In spite of our government's repeated failure and dishonesty when it has come to major water and power projects in India, I actually considered accepting Sam Kannappan's assurance that the current leadership of President Abdul Kalam and Suresh Prabhu [till recently, chairman of the Task Force on Interlinking of Rivers] would make things vastly different. But then I dug a little into the chronology of announcements and statements made in 2003 by the task force and other prominent proponents of interlinking of rivers. How utterly evident it became that it was the same story of dishonesty and broken promises all over again!
Consensus among states?
Prabhu said at the national conference on river linking organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry held in New Delhi on March 5, 2003, 'The chief ministers of several states have given green signal for the project.' On May 6, he declared that there was 'no opposition to the national river linking project from any quarters.'
But the fact is that so far, Kerala, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, and Goa have opposed the river-linking proposition. Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, and Maharashtra have only given a conditional agreement: that is, they have agreed to links where they would receive water but are opposed to those links where they would donate the water! Only Haryana and Tamil Nadu have unconditionally supported the proposal, but they will be only receiving water from outside.
On October 31, 2003, Tamil Nadu was the only state that responded to the apex court agreeing to the court obiter dictum to link Indian rivers. The court ruled that in the absence of affidavits from other states, 'the presumption clearly is that they do not oppose the prayer made in this writ petition and it must be regarded that there is a consensus amongst all of them that there should be inter-linking of rivers in India.' But the very order that presumed an all-India consensus went on to say that the task force would 'go into the modalities for bringing consensus among the states.'
Environmental Impact Assessment
On May 6, 2003, Suresh Prabhu announced through the newspapers, 'River-linking project to start by 2004.' In an interview to the Hindustan Times on August 9, 2003, he said, 'Each of these projects will have an environmental impact study. If any or all of these projects are found to be adversely affecting the environment, we will not go ahead with it.'
The same month, the following news item appeared in some newspapers: 'Prabhu sought to allay the fears of the critics by saying that the river link scheme was only a proposal at this stage, not a project. He also promised to form a standing committee of non-governmental organisations whose views would be taken into account before going ahead.'
Three months after officially declaring that the project was going to be launched, our government was promising us that it was 'still a proposal, not a project.'
The task force has announced that pre-feasibility studies have been completed for all 30 links and feasibility studies for eight links. In spite of repeated requests from the civil society, which includes academics and scientists in this case, the task force has not published a single report for scrutiny. When asked in an interview with the Hindustan Times on June 30 on why the NWDA [National Water Development Agency] project reports are available to the public, Prabhu replied, 'The reports are highly technical and will not be of interest to the public at large.'
How much louder and clearer should the 'public at large' make the point that they are indeed of interest to them?
With regard to the initial projected cost of Rs 5.6 lakh crores [Rs 560,000 crores or Rs 5,600 billion], Prabhu said at the FICCI conference on March 5, 'We are in the process of doing a fresh cost assessment and expect the final amount to be lower.' On September 9, 2003, in the Action Plan-II submitted to the government the task force said that the cost of inter-linking rivers would be much higher than the estimated Rs 5.6 lakh crores. It said the initial estimate of Rs 5.6 lakh crores by the NWDA under the water resources ministry did not envisage yearly inflation, inclusion of state governments in their programmes of implementation, and costs relating to ecology, environment, wildlife, and the resettlement and rehabilitation of displaced people.
If so many factors were not taken into consideration while estimating costs, what then did the task force factor in? How was the initial estimate arrived at?
The Par-Tapi-Narmada-Link page of the task force web site www.riverlinks.nic.in claims: 'Provisions have been made to resettle the affected persons by providing them with attractive packages. Provision has also been made for compensatory afforestation.' How could the Indian government have made these provisions even before estimating the costs or even setting up committees for them?
While speaking at the national conference organised by FICCI on March 5, 2003, Suresh Prabhu said, 'Some people are spreading baseless estimates. Our estimate says only 450,000 people will be displaced.' The Task Force web site states that for just the 16 peninsular links, 498,241 would be displaced.
