, will tell you the consequences of a big bang take a very long time to fully unfold?
The scheme is humongous. It will link the Brahmaputra and Ganges with the Mahanadi, Godavari and Krishna, which in turn will connect to the Pennar and Cauvery. On the other side of the country it will connect the Ganges, Yamuna with the Narmada traversing in part the supposed route of the mythical Saraswathi. This last link has many political and mystical benefits too. There are many smaller links as well such as joining the Ken and Betwa rivers in MP, the Kosi with the Gandak in UP, and the Parbati, Kalisindh and Chambal rivers in Rajasthan. The project when completed will consist of 30 links, with 36 dams and 10,800 kms of canals diverting 174,000 million cubic meters of water. Just look at the bucks that will go into this big bang. It was estimated to cost Rs. 560,000 crores in 2002 and entail the spending of almost 2% of our GNP for the next ten years. Now it will cost twice that, but our GDP is now three times more, and it might be more affordable, and hence more tempting to attempt.
The order to get going with the project a Supreme Court bench made up of Chief Justice BN Kirpal, and Justices KG Balakrishnan and Arjit Pasayat, which was hearing a PIL filed by the Dravida Peervai an obscure Tamil activist group. The learned Supreme Court sought the assistance a Senior Advocate, Mr. Ranjit Kumar, and acknowledging his advice recorded: “The learned Amicus Curiae has drawn our attention to Entry 56 List of the 7th Schedule to the Constitution of India and contends that the interlinking of the inter-State rivers can be done by the Parliament and he further contends that even some of the States are now concerned with the phenomena of drought in one part of the country, while there is flood in other parts and disputes arising amongst the egalitarian States relating to sharing of water. He submits that not only these disputes would come to an end but also the pollution levels in the rivers will be drastically decreased, once there is sufficient water in different rivers because of their inter-linking.” The only problem with this formulation is that neither the learned Amicus Curiae nor the learned Supreme Court are quite so learned as to come to such sweeping conclusions. We also know that their word is the law and we are if anything a society of laws! Our politicians, ever ready to welcome something so gigantic with the promise to change the lives of, not just succeeding generations of Indians, but their own succeeding generations, have welcomed this enthusiastically. After all we can trust them to know a good thing when they see it!
With summary agreement about so much good coming out of this, it is no surprise that the learned Supreme Court was persuaded to hasten the government into telescoping the proposed forty year time span of the project to just ten years. However unwise this may be, it seems not unusual for nations to embark on major projects on similar inexpert advice. The plan to build the Three Gorges dam across the Yangtze was first presented to Chairman Mao Zedong by Li Yishan a party apparatchik who was neither an engineer nor scientist or even a lawyer. Mao was so moved by the plan that he immediately lapsed into poetry and wrote: “Over tall chasms will be a calm lake, and if the goddess of these mountains is not dead, she will marvel at the changed world.”
The Chinese do things in a big way. For instance they embarked on a US$200 billion infrastructure expansion just to remake Chongqing into the metropolis of the Chinese heartland. They also want to divert another 48 billion cubic meters of water from the north to the south, apart from constructing the world’s largest dam, longest bridge, fastest train and highest railroad. The Chinese plan to spend about 15% of the GDP each year on infrastructure, for otherwise it may not be possible to sustain their blistering pace of economic growth. They can well afford such investments for they have an annual trade surplus of over US$ 250 billion and foreign reserves in excess of US$ 3000 billion.
In the heydays of the Naxalite movement in Bengal, CPI (ML) cadres used to chant the slogan “China’s Chairman is our Chairman, Long Live Chairman Mao!” In a way it seems to have come true for all of India too?.