Hum us desh ke vasi hain jis desh main Ganga baheti hain (“we are dwellers of that land through which the Ganga flows”) is a line from the melodious song sung by the late Indian playback singer, Mukesh. The song transcends the nation state because its motif—the river Ganga—cannot be contained within boundaries either physically or symbolically. It is a pan-South Asian emblem for all that is life-sustaining and sacred in rivers. What for the science of hydrology represents merely one more immense mass of moving water, is for a population of a billion and a half a cultural metaphor for life itself. For the present day Bangladeshi, Nepali, Sri Lankan, Pakistani, or Indian, the Ganga is a denominative absolute, be it the Burhi Ganga of Bangladesh, the Trisuli Ganga of Nepal, the Mahaweli Ganga of Sri Lanka, the Sindhu Ganga of Pakistan, or the Cauvery Ganga of peninsular India. The Trisuli Ganga hurtling past the gorge evokes in the Nepali villager the same sentiment as the Ganga entering from upstream to join the Bay of Bengal does in the Bangladeshi farmer. The priest solemnising puja in the Himalayan foothills recites the invocation, “Gangecha Yamunechaiva Godavari Saraswati, Narmade Sindhu Kaveri, Jalesmin Sannidhimkuru” signifying a deeply ingrained sense of collective belonging, tied to a common coordinate. Hum us desh ke vasi hain captures this simple but pervasive ethos of freely flowing water encapsulating within its hydrological cycle, life, livelihood, sustenance, culture and identity.
The Ganga is, however, more than just a cultural metaphor. It had in time become an arresting allegory for engineering progress as well. The American ‘Wild West’ invoked the Ganges in precisely this way. According to the historian, Donald Worster, “In the West, Americans wanted Colorado to become an American Ganges”. American engineers believed that they lagged far behind their counterparts in India in harnessing rivers for irrigation, and wanted the New Civilisation to outgrow the Old Empire. In their more detached perspective, the flowing river was a resource to be exploited for the glory of science and the profit of capital, which together augmented the power of the nation and the state, with little heed to the consequences for the people and the environment. This was an echo of the same impulse that drove the engineers of colonial South Asia to conquer the Subcontinental and Himalayan rivers. This vast difference between the popular perception and the engineering is evident in the very different conceptions of use of water and exploitation of water.
Historically, human intervention in addressing water problems has seen attempts to adapt to climatic, hydrologic and socio-economic conditions. As water increasingly passed from the hands of local users to engineers, there was a concomitant elaboration of new concepts, categories and definitions. One of the fundamental ideas on which the new paradigm of hydraulic engineering rested was a functionally defined notion of ‘waste’. This functional definition, invested with an absolute meaning, is substantially different from the relative idea of ‘surplus’ or ‘excess’ that informed traditional water-management practices. Because water is in excess quantity where it is not needed, when it is not needed, and to the extent that it is not needed, appropriate modification of the stock and flow to suit different needs in space and time has been a part of human history. Consequently water transfers and diversions through open channels is not a new or recent invention of civil engineering.
However, there is an important difference between interventions based on the contemporary paradigm and those of the past. In present times, climatic, hydrologic and socio-economic conditions, which are even in the natural course subject to extreme variability, are susceptible to much greater stress because of the sheer scale of the technology available to unleash potentially fundamental change. This makes the task of achieving water security that much more complex than in the past.
Egypt of antiquity build dams and Roman engineers brought water to the imperial cities via aqueducts. The Chola kings of ancient south India built anicuts to irrigate fields far from the sources of water. Communities in the Nepal hills resorted to similar techniques and, even today, a six-hundred-year-old irrigation system diverts water for irrigation. These engineering works of the past were based on the idea of surplus. Today, the language of ‘waste’ has become the dominant principle in the development discourse and has become the dogma of the engineering profession to justify intervening in rivers for commercial ends.
