The Wa­ter Tus­sle

Will en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns force the Supreme Court to re­vise its de­ci­sion to in­ter­link all na­tional rivers?

Southasia - - Contents - By Sun­darara­jan Mu­rari Sun­darara­jan Mu­rari is a se­nior In­dian jour­nal­ist who has been cov­er­ing Sri Lanka for the past 25 years. He was as­so­ci­ated with the Ban­ga­lore-based English daily, Deccan Her­ald and re­tired as an as­so­ci­ate edi­tor of the news­pa­per.

An or­der is­sued by the In­dian Supreme Court last Fe­bru­ary to the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia, to im­ple­ment in a time-bound man­ner the in­ter­link­ing of all na­tional rivers start­ing with the Ganges in the Hi­malayas to Cau­very in the south, has re­ceived heated crit­i­cism. Ju­rists say that it is a clear case of ju­di­cial over­reach. Ex­perts ar­gue that it is un­work­able and fi­nan­cially un­vi­able. Environmentalists state that it will be an eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter as mil­lions will be dis­placed and flora and fauna will be en­dan­gered.

Oth­ers won­der why the court, which was not in­clined to in­ter­fere at one stage in the dis­pute be­tween the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka on the shar­ing of the Cau­very wa­ter, has now usurped the power of the ex­ec­u­tive by is­su­ing a di­rec­tive to the Union of In­dia on a much more com­pli­cated ques­tion of the net­work­ing of rivers.

An­a­lysts ar­gue that the court has not looked into the in­ter­na­tional ram­i­fi­ca­tions stem­ming from such a project as In­dia, China, Pak­istan, Bangladesh and Nepal are all ge­o­graph­i­cally in­ter-linked with the river sys­tem.

The apex court alone is not to blame for its ex­tra­or­di­nary judg­ment. It was led by an af­fi­davit by the Union Gov­ern­ment, when a writ pe­ti­tion was filed in 2002. In its af­fi­davit, the Cen­tre told the court that the net­work­ing of rivers had been con­sid­ered with great se­ri­ous­ness af­ter the then Union Wa­ter Re­sources Min­is­ter pro­posed the link­ing of the Ganga and the Cau­very in 1972. The re­port was con­se­quently given a quiet burial as the Na­tional Wa­ter De­vel­op­ment Agency termed it as un­work­able.

The NWDA said that the Rao pro­posal en­vis­aged a 2,640 km-long Ganga-Cau­very link as its main com­po­nent and in­volved large-scale pump­ing of 550 me­ters that would re­quire 5,000 to 7,000 MW. Even if such a link was es­tab­lished at such a cost, it would ir­ri­gate only an ad­di­tional four mil­lion hectares. The scheme also did not in­clude any flood con­trol mea­sures. The

Cen­tral Wa­ter Com­mis­sion found the pro­posal to be grossly un­der­es­ti­mated and eco­nom­i­cally pro­hib­i­tive.

In 1977, Capt. Das­tur pro­posed the con­struc­tion of two canals – the first, a 4,200 km Hi­malayan Canal at the foot of the Hi­malayan slopes run­ning from the Ravi in the west to the Brahma­pu­tra and be­yond in the east, and the sec­ond, a 9,300 km-Gar­land Canal cov­er­ing the cen­tral and south­ern parts. Both the canals would be in­te­grated with nu­mer­ous lakes and in­ter­con­nected with pipe­lines at two points, Delhi and Patna. The pro­posal was then ex­am­ined by two com­mit­tees of ex­perts who con­cluded that it was tech­ni­cally un­fea­si­ble.

De­spite such re­ports, a writ pe­ti­tion was filed in the Supreme Court in 2002 af­ter Pres­i­dent Ab­dul Kalam spoke in fa­vor of the net­work­ing of rivers to ad­dress the re­cur­ring prob­lem of floods in one re­gion and drought in an­other. The Supreme Court recorded that the Na­tional Wa­ter De­vel­op­ment Agency had said in May 2000 that penin­su­lar rivers could be linked by 2035 and the Hi­malayan rivers by 2043. The Court frowned upon such a long de­lay and said the project should be com­pleted in the next few years. That was in 2002.

