‘Listen to experts’
RAMASWAMY R Iyer, a former water resources secretary to the Indian government, has been a consistent critic of the idea of interlinking rivers. In an interview with V Venkatesan, published in the April 20 issue of the Indian fortnightly Frontline, he shared his concern about the Indian Supreme Court’s judgement directing the government to implement the project, and sought to explain why it is deeply flawed.
Excerpts of the interview are printed below:
In your article in ‘The Hindu’, you have claimed that the government’s stand on the project is ambiguous. The amicus curie has, on the other hand, pointed out that even the second United Progressive Alliance government has been consistently defending the project.
Of course, they will do so. They don’t want to say they have abandoned the project. Politically, it might not be feasible. But what is happening on the ground? Nothing. The NDA [National Democratic Alliance] government got a lot of credit for launching this big project. The UPA government is ambivalent. What did the UPA’s Common Minimum Programme say in 2004? It said, ‘We are going to comprehensively reassess the project in a fully consultative manner.’ What does that mean? It means that they had reservations.
But the court usually goes by affidavits and written submissions in which the centre has taken a stand.
That may be so, but what has it actually done? If it were actively interested in the project, it would have pursued it. It is a great pity that the government has not made its reservations clear to the Supreme Court. If it had done that, this judgement might not have been pronounced. But it has not done that, perhaps because of political compulsions.
One of its allies, the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam], supports the project. Why? Because it thinks the state is going to get water from the north. You ask the governments of the so-called water-surplus states whether they will spare some water. They will say ‘no’. West Bengal and Bihar don’t want the Ganga water diverted. Odisha doesn’t say that there is any surplus in the Mahanadi for transfer. Andhra Pradesh is willing to take water from the Mahanadi for the Godavari, but it is not willing to give water from the Godavari because there is, in its view, no surplus in the Godavari. The Kerala Assembly has passed a resolution against the Pamba-Achankovil-Vaippar link. It is strongly against the interlinking project. All this has been ignored.
Unfortunately, the amicus curie has been a persistent advocate of this project. Why has the Supreme Court gone by one man and one NCAER [National Council for Applied Economic Research] report? The judges should have consulted other people.
The Supreme Court has also relied on the report of the parliamentary standing committee that recommended the ILR project.
Where is the project? Interlinking of rivers is a grand concept or design. It consists of 30 projects, or links. How many of the projects have been decided upon? Nothing. Not one. They have not even reached the detailed project reports stage, except in three cases. So how can you implement the ‘project’?
The judges say it is in the national interest.
How do they say it? Has it been examined? They have just cited one report of the NCAER. What about economists like Professor [A] Vaidyanathan, ecologists like Dr Jayanta Bandyopadhyay, and hundreds of other experts? Why is it that when some of us drafted a statement asking for a reconsideration of the judgement, so many distinguished experts fully endorsed it? These include, among others, Nitin Desai [former under secretary general, United Nations], Ashok Khosla [president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature), Dr Vandana Shiva, Professor Brij Gopal and Professor V Rajamani. If they all agree that it is a bad project, is that not a matter for reflection?
The Supreme Court should have asked a number of experts to come and talk to it. And there are published materials, articles by others.
There is a solid body of opinion against the project.
Please recall the history of the project. KL Rao came up with the Ganga-Cauvery link canal proposal [in 1972]. Captain Dastur proposed the Garland Canal Project in 1977. These were examined by the technical experts in the government and found unviable or unsound. Then, in 1982, the government set up the National Water Development Agency [NWDA] to study the different basins, estimate basin water balances, identify possibilities of storages, transfers and links. It has been bringing out reports, but none of them resulted in a project. If you look at the Ninth Plan and the Tenth Plan, they do not mention the river-linking project. In 2002, in the context of drought and inter-State river water disputes, amicus curiae Ranjit Kumar submitted an application to the Supreme Court asking the court to issue directions on the river-linking project. The Supreme Court issued notices to the centre and the states.
The central government filed an affidavit saying it was studying it and that it was a long, difficult process. Among the states, only Tamil Nadu replied. It supported the project because it wanted water from the north. The Supreme Court took the silence of the other state governments as consent. Then the court said: if it is a good idea, why not do it in 10 years? Soon after his retirement as the chief justice of India, Justice [BN] Kirpal stated that it was not a direction but only an observation. Such a post-retirement explanation had no value. In any case, both the Supreme Court and the government have been treating it as a direction.
The then president APJ Abdul Kalam, whose speech advocating the project was quoted by Ranjit Kumar and Justice Kirpal, virtually created the project in 2002. The NDA government saw political advantage in this. Since it was a grand idea, it could go to the electorate saying it would do this. The government engineers hailed the idea because it would be a grand engineering achievement, something big, which they could boast about. Gigantism is one of our obsessions. So, when the Supreme Court issued a direction or observation, the government jumped at it. The then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, set up a task force. That is how this project, which was not seriously under consideration at that stage, originated.
You have referred to the NWDA reports. Could you tell us what these reports say?
Assessment of water balances in various river basins; calculations of how much water there was; how much water was required for various purposes; whether the balance was positive or negative; whether there was a possibility of transfer of water from one place to another; if so, where it would be located, where you could build a dam, or a canal. The reports consider all these technical aspects.
Have these reports also recommended interlinking of rivers?