This language of waste has introduced new stress points. The use of the term ‘waste’ began in colonial Punjab, as well as in the frontiers of western United States in the middle of the 19th century. In the western US, the Colombia Basin Development League asserted that “Every drop of water that runs to the sea without its full commercial returns to the nation is an economic waste”. Rivers had to be put to work, by first damming and storing the natural flow, “until not a single drop escaped control”.
The belief in this idea runs deep, not just within the engineering fraternity but among the intelligentsia and the publicists of progress too. In his book, We, The People, whose 14 reprints is a testimony of its popularity among the English reading public, the late Indian constitutional lawyer, Nani A Palkhivala, reiterated the argument of commercially-oriented engineering that, “Three-fourths of the total flow of our rivers is wastefully emptied into the seas”. The historian, David Gilmartin, observes that in 19th century India, the term ‘waste’ was central to professional irrigation-engineering theory, and was critical to the structure of the British colonial state’s revenue collection apparatus. This convergence of science and the financial interests of the colonial empire expressed itself in the relentless effort to salvage the ‘wasted’ potential of rivers and to recover the financial promise that was hitherto being squandered. This enterprise of averting waste not only increased the power of the state but also gave its capitalist clients greater control over land and resources and, hence, also over local communities, which were left with little choice but to succumb to the dictates of the new commercial logic.
Repeatedly, the colonial Indian government invoked the idea of waste to initiate grandiose projects designed to increase agricultural productivity and yield greater revenue. In 1911, the government of the United Province pushed through the Sarada Irrigation Canal, which had been pending for 40 years, by using precisely this formula. The proposal for this canal was first made in 1869, but its implementation was held up due to local opposition, particularly by the influential talukdars of Awadh, landowning magnates on whom the British depended to maintain their rule in the region. In 1911, the government decreed that the waters of the river Sarada, which were being ‘wasted’ because the people of Awadh were not using it optimally, would be transferred to Punjab via the Agra Canal. The talukdars objected to this proposed transfer and consented to the construction of the Sarada Canal.
This notion of waste was based on the implicit assumption that when water was not earning a return, it, for all practical purposes, was flowing from a source to a sink and down the drain. In a strictly utilitarian sense this may have been a valid point of view, but from a more scientific perspective this amounted to hydrological imprudence, because water is indisputably part of a continuous system that circulates in its different forms on a periodic basis. From ancient times, the hydrological cycle was treated as the basic unit for comprehending water in its totality, as is attested to by references in Puranic literature. The Brahmananda Puran traces this cycle of water, its different manifestations like lakes, rivers, groundwater, sea, and the cyclical change in its forms from water to vapour and back to water. For several millennia there was no change in this basic conception.
In fact, the US Academy of Science’s definition of the hydrological cycle is extraordinarily similar to the Puranic idea. It defines hydrology as “the science that treats waters of the earth, their occurrence, circulation, and distribution, their chemical and physical properties, and their reaction with their environment, including their relationship with living things”. Whereas the hydrological definition sees water in all its multifaceted functions, roles and forms, the dominant form of putatively scientific water use has reduced it to a single dimension, capable of being looked at discretely and therefore amenable to manipulation along fiscally rewarding lines. In this scheme of things, the prudent conservation of the substance is precluded by the possibilities of limitless exploitation of its properties.
The practice of colonial science, in fact, reflects the contradiction between its conception of the hydrological cycle and its reckless pursuit of optimising the efficiency of water use. Thus, whereas optimum use minimised the waste that running water represented, floods did not fall within this mandate. Referring to the inundations in the Orissa floodplains, British engineers argued the, “the problem…is not how to prevent floods but how to pass them as quickly as possible to sea”. The paradox of utilitarian thinking is obvious and stark. How could, on the one hand, riparian flows be conceived of as ‘waste’ to be averted through productive redeployment while, on the other hand, flood waters, which are as inextricably a part of the hydrological cycle as the fluvial rhythm or rivers are, become so undesirable that they had be conveyed to the sea with utmost speed.
