Suresh Prabhu and the art of selling delusions

It is akin to the pan parag* ad on television. The smiling salesman has one for everyone. With 30 possible river links up his sleeve, Suresh Prabhu, the chairperson of the Task Force on Interlinking of Rivers, can satisfy a billion people. From a single river link to an incredible long chain, the miracle salesman can cater to every taste. Heedless of the inherent dangers of the product, the salesman makes you believe that this is the next best thing after independence that could indeed happen to the country.

Suresh Prabhu´s zeal to market the idea is evidently inexhaustible. In a gathering of the devout at the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), which was wholehearted in its endorsement of the government´s stance, Prabhu said, "The interlinking of rivers will change the shape of India". Unmindful of whether this scheme defaces the geography of the country irreversibly or infringes the riparian rights of communities permanently; Prabhu only looks at it as an irresistible opportunity to integrate the country.

It is indeed remarkable that an idea that is as powerful as the government claims it to be, based as it is on an allegedly rigorous  `need assessment´, needs any marketing at all let alone a vigorous one of the kind that the minister has undertaken. Clearly, it is an a priori proposition that is now being legitimised. How else can one explain the need to link rivers in order, as is also suggested, to provide potable water when official data suggests that 80 per cent of the population is already being supplied drinking water? Can the proposal be justified on the grounds of creating additional irrigation capacity when there are no buyers in the country for some 48 million tonnes of grain harvest?

Interestingly, the proposal starts with the assumption that the rivers must be linked to tame recurring droughts, and then proceeds to justify links and transfers. Expectedly, additional features like inland navigation, power generation and enhanced growth rate are thrown in for good measure, to add more substance to the sales pitch. Indeed, the spin on the river-linking proposal is loaded with such a variety of benefits that no one in a population of more than a billion is likely to feel left out of the game.

Though the government is at pains to peddle its many virtues, the proposal is seriously wanting on technical grounds. The director-general of the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), Radha Singh and former water resources secretary of the government of India, Ramaswamy Iyer ( see accompanying article) have locked horns on these technical questions on quite a few occasions with the former resorting to uncivil language as a substitute for informed debate. NWDA is the lead agency for the project and such unseemly conduct and ill-informed sloganeering reflect poorly on the people behind the project.

Radha Singh, no doubt, has reasons to savour her newfound prominence. Though in existence for two decades now, NWDA has shot into public attention because the government enthusiastically lapped up the Supreme Court´s directive to link the

Himalayan rivers with the peninsular rivers in a record timeframe of 10 years. Aimed at drought-proofing the country, the project has received unstinted support from most political parties.

Political opportunism more than technical feasibility is the driving force behind the project. Two earlier suggestions of the 1960s, for a "Garland Canal" and a "Ganga-Cauvery link" had never commanded the serious attention of expert opinion. Ironically the ideas that were rejected on technical grounds then, have in a new and more grandiose incarnation now been suddenly found technically feasible.

Even the binding aspects of inter-country river-water sharing do not seem to disturb the proponents of the project. Their cheery optimism is so unshakeable that Radha Singh has, in fact, found additional international merits in the scheme. In her view, the interlinking would bury the Ganga water sharing controversy once and for all. Under the refurbished riparian dispensation, Bangladesh will get guaranteed flows once the waters of the Teesta and Mahananda are transferred to the Ganga. Bangladesh, however, is not amused and they have reason not to be. Similar assurances were given when the Ganga water-sharing treaty was signed in December 1996.

Statutory warning
Unlike the pan parag sachet, which carries a statutory warning about risk to human health, the river linking package steers clear of even the most cursory reference to the potential hazards. Its patrons in fact do not admit that there are any, making it perhaps the first engineering venture in human history that has only benefits and no shortcomings. Ask Suresh Prabhu and he brushes aside the economic, ecological and technical pitfalls of the project as "non-issues". However, according to the recently-released World Water Development Report of the UN, the linking of world´s most polluted rivers may even spread disease and misery amongst an unsuspecting population.

The report says quite clearly that the Indian rivers are the most polluted in the world, with three times as many bacteria from human waste as the global average. Further, these rivers carry 20 times more lead than those of the industrialised countries. The Task Force has nothing to say about these matters. Since the linking of rivers will not be preceded by a reduction in pollution levels, the proposal is not only aimed at the equitable distribution of water but will also guarantee equal access to pollutants across the country as well.

As if to make up for the silence on such immediate issues, the advocates of the scheme are vocal about the projected increase in the country´s stagnant GDP growth. Clearly, this is the bait that is to meant to enthuse all those who care about the national interest. By utilising just about 1 per cent of GDP each year, the INR 560,000 crore project will yield a 4 percent increase in the GDP. Never before has such an astounding rate of return on investment ever been achieved anywhere!

But is this expected growth of GDP believable? Even if the anticipated rate of GDP growth is achieved, what is the guarantee that poverty will be eradicated? Economists who study these things have now started questioning the direct correlation between economic growth and poverty reduction. Every fractional gain in GDP has in reality been accompanied by a quantum increase in the population below poverty line. How else can one explain the rising population of the poor each year?

Even the World Bank´s Global Economic Prospects and the Developing Countries 2000 conceded that there are only pockets of plenty in an environment of unrelieved hunger, deprivation and poverty in India. Says the report: "…these areas will not see much impact on poverty even with higher growth rates". Instead of repeating these well-worn shibboleths about reducing the shamefully high-level of poverty through economic growth, the poor will be better served if one addresses the issue of poverty through direct measures of alleviation.

Brushing aside all apprehensions, Mr. Prabhu's Task Force is pursuing the proposal on a war footing without examining the serious social, economic and ecological implications. Asset creation on the scale anticipated will involve massive displacement of people, unquantifiable disruption of regional water systems, irreversible degradation of land, and anticipated changes in micro-climate across river basins.

But like a true salesman of spurious items, Prabhu tries vociferously to convince that the inherent strengths of the product far outweigh its potential dangers. The poor can only hope that he can be held accountable to his words, if indeed he manages to sell his unhealthy vision.

*Pan Parag is a stimulant of blended betel nuts, catechu, cardamon and lime.

~ Sudhirendar Sharma is a water expert and director of the Delhi-based the Ecological Foundation.

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