They could only say these possibilities exist. The reports are preliminary identifications of possibilities. These must be followed by what we call feasibility reports, which establish a prima facie case for a project. If that is reasonably well established, a detailed project report must follow. These must then be examined from the engineering, environmental, economic, social and other points of view. Finally, the Cabinet will take decisions. None of those stages has been reached in any of these projects.
Why were these stages not reached?
Nobody was interested. Some engineers thought it was a very good idea. But that was not the general opinion.
Was the setting up of the NWDA itself not proper because its reports were not taken seriously by those who mattered?
No. The reports were useful, especially the data relating to water balances. Some could say that its calculations were not correct. It was not as if its reports were the final word. They have to be examined. But they provide useful information.
If the data produced by the NWDA are not followed up on, how will they be useful?
They are useful in adding to our knowledge. Unfortunately, they could not be debated because they were not in the public domain at that stage.
Why were they not in the public domain?
That is because of the government of India’s policy. There is an obsession with confidentiality. Otherwise, these things would have been discussed and examined in academic circles. As a result, it remained just an exercise inside the government. None of the NWDA reports were in the public domain till the controversy began in 2002. And very reluctantly, in 2003 or so, some of these preliminary feasibility reports were put in the public domain.
In 2002, some of us submitted a memorandum signed by 58 eminent persons comprising scientists, economists, engineers, sociologists, etc, to the president and the prime minister saying that ILR was a bad idea, and appealing to them to stop it. This material also should have been placed before the court.
When this case was being heard in the Supreme Court, why did you not intervene and bring these concerns to the court's attention?
We ought to have intervened. The failure to do so was unfortunate. But extensive publications took place. There were debates in Economic and Political Weekly about the project. So there was a lot of material in the public domain. Literally, hundreds of articles appeared in 2002 and 2003. I don’t know to what extent the amicus curiae brought these to the attention of the Supreme Court. We thought that whatever was published would be taken note of by the court.
There were also expressions of concern from Nepal and Bangladesh. They said: these are not just your rivers, you can’t make major changes without consulting us. Bangladesh, particularly, held several international conferences.
Then the government changed in New Delhi, and there was a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the new government to go ahead with the project. The Government of India also told Nepal and Bangladesh that India took note of their concerns and would not touch the Himalayan rivers without talking to them.
Can lack of interest on the part of the government be cited as a ground for not going ahead with a project, if it is otherwise useful?
Of course, why not? Lack of interest is an implicit judgement. What do you mean by ‘otherwise useful’? Who is to decide this? If the government does not do something, what does it mean? It means that it does not believe in it. The weak point is that the government is not willing to say this in public. How does the court assume it is a good project? Why do they [the judges] say it is in the national interest? They could have expressed their concern.
They could have said that they gave a direction in 2002. Ten years have passed, but nothing has happened. They could have asked the government to explain this. Instead, the court has asked the government to implement the project and set up a committee to implement it, and authorised the amicus curie to initiate contempt proceedings in case of non-compliance. They said it is the unanimous view of experts that the project is in the national interest. That is completely untrue.
You say that the court was wrong in laying down the manner in which the right to water should be ensured. But the amicus curie has clarified that the right to water is not the issue in the judgement.
I was only examining the possible hypothetical grounds on which the court could legitimately have intervened. It could say that it was concerned about the right to water, or about persistent inter-state disputes. My point was that in either case, while the court could ask the government to do something about the matter, it was not for the court to issue specific directions on what should be done.
During the hearing of the case, the amicus curiae made the curious revelation that Section 2 of the River Board Act, 1956, enables the Centre to take under its control the regulation of inter-State rivers and river valleys.
This was hardly a revelation. Everyone knows this. Entry 56 in the Union List enables the regulation and development of inter-State rivers and river valleys by the union if parliament passes legislation to that effect. Parliament has used that enabling provision only to enact the River Boards Act, 1956. This provides only for advisory boards, but even these have not been established.
The River Boards Act is a dead letter. Not a single river board has been established under the act, essentially because of opposition by the States. Even when the government wanted to declare the Ganga as a national river, and establish a Ganga River Basin Authority, they did not do it under Entry 56 in the Union List. They did it under the Environment Protection Act because that was an easier route. But this doesn’t give them the role that legislation under Entry 56 would have given. We do need some kind of institution, a coordination mechanism, at the basin level, but it is difficult to establish one because the State governments don’t want it.
There is a view that this judgement addresses the irrigation problem, rather than the drinking water crisis.
Irrigation is necessary, but irrigation in this country involves wasteful use of water. Irrigation is a large demander of water, but it does not follow that the demand should be met.
We would be undermining the effort at cooperation, conservation and economy by promising water from outside.
Secondly, a justification for the project is that it will transfer water from flood-prone areas to drought-prone areas. However, when you link one river with another river, you are giving more water to an area already served by rivers. The uplands and drylands of India are far away from the rivers and at varying elevations. This project is not going to benefit these areas. In Rajasthan, Rajendra Singh has shown what can be done locally.
Further, there is a Ganga Waters Treaty between India and Bangladesh. The treaty has a clause that the Government of India will endeavour its best to assure that water flows at the sharing point at Farakka are not reduced. Now, how will you honour that commitment if you divert water from the Ganga?
India must at least point out that this does not violate the treaty and that it can still meet its obligations to Bangladesh.
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