What about those displaced by the remaining 14 Himalayan links?
On March 26, 2003, Minister Arjun Charan Sethi at the 19th annual general meeting of NWDA Society in Delhi said, 'We will complete feasibility studies of all links by 2005, detailed project reports by 2006, and implementations of the projects by 2016.' On March 28, 2003, at a Confederation of Indian Industry conference, Prabhu said, 'Though the Supreme Court has laid down a timeframe of 12 to 14 years (by 2016)
When asked by the Hindustan Times how the completion date could have been assigned if the studies were incomplete, Prabhu replied, 'We have not given the date. It has been given to us. We will see how the project goes. Each potential link has an initial study, followed by field surveys, feasibility reports and then detailed project reports before the project is finally selected.'
On November 11, the New Indian Express reported that the 'court had asked the government to link the rivers by the year 2012 pursuant to which the government constituted the task force which after working out the time schedule had informed the court that it was possible to get major rivers interlinked by the year 2016.'
What happened to the timeline that was announced just 10 months ago? Did the task force give the completion date to the Supreme Court, or was it the other way around? How can the project be announced when the feasibility studies are not completed yet?
Discussions with neighbours
When FICCI suggested including diplomats from Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan, as well as Indian state level political leaders at the conference organised by them on March 5, 2003, in New Delhi, the government dismissed it saying 'this can be done later.' At the conference, Prabhu said, 'We are in regular discussion with Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha is taking up the issues with his counterparts in these countries. It's a project from which they will gain in a major way. It's like a healthy marriage: neither the husband nor the wife will claim that only one of them have benefited from the relationship.'
After four months, on July 29, 2003, The Kathmandu Post carried a news item which read, 'Despite claims from Indian officials that Nepal has already been consulted about its huge river-linking project, senior Nepali officials deny any official contact from the Indian government.'
Bangladesh Water Resources Minister Hafizuddin Ahmed said, 'India has not officially informed Bangladesh of the plan.' An official in the ministry of foreign affairs said, 'There's been no question of a consultation. Such a project can only have disastrous consequences for us.'
Under the India-Bangladesh Treaty of December 1996 on the sharing of Ganga waters, India had undertaken to protect the flows at Farakka, which is the sharing point. With India flouting the treaty, and both Nepal and Bangladesh being vehemently opposed to the project, one wonders what Prabhu's idea of a 'healthy marriage' is!
When the citizens of Bangladesh came together to say in one loud voice that they were unhappy, the Indian government called it an 'immature response.' A few months later, when the Chinese government announced a similar plan to divert the waters of the Brahmaputra before reaching India, the Indian government opposed the move saying, 'This is not fair.'
How does one rule apply to Bangladesh and another to India? And we haven't even signed a treaty with China!
Civil society involvement
Apart from the Standing Committee of NGOs that was promised to `be formed by the Task Force, Prabhu announced at the conference 'Reforms for Competitiveness: The Next Generation' organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry, Karnataka branch, on March 28, 2003, that the 'task force will also distribute booklets and pamphlets in regional languages for feedback from various sections of people involving panchayats [local councils], trade unions, and NGOs.' Nothing has happened so far.
The water resources ministry, through its web site says, 'In addition to the above members of the Task Force, part-time members will also be nominated as under: a member from water-deficit states, a person from water-surplus states, an economist, a sociologist; and a legal/world wildlife expert.'
Would 'part-time' sociologist and wildlife expert be adequate for a national project of this nature, which is expected to displace more than a million people and submerge thousands of hectares forests (some reserve forests)?
Radha Singh, director general of the National Water Development Agency, in her article that appeared on May 10, 2003, in the Economic and Political Weekly, wrote, 'It is presumptuous to assume that planners would roll through a programme without adherence to the established procedures of technical, financial, environmental and social clearances.'
But then, Ms Singh and Mr Prabhu have the right to remain silent.
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