Riparian unilateralism

New Delhi has an extravagant vision. 56 million tones of cement, 2 million tones of steel, 32 dams, and 30 canals, spread over 9, 600 kilometres linking 37 rivers will deliver 17.3 billion cubic metres of water to irrigate 34 million hectares of land and supply water to 101 districts and five metros. 40 million man-years of employment will be created for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers. GDP growth will increase by 4 percent. And food grain production will go up from 212 million tones per year to 450 millions in the next 20 years.

Does New Delhi have the circumspection to keep from pursuing this extravagance? Past experience does not inspire confidence. In that case, does New Delhi have the acumen to create a consensus in favour of its extravagance? The rumbling protests from the states do not seem to suggest so. And if, despite all the opposition, New Delhi lacks the prudence to desist from the extravagance, does it at least have the scruple to distribute the costs, colossal as it will be, in proportion to the benefits, such as they are. There is nothing in the historical evidence to support this view.

In Assam, a state where grievances against the Centre have given rise in the past to a sustained mass agitation first and eventually militancy, the issue has raised hackles. The Brahmaputra, one of the rivers the centre has unilaterally, and in the national interest, decided to relieve off its load of 'excess' water, is a river bisecting the state. But the river is also something more than just that; it holds deep emotional and symbolic significance for the people of the state. Consequently, the Government of India will have a difficult task on hand to persuade a sceptical public to let it have its way.

New Delhi's concern for Assam's misfortunes is both recent and suspicious. True, the monsoon floods of the Brahmaputra have created havoc in the valley, inundating large areas of the arable land, washing away houses and damaging property worth crores of rupees over the years. Yet, until now, the state's demand, periodically reiterated, to declare the flood problem in Assam a national one, has never been given due importance. Central assistance for flood relief has also been consistently and grossly inadequate. But now, in the alleged attempt to mitigate the misery of drought-prone people on other parts of the country, the centre has suddenly remembered that Assam's floods constitute surplus water.

Given the possibility that transferring water via West Bengal could well aggravate the already existing flood problem in that state, it will be difficult for Assam to be persuaded that New Delhi is seriously concerned about floods. Even the promise of corollary benefits, like the increased availability of power is unlikely to produce the required groundswell of support for the project. Among the litany of benefits being advertised by the centre's Task Force on River Linking is the projected 34, 000 Mw of cheap and clean power that will be generated, which it is claimed will help facilitate industrial development in the country. Some of this power, it is argued, will help ease the power crisis in Assam. Funnily enough, until now the centre has never been unduly bothered about improving the power situation in the state, even after the establishment of the National Power Grid. As with the floods, so with power—Assam's needs, long unfulfilled, have found an unexpected solution, only on the condition that the Brahmaputra's waters are made available for some distant purpose identified by the water mandarins in New Delhi. Not a word has been uttered about the long-standing demand to expand electrification in rural Assam.

Meanwhile, while they peddle the virtues of the river linking project, its proponents are disturbingly silent about the obvious hurdles that stand in the way. There is the thorny issue of inter-state water sharing principles that will have to be evolved. The Indian Centre has an abysmally poor record on this count. Is there any guarantee that a state that has suffered from New Delhi's indifference in the past will be able to get a good deal out of the proposed transfer of water? Then there is the perennially unresolved question of rehabilitation. In the absence of any concrete scheme for the rehabilitation of people displaced by all the engineering activity envisaged on the Brahmaputra, there is unlikely to be an excess of enthusiasm for the project.

Overall, New Delhi's biggest problem is its lack of credibility. History since independence is littered with the broken pledges and promises of the federal government. There are many examples to cite. The Kosi project in Bihar was started in 1955, but the land for the resettlement of as many as 372 displaced villages has yet to be acquired. In the case of the Mahananda and Bagmati embankments of the 1970s, hundreds of villages received only 'shifting allowances' for their houses, which amounted to a paltry figure of between INR 250 and 500 per household. The pathetic story of the victims of the Kamla embankment is also well known. They were not even told where the rehabilitation office of the project was located. Under the circumstances, the florid assurances of the river linking project's spin managers are unlikely to wash with a sceptical Assamese public.

It is reassuring that those who run the country from New Delhi are keen to solve the problem of acute water shortage. At least someone seems to be engaged with the problem. But the plan and policies that form part of the so-called solution are not exactly transparent. For instance, there has been no public disclosure yet on the contour data or the points from where the Brahmaputra's water will be diverted in Assam. This link is supposed to send the Brahmaputra to the Mahanadi through the Ganga over a 9000 kilometre maze of 30 canals, and there is still not a single map on the horizon. But all these are finally only procedural questions that concern the functioning of the bureaucracy. There has been no mention of the ecological problems that the project portends. There are ample examples of rivers diverted through canals which led to the drying up of stretches of the affected rivers.

But even if the water bureaucracy is not endowed with enough foresight to visualise such deleterious consequences, surely there must be at least some among them who would have been struck by the international ramifications of riparian unilateralism and the reference here is not to Bhutan, Nepal or Bangladesh. The first question to ask regarding diverting the Brahmaputra is, "who controls the flow of the Brahmaputra in its Tibetan segment? It is the People's Republic to the north. China with its propensity for big water projects has already planned to pump out yearly 48 trillion litres of water from the Yangtse river along its 800 mile course to draught stricken northern China. The Brahmaputra, known as Tsang-Po in its first 700 miles, is on the northern slope of the Himalaya. Who is to guarantee that tomorrow China will not go in for a mega project to divert the upstream Tsang-Po for its own ends if New Delhi is so confident about its own abilities south of the Himalaya. A little humility is all it takes to keep hubris in its place. Failing that, some upstream unilateralism will do the job just as effectively. Even if the Task Force cannot bring itself to abandon the whole project, it would do well to reflect a bit more on the Brahmaputra.

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Himal Southasian