In other words, flowing water in one context was viewed as a commodity whose optimal exploitation is predicated on minimal waste, but which, in another less controllable context, became eminently ‘wastable’. This conception of flowing water renders the hydrological cycle into a discrete phenomenon that is made up of separable components whose utility and value can be distinguished by criteria that serve social, political and commercial purposes and needs and therefore classifiable into categories like low, medium and excess flow, and so on. The integrity of water has been broken into its constituent parts, in a way that it has not been done to some of the other forces of nature. Is it conceivable to speak of the sun or the wind in the same fashion? Is there ‘wasted’ wind or sunshine?
In this sense water has been a special victim of commercially-oriented science. A canal transferring water from a river to new locations became an end in itself, justified by the promise of greater revenues. For the colonial bureaucracy, the irrigation canal was a machine, which used human skill and expertise within organisations to manipulate water for commercial returns. But these machines were rather inefficient. British-built canals had an overall efficiency of only 28 per cent. As much as 72 per cent of the water fed into the system did not reach its intended destination, namely the commercially viable crop.
More than a hundred years later, and despite the refinements in technology, the improvement in efficiency has been negligible. Even today, canal efficiency is just 30 per cent of its projected ‘command area’. Water lost in seepage causes head-end and tail-end asymmetries, besides water logging and salinisation. This level of loss has prompted some water experts to claim that the water lost within the canal system is actually recycled back into the natural system. If that is indeed the case, then it is not at all clear why so much expenditure and effort is incurred to avoid waste, if the net result has only been to put water back to where it was going anyway.
Spurious assertions cannot conceal the fact that canal irrigation systems have always faced problems of allocation. The tail-end reaches of many large-scale irrigation systems have not once seen a single drop of water in them. If it were not for groundwater pumps, food production would have dwindled in areas where the cropping patterns have changed on the tall promises of canal-delivered water. But then the pervasive use of pumps has led to the depletion of groundwater, to water transfers from rural to urban areas and to high fiscal costs for sustaining power-pricing that favours prosperous pump-owning commercial farmers.
Specious claims have ruled the hydraulic roost for too long and the canal solution has still not been discredited in policy circles, perhaps because of its long pedigree. The first law of technocracy is that failed solutions must be persisted with if the fact of failure has to be concealed. Therefore, failed solutions have long histories, and the longer their history the greater their credibility. Canal systems are perfect examples of this logic. The first integrated proposal to link the rivers of India had come from Major Arthur Cotton, under whose guidance the Grand Anicut in peninsular India had been rehabilitated. When he first drew a map of India showing the possible links of rivers, he was concerned primarily with navigation, though irrigation was also a part of it. According to the India Public Works Department’s, Triennial Review of Irrigation in India, 1918-21, Cotton’s plans involved “a navigable line 4,000 miles long, from Karachi via Cawnpore, Calcutta and Cuttack to Bhatkal, Mangalore, and Madras”.
Cotton’s plans did not remain unchallenged. His contemporary in the north, Probey Cautley disagreed with the idea of using canals for navigation. Instead he advocated the construction of canals for irrigation, a view that Cotton himself subsequently campaigned for following the Madras Famine of 1876. The Kurnool-Cuddapah Canal in Andhra Pradesh, which took water from the Tungabhadra at Kurnool to Cuddapah on the Pennar, 300 kilometres south, is a product of Cotton’s grand plan. Not coincidentally, and more than just incidentally, the Madras Irrigation Company, which built and operated the canal, was promoted by Cotton himself and its chief engineer was his brother. The canal was the first effort at privatisation of irrigation in India. The Kurnool-Cuddapah canal was an unmitigated disaster. Financially it was a drain on the company that built it. The company went bankrupt in 1866. Eventually, the government of Madras had to purchase the canal from the company at a price that could not be recovered from the canal’s users. As an irrigation system it was an outstanding failure. Designed to irrigate some 120,000 hectare of land, the canal in its early years fed only 5 percent of its projected command, and decades later achieved a peak efficiency of 30 percent. As a navigation system it failed spectacularly, because of problems at its head-end, that the Indian Irrigation Commission’s report commented that it “runs from nowhere to nowhere in particular and consequently there is nothing and nobody to carry”.
