Rivers run through it

After Supreme Court’s nudge,Centre should expedite river-linking

Written by M.S. Menon | Published: March 13, 2012 3:33:44 am

After Supreme Court’s nudge,Centre should expedite river-linking

The Indian River Linking (IRL) Project is back in the news after the Supreme Court asked the Centre and state governments to participate in planning its implementation. The court has also directed the Union government to set up a committee,comprising representatives from various government departments and ministries as well as experts and social activists,to chart out a plan.

For decades,several proposals for the project were discussed and studied by a number of high-powered committees. They all recommended early implementation to mitigate the havoc created by recurring floods and droughts. However,not even a single link has been constructed so far. The project is limping from pre-feasibility to feasibility studies and from preliminary to detailed investigations,with the stage of implementation nowhere in sight.

The reasons for this state of affairs are not far to seek. While states are busy quarrelling with each other on their water rights,the Centre makes the plea that water is a state subject under the Constitution and hence it would not be able to suo motu intervene in such disputes. Though many high-powered bodies had advised the Centre that Entry 56,List 1 of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution gives ample powers to the Union government to regulate interstate rivers which contribute more than 80 per cent to the annual water resources of the country,the Centre has not taken any initiative to use these provisions to promote projects to generate benefits.

The main objection from some water-rich states is that they do not have any surplus water to spare. They insist that it will be possible for them to utilise all their waters and do not agree to the basic philosophy of inter-basin water transfer as a method for correcting the natural imbalance of inequitable distribution of the resource.

Water is also not high enough in the political agenda to demand instant attention and hence,even though billions of cubic metres of water flow into the sea unutilised every year,no concrete action is taken to mitigate the devastation and suffering caused to the people by frequent floods and droughts. The powers that be appear to be happy taking ad hoc decisions to survive a situation,ignoring long-term needs. The apex court’s intervention should compel them to do the needful.

Some have objected to the IRL project by raising the bogey of environmental impacts while transferring water from wet to dry areas,conveniently ignoring the benefits accrued by such projects within the country and abroad. Prophets of doom have condemned the project,stating that the IRL canal systems would prove to be an open sewer crisscrossing the country. Similar forecasts had been made earlier on the Golden Quadrilateral road project — that the national highways would turn into conveyor belts of noxious emissions!

A few others meanwhile stand up for minor dams,saying small is beautiful. The concept is fine,but not fully reliable for harnessing water resources,when monsoons play with the fortunes of farmers and shortage of drinking water becomes a reality.

The proposals for the interlinking of rivers represent a great challenge and opportunity as they form part of a better tomorrow to free millions from miseries resulting from both harmful abundance and acute scarcity of water. The country cannot afford to go slow on these well-studied proposals,considering water’s role as an engine for development. Now that the apex court has sought a committee to be set up for facilitating the implementation of the project,some progress could be expected.

One of the main issues for the committee will be to make water-endowed states agree to release surplus water to deficit ones. If a provision can be introduced in the proposals to compensate donor states for the economic cost of surplus water given to the project,they may agree to a transfer as they can use the compensation to meet their needs. The compensation can be decided on the basis of an agreed criterion,either in cash or in sharing the power that is generated,agricultural produce,etc. As both donor and donee states will benefit from this provision,it will be a win-win situation. Further,it will ensure that both states use water only to meet their requirements and not waste the resource.

The committee will also be confronted by issues of environmental impact and rehabilitation of people affected by the project. Since the apex court will be monitoring these,transparency and justice can be expected in the implementation.

Long-distance transfer of water is not an end in itself; it is a means to a greater end — that people are no longer at the mercy of floods and droughts. So far,we have indulged in too much analysis and done too little. It is time to act so that the project becomes a reality in the near future.

The writer is former member secretary,Indian National Committee on Irrigation and Drainage

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