Saturday, November 06, 2010

Thoughts on the river linking project

When we embraced liberalization in the early 90s we unleashed the collective potential of a billion people. Suddenly, the middle class bulged and we could tangibly feel the quality of our lives improve. We had a realistic chance to materialize any dream no matter how crazy it sounded ( IIPM, for instance). As an offshoot that kind of atmosphere also germinated hubris. There was a belief that no scheme, however outrageous, was impossible.

In such a backdrop a curious solution that has long been touted to solve both our drought and flood issues has gathered new support and grown into a noisy chorus. The contention is this: north India experiences floods and the south faces droughts. Why not link up the river systems so that the water is distributed equally?

I have my reasons for being unequivocally against the idea. River systems and the ecology have co-evolved over millions of years and I'm not confident that we understand enough about them to perform large scale geo-engineering. To take an example, I'm not sure we know enough to predict what will happen to the spawning cycles of goonch or the migration patterns of the gangetic dolphins. Or take the deltas downriver which are in a delicate equilibrium; the river deposits silt and the sea erodes it. How will that change if we go around altering the course of the rivers? Moreover, the northern plains are lower than plateaus down south. It won't be as simple as drinking the last bit of soup; tilt the bowl and make the liquid go where you want it to. Enormous power and numerous big dams will be required to raise the water up over the Vindhyas, Satpuras or the Aravalli. Is it worth it? There will also be that trivial issue of dealing with a few million people being displaced.

But this post is not to discuss the merits of the plan as much as about what I think will be done about the plan. What I've observed is that most people are impressed by the deceptive simplicity of linking rivers. "Why haven't we linked them yet?" they ask, apparently convinced of the unmistakable logic. That argument from personal incredulity suggests a growing consensus and also that the time is ripe for our leaders to make some populist purchase (and make loads of money in the process too) by embarking on the project. Most of our politicians must be itching to cash in on the opportunity. That's why I'm so glad our Environment minister is not a regular politician.

The Environment Ministry has traditionally been a fringe portfolio in most of our governments and is often perceived as a nuisance, a detriment to our dream of joining the first world elite. It must be hard to stand up for the environment when the majority religion among your constituency is Development. Everybody is judging the minister, Jairam Ramesh, to make sure he doesn't slow down our 8% pa sprint. But, repeatedly, the minister has shown that he can stave off that pressure. He has demonstrated that in various issues such as the Gundya Power project, Navi Mumbai airport, Bt Brinjal issue, putting pressure on China, Vedanta projects etc . More than anything I like the way he has shown the river linking proposal the disdain I think it deserves. Through it all, he's encouraged a level of transparency heretofore unseen in an Indian Ministry. I have to agree with my friend, K, when he says that Mr.Ramesh is probably the best environment minister we've had. What's also encouraging is that it took the architect of our economic liberalization, Dr.Singh, to give the environment ministry the importance it needs. It's heartening that the PM understands the need for that counter-weight while being focused on economic growth. Kudos to them both. And leave the rivers alone!
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