This failure was not sufficient to deter more ambitious plans. The colonial government opted for more schemes guaranteed to fail and this policy was carried forward in independent India with even more vigour. Presently, India has 13 water transfer arrangements for augmenting irrigation and meeting drinking water needs. To add to this, the government of India has now, through the National Water Development Association (NWDA), formulated a proposal to link all the rivers of India, on the rationale that there are floods in some areas even as droughts affect other regions. The linking of the rivers will allegedly mitigate the effects of both by transferring water from the flood-prone regions to the drought-prone regions.
This is a novel argument. A new and more convoluted dimension has been added to the idea of waste. Whereas hitherto, unused running water was a waste, which had to be retrieved and put to use for commercial ends, now ‘waste’ is sought to be reallocated to restore the hydrological balance that nature in its folly had omitted to provide. Until now, the engineer was merely facilitating capital. With the new scheme, the engineer has reached godhood. When British engineers argued that the, “the problem…is not how to prevent floods but how to pass them as quickly as possible to sea”, they were at least recognising the limits imposed by nature on their profession and its technological capacities.
With godhood has come a new level of conceit and the water technocracy, confident in its own prowess that a long history of failures has done nothing to undermine, has decided it can make India a land of plenty by simply eliminating drought and flood simultaneously. It has evidently not stopped to ponder why nobody thought of implementing this visionary solution before, even though there has been no dearth of creative thinkers who have come up with specific proposals for maintaining a perpetual harmony of water in the country.
According to MS Reddy, former Secretary for Water Resources, Government of India, “in all the existing inter-basin transfers, the flood-drought syndrome never figured”. Since the current proposal has the explicit objective of mitigating floods and droughts, it is important to track the history of ideas and institutions that lie behind this unprecedented venture. What configuration of forces has led to revival of a 200 year old concept of supplementary irrigation as a source of revenue with the objective of mitigating adverse impacts of flood and drought? And why did it acquire such a stranglehold on the official imagination?
In the late1960s, KL Rao, then Union Minister of State for Irrigation and Power, proposed the idea of the Ganga-Cauvery link. A few years later, in the early 1970s, after he left the Union Council of Ministers, he converted his proposal into a National Water Grid Plan. The proposal did not move forward because of its technical limitations and the high costs involved. The NWDA’s recent proposal is of a similar nature and is based on achieving supply augmentation through bulk transfer.
From an engineering point of view, while Rao’s proposal did have its drawbacks, it also did have some technical foundation. The Garland Canal plan put forward by Dinshaw J Dastur, however, was so ‘visionary’ in its sweep that it abandoned engineering fundamentals altogether. This whimsical plan, so completely devoid of any trace of scientific thinking, never quite dropped out of the establishment’s fantasies. That the logic behind this preposterous plan is at the heart of India’s water technocracy’s river linking plan reflects poorly on the country’s scientific scholarship.
Dastur was a pilot who used to fly DC-3 Dakotas between Kathmandu and New Delhi, which is what must have given him this idea. His plan was to tap the rivers flowing from the Himalaya in a 2400-kilometre long contour canal that would extend from Meghalaya in the Indian Northeast to the river Ravi in Punjab in the northwest at an elevation of about 400 metres above mean sea level (msl). The objective was to transfer the water so collected to the region south of the Vindhya mountain range via pipe systems or aqueducts, which would connect the northern and southern canal systems. If built, each of the proposed aqueducts would be about 400 kilometres long, and at Patna would be situated about 380 metres above the ground level.
