Should Bangladesh Worry?

India's river linking project

Ramaswamy Iyer

The Inter-Linking of Rivers (ILR) Project has a hoary history, and it has a certain resonance in the popular mind in India. The notion of the linking of the rivers in the sub-continent has been a popular fantasy for a long time, particularly in South India, which is water-short and dreams of water from the north. Both the Ganga-Cauvery Link proposed in the 1960s by Dr. K.L.Rao, Irrigation Minister, and the `Garland Canal' idea mooted by Capt. Dinshaw J. Dastur, an airline pilot, caught the imagination of the people, particularly in the south. Though they were rejected after examination, they survive in the popular mind and come up whenever water scarcity is felt and conflicts (such as the Cauvery dispute) become acute in the southern parts. There is a Tamil TV serial now running entitled 'Swarga' (heaven). The theme song of the serial mentions several instances of 'swarga', such as a happy marriage, harmonious relations between communities, and so on; the song then rises to a crescendo with the line, “ 'If Ganga and Cauvery are linked, Tamil Nadu will be 'swarga.'” That will give the readers some idea of what the project means to a large number of people in Tamil Nadu.

The proposal now taken up is based on the work that the National Water Development Agency has been doing during the last two decades after its establishment in 1982 in pursuance of the `National Water Perspectives' brought out by the Ministry of Irrigation in 1980. There are two main components in it, namely the Himalayan Rivers component (14 links) and the Peninsular Rivers component (16 links), including a possible link between the two. The preliminary estimate of the total cost of the project as a whole is Rs. 560,000 crores. At the same time, it is also sometimes stated that it is not really a 'project' but a 'concept'.

Two main justifications are offered for the 'inter-linking of rivers'. The first is that it is an answer to the occurrence of floods in some parts of the country and drought in other parts; that the project will transfer water from the former areas to the latter, providing some relief from floods to the former areas and making more water available to the latter. The second is that some river basins are 'surplus' in water while others are 'deficit', and that the project will transfer water from the former to the latter. These are two distinct propositions giving rise to different sets of questions, but we may take a combination of these propositions as the rationale of the project. To many, that twofold rationale seems very persuasive. It must be noted that the highly respected President of India, with his technological background, is a firm believer in the merits of this project and keeps commending it in his speeches from time to time. It must also be kept in mind that the Supreme Court of India has asked the Government of India to accelerate the time-frame for the implementation of the project, and is monitoring the progress through the periodical reports that the Ministry has to submit to it.

The project continues to be debated in India. There have been many articles and letters in the newspapers, discussions and interviews on TV and radio, an extensive exchange of e-mails, and so on. Letters and Memoranda expressing concern have been addressed to the Prime minister and the President. A National Civil Society Committee has been set up for a dialogue with the Government on this project. Some time ago, the National Alliance of Peoples' Movements held a National Convention at Delhi, at which resolutions strongly critical of the project were passed.

Support at the political level for the project underwent a change with the change of government. The Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the new ruling alliance (UPA) promised a comprehensive assessment of the project in a fully consultative manner. In pursuance of that promise a Committee of Experts has been set up to advise the Government. Some individuals and NGOs have also been placing their concerns before the National Advisory Council. Currently, a Parliamentary Committee has taken up a study of the Project and many have made submissions to it.

While the previous Government regarded the Project as a major initiative, the present Government is more cautious and proposes to consider it link by link in a selective and careful manner, taking into account all the relevant aspects. It has also stated that it is deferring the Himalayan links for the time being and will talk to Bangladesh and Nepal before taking them up for consideration.

What could be the legitimate concerns of Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh in relation to this Project? If the project envisages any storage or diversion structures in the upstream countries such as Nepal or Bhutan, it is obvious that such activities can only be undertaken with the involvement, consent and participation of those countries. If the structures are to be in India but have the potential of causing certain consequences (inundation, backwater effects, and so on) in an upstream country, then again prior information to and consultation with that country will be called for. There can be no disagreement with those propositions. At the downstream end, if any part of this project is likely to have certain implications for Bangladesh, such as a reduction of flows or environmental consequences, prior intimation to and consultation with Bangladesh will be necessary. That again is an indisputable proposition. However, if one looks at the various links that form part of this project, one will find that there are many with which Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh are not concerned at all. Consider for instance the Godavari-Krishna link or the Pamba-Achankovil-Vaippar link, or the eastward diversion of west-flowing rivers: what have Nepal or Bangladesh to do with these? Even the Parbati-Kalisindh-Chambal and Ken-Betwa links, though technically they have a connection with the Ganga system, are purely internal transfers within the system and not transfers out of the system. They are really of no great significance from the points of view of the neighbouring countries. It follows that Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh are concerned, not with the ILR Project as a whole, but only with those parts of it that could conceivably have impacts on or consequences for them.

As for the goodness or badness of the Project, it could be argued that there is not enough information at present to warrant firm conclusions. In a TV discussion under the series 'The Big Fight' in which I participated a few months ago, Suresh Prabhu, the former Chairman of the Task Force on the Project, made what I consider a debating point: “When full information about the project is not available, when you do not know what the project is, on what ground do you conclude that it is a man-eating tiger?” One might counter that by asking how, in the absence of information, one could be expected to accept that the project would be a benefactor or a Kamadhenu (or in western terms, a cornucopia). It follows that what one needs to do is to ask for detailed information that would enable us to arrive at judgments regarding the project, and some of us in India have been persistently seeking information. However, let us assume that the project is very questionable, and that even at this stage, despite the paucity of information, serious doubts and anxieties are warranted. That is indeed what some of us have been saying. We have been arguing that there are enough preliminary grounds for questioning the wisdom of the project, that a careful re-examination of the project is necessary, and that it should not be a purely governmental exercise but should involve people and institutions outside the Government.

However, that exercise must necessarily be an Indian one. If it is a bad project fraught with serious consequences for India, and a campaign against it is considered necessary, it will have to be an internal campaign in India. The National Convention that I referred to earlier was a part of such a campaign, and I was a participant. Such internal battles may be hindered rather than helped by the intervention of other countries.

The stated aim (right or wrong) of the ILR Project is to meet the water needs of the arid areas in the central, western and southern parts of India; would it be proper for other countries to say “you must consult us before you provide water to Delhi or Rajasthan or Tamil Nadu”? The Government of India and the State Governments have many obligations towards their citizens, as do the Governments of Nepal and Bangladesh towards theirs; the performance of those obligations cannot be hamstrung by an absolute or excessive requirement of consultation with other countries. I am not questioning the doctrine of 'stakeholder consultation', but saying that it must not be pushed to undue lengths.

No one can question the right of Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan to state their legitimate concerns in relation to this project. Essentially, those concerns will relate to diversions, if any, from the Brahmaputra and the Ganga, and the environmental and related consequences, if any, to Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh of projects on these river systems in India. In addition, both Nepal and Bangladesh have river treaties with India the Mahakali Treaty and the Ganges Treaty and conformity to the provisions of those Treaties will be an important consideration in an examination of activities relating to the rivers in question. My suggestion is that in pursuing these matters Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh must keep in mind the cautions that I have put forward.

The author in an ex-Secretary Government of India.

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