Rivers of Politics
S Madhusudhana Rao
Like individuals, every country and its leaders dream big. But fulfilling mega dreams is not an easy task. For, it involves enormous resources and mobilization of funds over a long period. Nevertheless, from ancient to modern times, humans have gone to any length to realize their visions without which pyramids could not have been built and man couldn’t have landed on the Moon.
Technological advances and scientific breakthroughs have proved that nothing is impossible to achieve if there is a will. If it is lacking, no progress is possible and dreams remain pipe-dreams. One of the mega proposals, call it a pet scheme or a dream project, in post-independent India is the Garland Canal or inter-linking of rivers from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
When we look at the country’s river map, it is clear how fortunate we are to have so many rivers and their tributaries flowing from east to west and north to south. Since they are all rain-fed except the Himalayan Rivers, they flood in the monsoon and dry up in the summer, causing immense hardships to the people in both the seasons. In other words, we have excess water for some months and no water – not even for drinking – for some months. How to correct the imbalance and make water available to all the regions across the country throughout the year is a challenge.
It was first addressed by the British and the renowned British engineer Sir Arthur Cotton, who is remembered in Andhra Pradesh even today for his pioneering coastal canal system and the railway bridge at Rajahmundry, in 1834. But the proposal had not gone beyond the conceptual stage until the legendary civil engineer Dr KL Rao, who was irrigation minister under Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, revived the idea in the 1960s-70s.
His proposal to link northern and southern rivers to augment resources through a series of canals, tunnels and reservoirs had generated more heat on the huge cost involved and the scheme’s impracticability than its usefulness and long-term benefits to the entire country.
The plan, though discussed off and on in the media, had been lying dormant until APJ Abdul Kalam resurrected it in 2002 when he was the President and Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. The duo had seriously toyed with the idea but the Supreme Court acted on it by giving a suo motu notice to the Central government.
The NDA government took the first step by setting up a task force to conduct feasibility studies and the panel continued the work until the UPA government came to power in 2004. Thereafter, nothing much happened and whenever the issue was raised, there were more people, including experts, to shoot down the proposal than those who sought a comprehensive scientific study.
Experts, from the very beginning, have been divided over the plan’s feasibility. Now, with cost escalation, nobody dares to calculate the project cost that would run into billions of rupees which is a dampener to any government. More than the cost and the long time-frame, the project idea is getting dammed by the States and different political parties to protect their own local interests.
Raising the bogey of “an unworkable” idea and resource crunch, states have been opposing it. But in reality, political leaders fear that they lose their clout among farmers if river waters turn into a national resource and a single authority starts administering it. Which means it is water politics that play a key role in execution and implementation of the project. The BJP government dreams of the multi-purpose grand river-linking plan but it hasn’t done anything in that direction. Whenever and wherever possible, if the states had worked towards linking rivers, probably, we would have averted water crisis of alarming proportions.