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Of dreams and pipe-dreams - I
June 13, 2003
Three weeks ago, I attended an informal lecture in the Washington DC area by Sockalingam Kannappan, the Texas engineer widely reported to be spearheading NRI participation in the effort to interlink the major rivers of India. Mr Kannappan was in presence at the invitation of a local Tamil organisation; in a semi-cultural atmosphere there was considerable time to listen to him advocate the interlinking project, and to ask several questions. Among others in the audience was the technocrat Dr S Kalyanaraman, a former executive of the Asian Development Bank whose more recent advocacy has focused on reviving the mythical Saraswati river and cleaning up the Coovam, Chennai's infamous river of sewage.
Mr Kannappan is, by his own plain admission, new to the business of linking rivers, and his straightforward presentation reflected this. People in Indian cities are desperate for water security; in some places water costs more than milk; it rains a lot more than necessary in some regions and not enough in others; much of the rain in the western ghats simply vanishes into the Arabian Sea without being put to any significant use. Interlinked rivers merely connect these dots with pipes and canals that stretch from the places with the greatest abundance to the places with the greatest need, pardon my Marx.
And so we get to 30 links, 14 in the Himalayan component, and 16 in peninsular India. Along with water, we would reap an enormous bounty in hydroelectric power as well from these links. Pre-feasibility reports on all of these have been compiled, and in six cases, even feasibility reports are now available. Yes, there are obstacles. Gravity isn't a great friend to those who would divert rivers over hills, and politicians in various states are even less friendly to poaching of 'their' water by other states. But these, Mr Kannappan insisted, could be overcome. Indeed, they must be overcome, for India's water security -- and accompanying hopes of prosperity -- depend on this critical development. Other nations have made similar efforts, even if not on this scale, and we must learn from their successes.
As for himself, he claimed no skill at judging the scientific merit of the task, or its financial and other costs; those he would leave to others. He wasn't unmindful of the social damages, but he skipped over them quickly. Sub-committees for Finance, Management, and the Acquisition and Control of Forest land have been created and their heads identified. A fourth committee head would also be appointed to serve Displaced Persons, but this individual was yet to be named. Some in the audience winced at this familiar pattern, but Mr Kannappan did not seem troubled by it. He insisted that the money for all displacement costs would be included in the planning stages itself.
In sum, then, he merely saw himself as cheerleader for a purpose whose time has come. Unvarnished by personal interest or political scheming, he would simply argue the case for water security. He had witnessed the people's despair at water shortages, and resolved that India's destiny cannot be throttled by years without this elementary security. The more he could bring citizens and friends of India to accept the wisdom of this project, the better, and that was all it would be. A friend in the audience later told me "he really has a good heart. He's the sort of man to whom God would have appeared in his dream to say 'Kannappan, this you must do'."
Perhaps. But the costs are real enough, and any meaningful defence of the project must address these. Since Mr Kannappan wasn't offering any, it was just as well that an ally was available. Taking his cue from the speaker, Dr Kalayanaraman stepped up to join him at the front of the room.
One doesn't last decades as a bureaucrat without cultivating the appearance of assurance, and the former ADB executive didn't disappoint. Unfortunately, he also left many in the audience feeling a little uneasy. The money was no object, he said, pointing out that spread over many years the costs were small in comparison to the government's annual expenditure. He was enthusiastic about Mr Suresh Prabhu's helmsmanship of the whole affair -- the former Cabinet minister is the chairman of the task force created to oversee the project -- and seemed unmindful that the Shiv Sainik might not survive another 18 months of favour in New Delhi. "Mr Prabhu is a man of integrity, a Saraswat," he said pointedly, equating the two comfortably; political correctness hasn't reached this old-school patriot yet.
As for the many Adivasis and others who would be displaced by the grand scheme, Dr Kalyanaraman believed 'some would have to pay a price so that many might gain'. A mixture of outrage and anger greeted this assertion, and even those inclined to support the scheme were a little aghast. He changed tack swiftly; "there won't be many displaced, maybe a few hundred thousand at most." A few hundred thousand lives. How easily one imagines their dispossession from all they have ever known.
Questions were plentiful, and often suggested a great divide between enthusiasts and skeptics among the listeners. Those who have closely followed the travails in the Narmada valley or in Tehri aren't as readily accepting of the government's good intentions. They have seen promises broken, governments that lie in court without fear of judicial censure, and endured physical and mental harassment. A few others in the room had worked on large projects themselves, mostly as engineers, I believe; a couple of them nodded regularly in agreement with the speakers.
My own questions were limited to two. First, given the history of infrastructure projects in India -- the enormous displacement costs usually borne by the poor, the unfulfilled promises of compensation to the dispossessed, the incomplete planning, cost overruns, etc. -- why must we believe that this program, greatly larger than anything else built by the nation, will not be similarly egregious? After all, if we are to learn from the technical expertise and socio-economic experiences of faraway nations, shouldn't we also be learning from some examples of our own?
To this, Mr Kannappan's answer was perplexing. In his view the combination of political leadership we now have -- Mr Vajpayee's backing, Mr Kalam's endorsement, and Mr Suresh Prabhu's skills as chairman of the task force heading the project -- along with the personal integrity of these individuals is a compelling reason to think this project will not repeat the gross injustices of past programs. To my reasoning, though, that seems a powerful argument against the project; a $120 billion program linked closely to the political fortunes of a party that has won 1 of the last 10 state elections seems a stretch, especially considering the years -- possibly decades -- it will take to bring this to completion.
A noticeable thread in Mr Kannappan's portrayal is that NRIs can actively support this process, and some in the audience were keen to understand how. To this, he responded first that high-resolution satellite topographic data that would be necessary to create Geographic Information Systems could be obtained from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and that the Indian community's efforts at securing this would be invaluable. This prompted my other question, a professional curiosity. Who, in particular, is engaged in such science? Perhaps I can speak with such persons at NASA and sate my interest in the GIS applications of remote sensing technologies.
Mr Kannappan didn't know the answer right away, but in any event it seems unlikely that identifying such persons would constitute 'NRI involvement.' After all, much of this data is archived on various Internet servers, and is quite freely available, and even if some assistance were required in obtaining these, that would require no more than a few individuals. Surely, his interest in promoting this in the NRI community extended beyond such a minor matter?
Here, we arrived at a point of divergence between Mr Kannappan and Dr Kalyanaraman. The good technocrat is of the old school, that still believes in a self-assured India that can design and implement schemes borne of the grandest imagination. He is confident that every skill needed for the job is easily found within India. Even the cost -- $120 billion -- isn't a significant strain on the treasury, and perhaps some of the money will be found in private industry. Mr Kannappan seemed less certain of India's self-reliance, and shook his head repeatedly. I wondered if the pipeline engineer in him sensed an economic opportunity in the form of construction contracts. Perhaps not. Perhaps he sought only to build a constituency for the project in this country.
There was one last question for Dr Kalyanaraman. Perhaps because he presented himself as a believer while Sam Kannappan was more the preacher, one sensed that he would be more sensitive to the concerns raised. "Do you not see, Dr Kalyanaraman, that the political process will simply accept your endorsement while the arguments focus on whether this scheme is necessary, but will simply abandon your ideas once it is underway?" The technocrat himself is wary of this possibility, perhaps from experience, but not deterred. "Civil society groups must ensure that construction contracts are left to companies, but actual water management is the responsibility of local communities themselves," he offered hopefully. By his normally forceful standards, he sounded feeble; his faith in the likelihood of that outcome appeared shaky.
A little more than a week after the evening with Sam Kannappan, I encountered an entirely different vision of water security, this time in the voice of Nafisaben Barot.