Making a subcontinental fiasco

The dream of linking the rivers of India is an old one. However, while the proposals of the past were discarded as being impractical, the Government of India's latest proposal has been feted in many quarters as the answer to the country's water problems. An assessment of the river linking project and its possible consequences.

Editors' note

Toying with rivers

A frighteningly grandiose plan that proposes to modify nature has suddenly gathered steam in India. The misapplied vision is to transfer water on a subcontinental scale from wet areas to dry. The people who will suffer under this extravagantly stupid idea will be, before anyone else, the people of India, which in any case makes up most of South Asia by population and size. Under the existing political preoccupations in the Indian capital, an idea that has not even been thought through, and which even government scientists secretly pooh pooh, is being allowed to dazzle the masses under the guidance of a Bharatiya Janata Party ideologue who earlier led its youth wing, Suresh Prabhu. Confronted by his bluster, the entire phalanx of proud and self-confident professionals in India's bureaucracy, diplomacy and scientific academia have decided to fall silent, if not in line. Their hope is that someone will call the bluff. In [March 2003], Himal published an investigation on how interventions with the rivers' flow may be contributing to the winter fog over the Indus-Ganga, affecting millions of South Asia's poorest. The fact is scientists have yet to study the impact of the run of canals and embankments built over the last half century. And yet, here we are, silent spectators while political cheerleaders sell cart-before-the-horse visions of the Ganga waters reaching the wastes of Rajasthan and beyond. This is not about the debate between small versus large, or being pro- or anti-development (and by extension, being nationalist or anti-national). The three articles in this issue of Himal by Ramaswamy Iyer, Himanshu Thakkar and Sudhindar Sharma – all of them written from inside the Ring Road in New Delhi – seek to burst the bubble of the river-linking scheme. Unlike less populated regions of the world, where too engineers have been allowed to tinker with nature, South Asia with its 1.4 billion population just cannot afford to toy with a plan that can go horribly, annihilatingly wrong.

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Himal Southasian