The plan had several technical flaws, all of them fatal. When a canal is built at a constant elevation, it is without a slope, which is a necessary precondition for water to flow. A canal of constant elevation would essentially have been a 2400-kilometre long reservoir to intercept and store the waters of the Himalayan rivers. If the 400 msl contour in the hills that Dastur suggested was to be literally followed, the alignment of the canal would be serpentine along the northern face of the Siwalik or along the southern lower slope of the Mahabharat hills.
According to the latter alignment, the canal would intercept the Arun river at Tumlintar, the Marsyangdi river at Gopling Ghat, the Karnali river at Kasara Ghat. If the canals were to be aligned along the 400 msl contours on the southern slope of the Siwalik (Chure), then its bottom would be 300 metres higher than the Kosi river at Chatara, 250 metres above the Narayani river at Narayanghat and 200 metres above the Karnali river at Chisapani. Water would have to either jump into the canal or would need to pumped up on a massive scale to keep the canals running.
Siphons and aqueducts would have to be built to route the canals over numerous streams and rivers. Building them would be a feat in itself and the cost would be astronomical. The canals would be a maintenance nightmare, which itself would be a massive budgetary drain. At each section where the canal intercepted the river a dam would have to be built to transfer water into the canal. The dam building would need to address the question of cost and benefits, including the social and environmental impact.
The matter of dams
Building a dam for storing water is more straightforward than making one for the purpose of complex reallocation through canals to ensure a constant supply of water annually. A major limitation that applies equally to canals and dams is the sediment load whose high volume is unique to the Himalayan rivers. In his critique of the Garland Canal scheme, KL Rao did point out many of its technical incongruities but left out the problem of sedimentation that would be encountered.
Furthermore the kind of bulk transfer of water that was envisaged would not be possible without storage. Take the Himalayan rivers, for example. The lowest flow of a river could be as little is 150 cubic metres per second (m3/s). The instantaneous monsoon peak flood can be as high as 26,000 m3/s. By contrast, the proposed canal capacity was 2,000 m3/s. In short, either the flow falls far short of the proposed installed capacity, or the volume is far too large to be accommodated.
In the circumstances, only storage can make the wet season excess flow available in the dry period. But building storage projects brings social, economic, environmental, and technical challenges, which are neither new nor have been overcome in the case of existing facilities. They also bring in very fundamental questions about riparian rights, community resources and the principles of end-use that might justify diversion to the detriment of communities living around the rivers, including the displacement of marginalised people by storage facilities to meet the interests of capital- and water-intensive activities elsewhere. None of these questions have been answered satisfactorily to date.
The proposed layout of the so-called Himalayan canal, when transferred to the present map of Nepal shows the utter disregard for good sense in its conceptualisation. The canal would enter the country somewhere around Ilam district in the east, traverse the midland region to the neighbourhood of Parasi district and head west to exit Nepal in the vicinity of Pancheswar at the western end, carving though the Himalayan landscape. In South Asia, bureaucratic civil engineering may have been swayed by gigantism but the discipline itself has a scientific basis to which the plan is oblivious.
Not surprisingly, KL Rao, in an article in World Water questioned the proposal’s many incongruities. He wrote, “The Garland Water Project should warn the nation that all fanciful projects should be given up”. Incidentally Rao’s critique was based on purely technical considerations and did not include social and environmental dimensions. As a result, he too ended up proposing that northern rivers be linked to the southern. Even judged on purely technical feasibility, some of his arguments, too, contradicted his own logic.
This is the pedigree of the river-linking scheme that the Government of India and its NWDA have now placed before the public as the panacea for the country’s water problems. Projects usually proceed from first principles to the drawing board. In judging the feasibility of projects, therefore, it is usually a good idea to work backwards from the drawing board to first principles. From an engineering perspective, the most significant drawing board indices are maps and drawings. For one, they allow a better understanding of the physical context and geography. Secondly, they are the instruments that translate concepts into projects.
