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A river runs through it

The Indian river linking project will be crucial to meeting future water needs

Since water has been made a political issue, none of the water-rich states will accept that it has a surplus.
Since water has been made a political issue, none of the water-rich states will accept that it has a surplus.

By: M.S Menon

The Indian Meteorological Department warned of poor rains this year, which was ominous for the country as most of its agriculture is dependent on the monsoon rains. As the spectre of drought loomed, the question that comes to mind is: why have we failed to implement a national water grid plan, even after years of detailed investigation and study for the proposed Indian river linking (IRL) project? The proposal had envisaged diverting the surplus waters of the Brahmaputra to the water-deficient Cauvery and beyond, through 30 links that would bring additional irrigation to 35 million hectares, generate power and supply drinking water to drought-prone areas.

The proposal for the mega IRL project is gathering dust because it got mired in the complexities of hydropolitics among the states, kept alive by corrupt politicians, as well as activists and academics masquerading as the guardians of the environment. Water-rich states were not willing to share their surplus with water-deficit states, arguing that they did not have any water to spare, given their future plans. In this fight between the states, the Union government remained a helpless spectator, pleading that water was a state subject under the Constitution. Even though Entry 56 of List 1 of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution empowers the Centre to regulate interstate rivers, it did not use these powers. The Centre’s inaction meant that project work did not progress as scheduled, since more than 80 per cent of the country’s annual utilisable water resources is carried by interstate rivers.

The annual occurrence of  floods and droughts proved to be a boon for corrupt officials and politicians as they could reap illegal benefits from the relief doled out. So they remained opposed to a long-term plan like the IRL project. At the same time, a motley group of activists and academics interested in remaining in the limelight were busy spreading misinformation about the project, raising the bogey of environmental degradation.
Misrepresenting ground realities, they offered textbook solutions as alternatives to the river linking project.
They lacked the honesty to appreciate the evidence from existing river linking projects that contradicted their ideological fantasies. According to these groups, any river should be left in its pristine condition to protect its ecology and biodiversity all the way up to the sea. According to them, major dams like Bhakra had brought only disaster to the country — the eco-friendly inundation canals and village tanks of the past could meet all the food requirements then and they would be adequate even now.


The project has also been criticised by the prophets of doom, who point out that its canal system would become an open sewer spreading across the length and breath of the country. Ever critical of developmental efforts, these cynics had earlier condemned the Golden Quadrilateral project for national highways as a network of conveyor belts for noxious emissions.

These all-knowing experts appear to be ignorant of the facts recorded in the district gazetteers, about the famines that would occur before dams like Bhakra were constructed. They are also afflicted by bouts of amnesia about the massive water transfers, implemented through water trains, to drought affected areas in the recent past, when the traditional tanks had dried up and the “small is beautiful” ideology had failed.

Infrastructure transferring water from surplus to deficit areas was constructed in the past and is still serving without causing environmental disaster — for example, the Western Yamuna Canal and the Kurnool-Kadapa Canal. If our forefathers had not taken timely action to harness the water resources by constructing dams and canal systems, and left the rivers in their pristine condition, by now, we would have been begging for food to meet the needs of our growing millions.

Since water has been made a political issue, none of the water-rich states will accept that it has a surplus. A change in this attitude can be brought about if the states can be convinced of the benefits of being able to spare water. If these states could be compensated for the water they can spare as surplus, they would certainly agree to the project, as they could use the compensation to meet the needs of their future plans. The quantum of compensation could be decided on the basis of agreed criteria. As both the donor and the recipient state would benefit from this provision, it would  be a win-win situation for all, fostering a water-saving culture among the states.

We have lost decades in implementing the IRL project. Too much analysis has paralysed us into inaction. Future generations will not pardon us for this inaction.

The writer is former member secretary, Indian National Committee on Irrigation and Drainage, ministry of water resources