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The Rediff Special/Subir Roy in Bangalore
Rise to meet the water challenge
July 28, 2004
Drought persists in parts of the country and a spectre of monsoon failure looms over it, even as floods wreak havoc in the north-east and Bihar, killing nearly 400 people.
Karnataka refuses to release Krishna waters to Andhra Pradesh even as the former's reservoirs approach full capacity. For, the dams' safety, water will likely be released soon but, it seems, not a drop before that as a gesture of good neighbourliness.
Punjab passes a law terminating water-sharing agreements going back more than 20 years with neighbouring Haryana and Rajasthan.
The country is faced with a full-blown crisis over water, even as prospects of population growth, greater food needs, higher income, climate change, and environmental degradation are likely to worsen the problem.
It needs emphasising that there is a crisis in both water-scarce and abundant areas. Plus manifestations of progress like urbanisation and greater pollution, in the absence of systems to handle increasing waste, will make things worse.
What is the political response to this? The prime minister has asked the water resources ministry to constitute a task force to determine why there are recurring floods. Some sensible administrative action can be expected reasonably fast, but this will be essentially short-term.
A slightly longer-term approach is available in the Union Budget, which has proposed five pilot projects in different regions to start restoring water bodies, thus going back to traditional remedies after their decline during half a century of pursuing PWD and engineering-led solutions like dams, canals, and embankments.
A national water resources development programme is envisaged over the next 7-10 years to restore all existing water bodies and raise storage capacity by 100 per cent.
Funds will not be a constraint, says the finance minister. But who will get the job done? State governments, of course.
But going by the happenings in Punjab and Karnataka, on the one hand, and Haryana, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, on the other, ruling dispensations in the states are more likely to let militant farmers set the agenda, leaving themselves little space to campaign for sensible things like change in cropping patterns, away from water guzzlers like paddy and sugarcane.
The ideal agencies to revive the water bodies are the gram panchayats, which have to think proactively and must be funded promptly, but state governments and even local MLAs are loath to see them get more independent.
A truly long-term agenda -- linking rivers -- was adopted and pushed by the NDA government with encouragement from the President. But, as with most grand ideas, it has failed to take off, a formal burial becoming inevitable with the dethroning of the main sponsors. But it need not be so. The idea has not really been tried out where it can actually work.
The otherwise sensible move to concentrate first on what is doable within the country has ended with water-surplus states saying they don't want to share their water. The argument has been further weakened with the cost-benefit analysis yielding little perceived surplus.
River linking can most help the peninsular region, but the north-south link requires lifting water by over a thousand feet. This being hugely costly, the task force headed by Suresh Prabhu decided to pursue the linking sans the north-south link, thus weakening the whole case for linking.
But the argument would have looked entirely different if its focus had been on where it can really work -- by seeing how the excess waters of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna basins, which cause such regular havoc in India and Bangladesh, can be shared and gainfully used.
This requires cooperation between India, on the one hand, and Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, on the other.
Bangladesh has taken the lead in voicing its anxieties over the river-linking discussions in India when almost anything done in the north of the sub-continent will affect Bangladesh.
The Koshi, which used to be called the sorrow of Bihar, is now called the sorrow of Nepal, courtesy a dam there. The Padma-Meghna rivers system has been called kirtinasha (destroyer) to capture the havoc caused year after year.
A new beginning can be made by approaching the river-linking idea in a positive way, by bringing in India's neighbours right from the beginning. A UN agency can also be roped in to facilitate the process and raise the comfort level of India's neighbours.
This approach begins from the premise that a rational person will look at any idea that promises him something. If Nepal and Bhutan help stop floods in India and allow it to access water in regulated doses round the year, they deserve a good financial transfer in return.
A big financial gain from cooperating with India in water management can change Nepal's fiscal situation. This can enable its government to fight poverty better and strike at the roots of Maoism.
As for Bangladesh, it should love to avoid its yearly floods but baulks at the social cost of a canal running through it to join the Ganga with the Brahmaputra. It only makes sense for Bangladesh to participate in such a river-management project if it means an end to floods, water when and where it needs it, and recovering some of the water deficit perceived to have been created by the Farakka barrage.
Even the best conceivable cooperation among the four countries will not answer one issue: Will large dams and long canals, inevitable in storing and channeling the excess monsoon waters of the region, do more harm than good? Nobody has an appropriate answer to this. But if you pay great heed to rehabilitation, or have several smaller dams instead of a few big ones, then maybe it makes sense.
One way to limit the downside is to make public participation and discussion, through public hearings and other means, an integral part of the process all along the way.
All this may not work, but it might. How else do you solve the dilemma of having to fight floods and droughts in different parts of the country at the same time? It is all too easy to say: India's neighbours will not cooperate, they are too possessed with reservations over the regional Big Brother.
But it is time we perpetuated Vajpayee's spirit of undertaking the Lahore bus yatra and made another new beginning with our neighbours, this time over water.