The Supreme Court took an­other ten years to firm its po­si­tion fol­low­ing the Na­tional Coun­cil of Ap­plied Eco­nomic Re­search re­port of 2008 that ar­gued that the project would yield higher re­turns from agri­cul­ture, would con­trol floods, pro­vide wa­ter to drought-prone states, en­sure safe drink­ing wa­ter to peo­ple and even help with power gen­er­a­tion. Re­ly­ing solely on this one re­port, the bench on Feb 27 “di­rected” the Cen­tre to con­sti­tute a “spe­cial com­mit­tee.” It said that the com­mit­tee should sub­mit a bi-an­nual re­port to the Union Cabi­net that would then con­sider the re­port and take de­ci­sions.

Crit­ics have ar­gued that the court’s ref­er­ence to “the unan­i­mous view of all ex­perts” that the project is “in the na­tional in­ter­est” is patently un­true, be­cause there is a sub­stan­tial body of ex­pert opin­ion that is highly crit­i­cal of the project. Such a se­ri­ous er­ror would not have oc­curred if there had been con­sul­ta­tions with schol­ars of var­i­ous dis­ci­plines. The Court fails to take note of, or treats lightly, the strong dis­sent on the part of sev­eral State Gov­ern­ments.

In a joint state­ment, 60 prom­i­nent ci­ti­zens re­quested the Supreme Court to re­con­sider as “the judg­ment gives cat­e­gor­i­cal di­rec­tions to the Gov­ern­ment on a mat­ter which is clearly in the ex­ec­u­tive do­main, namely the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a par­tic­u­lar project.” By declar­ing the project to be in the na­tional in­ter­est, the court not only an­tic­i­pates the re­sult of the ex­am­i­na­tion but also makes it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies and Min­istries to un­der­take an ob­jec­tive ex­am­i­na­tion.

The project it­self is flawed. In­stead of start­ing from the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the needs of wa­ter-scarce ar­eas and find­ing area-spe­cific an­swers, the project starts by look­ing at a map of In­dia, de­cides a pri­ori that the rivers of In­dia can and should be linked, and then pro­ceeds to con­sider the modal­i­ties of do­ing so. “This is a reck­less and ma­jor re­design­ing of the ge­og­ra­phy of the coun­try,” prom­i­nent ci­ti­zens have said. Point­ing out that “rivers are not pipe­lines” they ar­gue that “the grand de­sign con­sist­ing of 30 projects in­volv­ing up­wards of 80 dams is bound to have ma­jor en­vi­ron­men­tal/eco­log­i­cal con­se­quences.”

“The idea of trans­fer­ring flood wa­ters to arid or drought-prone ar­eas is flawed be­cause there will be hardly any flood-mod­er­a­tion and this project will be of no use at all to dry­lands and up­lands of the coun­try.” The idea of trans­fer­ring wa­ter from sur­plus to deficit basins is equally flawed be- cause the very no­tions of ‘sur­plus’ and ‘deficit’ are highly prob­lem­atic. The idea of a ‘sur­plus’ river ig­nores the mul­ti­ple pur­poses that it serves as it flows and joins the sea. The no­tion of a ‘deficit’ river is based on ‘de­mands’ on its wa­ters de­rived from waste­ful uses of wa­ter.

Em­i­nent ju­rist and former Supreme Court judge, V. R. Kr­ishna Iyer has also said that the mat­ter is more tech­ni­cal and judges can­not de­cide on the course of rivers, whether they should be linked or not, and if at all, how they should be linked. A mat­ter of such ca­pac­ity can have ad­verse ge­o­graph­i­cal and po­lit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions and a na­tional de­bate in­volv­ing, es­pe­cially river engi­neers, is es­sen­tial be­fore a project such as this can be un­der­taken. The project also en­tails re­gional di­men­sions. Both Nepal and Bangladesh have al­ready ex­pressed se­ri­ous ap­pre­hen­sions.

Re­gard­less of the Supreme Court’s diktat, the project can­not take off with­out the con­sent of nu­mer­ous States, all of which have stakes in the project. The judg­ment it­self ad­mits that Karnataka, Bi­har, Pun­jab, As­sam and Sikkim have given a kind of “qual­i­fied ap­proval” with def­i­nite reser­va­tions with re­gard to en­vi­ron­men­tal and fi­nan­cial im­pli­ca­tions, and so­cioe­co­nomic and in­ter­na­tional as­pects. As­sam, Sikkim and Ker­ala have said that they should have the ex­clu­sive right to use their wa­ter re­sources and that such a trans­fer should not af­fect their rights.

With geopol­i­tics at play and do­mes­tic con­cerns el­e­vat­ing, it will take a long time for the project to take a con­crete shape, if at all.

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