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Home > India > News > Columnists > Himanshu Thakkar

Inter linking rivers worse than 'India shining'

June 06, 2008

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Lal Krishna Advani, the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime minister in waiting, announced at a recent function that if voted to power, the new National Democratic Alliance regime's first priority will be to link all Indian rivers to wipe out water shortages. Advani added, "The NDA had already done a great deal of work regarding linking the rivers and would pursue it much more vigorously, if voted back to power in the forthcoming parliamentary elections in 2009."

Advani probably wanted to achieve two objectives by this statement. Firstly, he wanted to show that his party has a 'well thought out' development agenda. Secondly, he also wanted to show that his party has better credentials to pursue this project, than the current ruling United Progressive Party coalition.

To begin with, inter linking of rivers is neither well thought out plan nor a development plan. It is essentially an extension of the big dam agenda that the Indian water resources establishment has been pursuing since the last 60 years. That agenda is not the best available option and has not been giving any additional benefits for over a decade.

For example, figures from the agriculture ministry show that in the 12 years from 1991-92 to 2003-04, India spent Rs 99,610 crore on major and medium irrigation projects � yet the net irrigated area by irrigation projects dropped by 3.14 million hectares during the period. It is no coincidence that the entire six years of previous NDA rule was part of this period of decline. One of the direct implications of this decline is the stagnancy in India's agriculture sector, leading to many consequences, including farmer suicides and defeat of the NDA government.

In fact the big dams are failing so badly that even the New York Times wrote in its editorial on April 1, "Building large-scale hydroelectric dams is an old-world way of obtaining energy. It is too late in the environmental life of this planet to accept such ecologically destructive energy solutions or the model of unfettered growth they are meant to fuel."

To quote another mainstream source, well known economist and former editor of The Economic Times Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar wrote in his weekly column on May 4, "India must abandon its existing strategy emphasising surface irrigation from huge dams and canals. Instead it should focus on aquifer management". One hopes Advani would listen to these voices, if not those of the increasing numbers of agitating Indians.

But it seems NDA has learnt no lessons from its previous debacle or from the experience of big dams in India. This advocacy of inter linking rivers as top priority also reflects total ignorance of the BJP top brass about the state of India's irrigation sector.

They should know that the real life line of India's irrigation is groundwater, since an overwhelming 35.19 million ha (64.05 percent) out of the total net irrigation area of 54.94 million ha in 2003-04 (the latest year for which these data are available) is irrigated by groundwater. It would be prudent if the first priority is given to sustain that lifeline. One need not be an expert to know that ILR won't serve that purpose, on the contrary ILR is likely to endanger that lifeline. Advani has clearly failed in achieving first of the objective he wanted to achieve with this ILR-first-priority statement.

During the previous NDA regime, the did make a lot of noise about ILR through the good offices of the then President, the prime minister, the home minister, the then Chief Justice of India and the ILR task force chair Suresh Prabhu. But if we look for substance in that sound and fury, we find very little.

In fact, the only MoU on ILR that has been signed so far has happened for the proposed Ken Betwa link during the current UPA's regime in August 2004. The only other ILR project that is rather clandestinely going ahead is the Polavarm Dam on the Godavari basin in Andhra Pradesh (the Union water resources ministry refuses to call it as an ILR project as yet, since the project is going ahead without the consent of the affected states of Orissa and Chhattisgarh), which also envisages transfer of water to the Krishna basin. That project is also going ahead under a Congress government in Andhra Pradesh.

So it seems NDA does not have better credentials to show about ILR than UPA. NDA's "great deal of work" on this that Advani claimed, it seems, did not amount to much beyond a lot of sound and fury. In this competition on ILR that can best be described as a race to the bottom, NDA does not seem to have better credentials that its rival, the UPA. Unfortunately, the voters do not have much to choose between UPA and NDA in this regard. The voters would have to look for, or rather create a third alternative, it seems.

Thus, Advani's announcement is likely to fail to achieve its intended objectives, and seems to be at best an ill advised move. It won't help BJP win any additional votes for sure.

ILR-first-priority proposal would be as bad, if not worse than its failed 'India Shining' advocacy in the last election.

Himanshu Thakkar is Coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People


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