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S.G.VOMBATKERE | 23 NOVEMBER, 2016

Interlinking Rivers: Cupidity Or Stupidity


 Reality of water needs 

Although many examples can be quoted, the above examples are adequate to illustrate that every state wants water, and no state will agree that it has “surplus” water and agree to share water, especially in circumstances of scarcity. This is because every state government is bound to look after the needs of its own population. Thus, in the past, central government orders have been challenged by states, with a rise in animosity between neighbouring states, while judicial decisions on water disputes have nearly precipitated constitutional crises. Changing water from a state subject to a concurrent or central subject by constitutional amendment – as suggested by some – cannot solve on-the-ground thirst for water, whichever way the central government or the Supreme Court views it. 

In present circumstances, as scarce water becomes the cause for conflict at all levels of society, it passes understanding how, over the years, successive central governments, spurred by a succession of learned Supreme Court judges, are unable to comprehend that pursuing the ILR project will only create fresh conflicts or intensify existing conflicts between people on-the-ground and between governments in courts of law. This can only weaken the Centre and lower or destroy the pedestal of respect on which the judiciary stands in bringing genuine justice to the people. 

Environmental concerns 

The cumulative ill-effects of the environmental impacts of the component projects of the ILR project are of concern. In a situation of growing environmental degradation due to uncontrolled looting of natural resources due to neoliberal economic policy, combined with galloping climate change, the stress on water resources is growing. India, with 16% of global population (and increasing) but only 4% of global fresh water (and reducing), will be very seriously water-stressed in coming years. 

To briefly look at the environmental issues involved in the ILR project, it is instructive to consider the pilot component of the ILR project, namely, the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP) between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The ILR TF placed some Feasibility Reports (FRs) of some of the ILR projects in the public domain only in 2005 after it was forced to do so by Supreme Court's directive following public demands for transparency. The KBLP FR prepared in 1996 by NWDA was based on data of earlier vintage, and its validity in 2016 is questionable. However, the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) was pressured to obtain clearance from National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) after MoWR minister Uma Bharti declared in June 2016 that delay in clearance to KBLP was a “national crime”, and threatened to go on a hunger strike. Accordingly, allowing environmental concerns to become victim to political pressure, NBWL gave its clearance to KBLP in September 2016. 

The submergence area of KBLP is said to be about 9,000-ha, about 5,258-ha of it being dense forest including 4,141-ha of the Panna Tiger Reserve. However, The Economic Times reported that 105-sqkm (10,500-ha) of tiger habitat would be lost. Clearly, the different figures of land being reported shows confusion in official sources regarding basic data. The contribution to global warming by methane emissions due to submerged dense forest was not considered in the FR. 

KBLP is merely one example, and many other component projects can be quoted, but it is sufficient to demonstrate how governments' motivation for pressing ahead with project execution overrides environmental concerns, and how its policies value short-term, limited economic gains over long-term survival issues. 

Human rights and societal issues
 

The property and livelihood loss, and social disruption due to mass displacement of populations is a serious issue. This is an on-going, burning problem all over the country, epitomised by the 25-years-long resistance in the Narmada Valley. It is apt to mention here that over 50 million people have already been displaced, many twice over, only due to dam-and-canal construction since 1950. Besides the suffering of the project-affected families, there is social unrest as they move to new places where they are not welcome among people who are themselves already economically stressed. These issues are not addressed at all by the ILR projects. 

In a situation of growing environmental degradation due to uncontrolled looting of natural-resources demanded by myopic economic policy combined with galloping climate change, the stress on water resources is growing. India, with 16% of the world's population but only 4% of the world's water resources, is due to be seriously water-stressed in coming years. 

Cupidity or stupidity? 

In the present context, as scarce water becomes the cause for conflict at all levels of society, it passes understanding how successive central governments, spurred by a succession of learned Supreme Court judges, are unable to comprehend that the ILR project will only create fresh water conflicts or intensify existing conflicts, rather than solve problems. 

It is worth noting that in January 2002, in the context of water conservation and availability, Prime Minister Vajpayee wisely recommended: “Catch every raindrop where it falls”. However, his no-conflict, low-cost and practical idea of water conservation was rudely pushed aside on 14 August 2002 by NWDA's ILR scheme, perhaps because ILR involved huge expenditure. Strangely, Mr.Vajpayee never questioned this. 

Long-term realism 

Government of India needs to scrap the ILR project permanently, and look to intra-basin watershed management. The Central and State governments need to enforce water conservation by a combination of suitable, region-specific, tried and tested methods, and review agricultural and industrial water-use policy with an eye towards mitigating the certain effects of increased water-stress due to climate change. 

For part one: here

(Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ AG's Branch. He is a member of the National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM) and People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL).)

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