The river-linking proposal formulated by the NWDA follows the disoriented logic of Rao’s and Dastur’s fanciful schemes. One glance at the maps prepared for the scheme suffices to show how superficial, slipshod and unprofessional the technocratic planning apparatus has been in translating a foolhardy concept into an ill-advised project. When the NWDA map is juxtaposed with the map of Nepal, the two of ends of the northern canals connecting the Gandak and the Karnali rivers fall well within Nepal. This is anomalous because both the Gandak and Ghagara barrages are situated much to the south.
It could be argued that the map is only indicative and therefore the complaint amounts to nothing more than nitpicking. Yet, it could equally be argued that the cartographic lapse is itself indicative of the morass into which hierarchic civil engineering practice has fallen. A discipline as old as industrial civilisation should show better judgment because the location of the intake as plotted on the map will involve the trans-boundary dimension. This presumably is an important aspect of project feasibility. Such a basic error notwithstanding, the multi-billion rupee proposal has obtained sanction and secured the endorsement of influential organisations in India.
It is not just that the most basic technicalities of the project are flawed; even the financial projections are way off the mark. The budgetary calculations are naïve at best or misleading at worst. Working out the preliminary arithmetic of the river-linking proposal, the economist, Nilkanth Rath, assuming a 7 percent interest rate and 5 percent rate of inflation during construction period, estimated that at the end of 20 years the project will require an outlay of INR 2,017,468 crores. This is four times higher than the estimated expenditure of INR 560,000 crores and involves an annual allocation of one lakh crore rupees. An economy as large as India’s may well be able to spare this amount, but it begs the obvious question: will spending that money secure the future? Doubtful.
Perhaps it is for precisely this reason that tortuous arguments are increasingly being put out to justify what is, on the face of it, a patently absurd proposition. So we have the misfortune of reading, in the pages of Himal South Asian, the convoluted justification by a member of the Task Force on Linking Rivers, no less, that connecting the rivers of India will promote “gender equity”. At a seminar in Kathmandu on “Social Science and Resources” organised by the Social Science Research Council, New York earlier in the year, this writer, while commenting on the proposal, had jocularly remarked that gender equality was the only missing factor in the litany of benefits that the implementation of the scheme would allegedly lead to. Some eminent participants then seemed to think the joke was in bad taste.
We are thus being fed improbable fables about incidental spin-offs that have nothing to do with the ostensible reasons that prompted the river-linking project, like the flood-drought dichotomy, and have everything to do with all the other ailments of Indian society. Perhaps we will soon be told that linking rivers will bring about, inter alia, peace on earth, an end to domestic violence, child labour and trafficking, the abolition of the caste system and all the other recalcitrant problems that otherwise refuse to go away. Is the Task Force looking seriously into the technical issues or is it simply immersed in politically correct public relations management?
The latter is quite obviously the case, and one of the gambits of this exercise is to make the time tested plea that there are no alternatives to a course of action that has already been decided. Of course, alternatives do exist and the choices lie at both the institutional and technological levels. The question of technological choices brings in what the historian of technology, David Collingridge labels the “control dilemma”. At the early stage of a technology’s use we do not know enough about it and by the time we know enough about it, it is too late to make a shift. The result is an entrenchment, as we find ourselves locked into a particular line and less and less able to switch to another possible path because of technological inflexibility.
When it comes to technology, is it possible to identify, distinguish and separate flexible options from the inflexible choices? The evaluation process called Technological Assessment says it can be done. Technological Assessment is relevant more in the case of a developing technology than an entrenched technology, but it can nevertheless be used to assess the flexibility of the bulk water transfer proposal of the Government of India. The procedure employs eight indicators to separate the inflexible from the flexible. Four of these indicators are technological and four are organisational. The technical indicators are: a) large-scale, b) long lead-time, c) capital intensive and d) require major infrastructure investment early on in the instituting of a particular technological regime. The four organisational indicators are, a) single mission outfits, b) immunity to criticism, c) hype (every thing under the sun will happen by doing this or that), and d) hubris. If the selected technological option shows red on all eight indicators then the chosen trajectory is littered with obstacles and the end result is an impasse.
The river linking proposal fails against every indicator. Publicly available information shows that the scale is large. It involves 30 systems stretching over several hundred kilometres of canals. The project will take a long time to complete, a minimum of 20 years if nothing goes wrong along the way. It will incur enormous costs, realistically estimated at INR 560,000 crores at 2003 prices. It will entail massive infrastructure, not the least of which is a conveyance system that will have to be put in place before the water can even begin to flow.
The organisational inflexibility is equally stark. Pushed by the single mission outfit, the NDWA, its promoters have displayed a high degree of contempt and intolerance for critiques and alternative suggestions. Hype surrounds the project and is reflected in the numerous statements by politicians and policy makers about the omnipotence of engineers who have “found the perfect solution to simultaneously solve the problem of flood and drought”. The hubris is evident in the denial of alternatives as seen in the response in Himal that sought to justify the proposal.
Despite such ingrained inflexibilities the proposal has emerged as the preferred choice. Why was the proposal selected? The answers lie at several levels. The first is the belief that water problems have supply side solutions and those espousing this view are committed believers in the tenet that the road to prosperity is technocratic. Anyone questioning this technocratic vision is dubbed an irrational romantic. Second, it allows the source of the problem and the solution, be it for flood or drought mitigation, to be located outside one’s own domain. A lower riparian state can always claim that the upstream state did not release enough water in the dry season, thereby creating scarcity or that it released too much water in the wet season and so causing floods. Third, it circumvents the need to address the messy business of water management or equitable reallocation or social and economic upliftment by simply asserting the claim that once this or that link is completed every problem will be solved. Fourth, it makes political sense to make the extravagant promise to farmers facing drought that extra water will be made continuously available. This is particularly significant given that the region has faced consecutive drought in the last few years.
The Supreme Court of India’s directive on river linking (which requires of the government to complete the project in ten years) is an opportunity for the resource starved water hierarchy of India to implement projects. As the environmental critique beginning in the late 1970s gathered momentum and gained in public influence, the water establishment has been without major projects. It has for some time now been on the defensive and has reacted apologetically to its critics, but it has steadfastly refused to move up the learning curve. But it is not just the water establishment that wishes to create monuments in its own honour. National level leaders also have a propensity to have their names associated with large projects. After some of the Punjab canals were built, colonial administrators had boasted that they had created greater monuments than those constructed by the Muslim and Hindu rulers of India. Within this overall milieu that determines public policy choices, the challenges this proposal brings to the fore are both conceptual and practical. How water should be managed or how the world ought to be fifty years from today is not the prerogative of any single entity, be it the technologists, the political establishment, the market, or even the greens.
Hierarchic engineering and the new era
The way forward needs to emerge from a more creative engagement among ‘social solidarities’, based on normative models of resource use predicated on a clear conception of fundamental categories like ‘benefit’ and ‘progress’. Today’s real challenge lies in defining what constitutes a benefit, how it will be distributed and to whom. Standardised ‘solutions’, with their familiar institutional and technological matrices, cannot yield the same results in different contexts and over time under different conditions. The challenge is also to develop and institutionalise sets of governance principles that will enable society to organise effective and equitable responses to water problems when and where they are needed.
The problems that pose themselves today are not engineering puzzles concerning soil mechanics or the behaviour of concrete in the construction of dams or canals. Problems of that order were solved through techniques perfected in the 1930s with the execution of the Hoover Dam in 1936. The challenge in fact is to find a way out of the problems created by purely technological solutions. From the 1930s to 1970, the United States Federal Government built hundreds of dams on every major western river. They laid the foundations for the powerful, modern and economically prosperous West. But, the deficits of that prosperity have been immense: irreversible ecological damage, the concentration of power with economic elites, the accentuation of socio-economic conflict, the annihilation of native Americans and their cultures, and social injustice legitimised by the ideology of triumphalism and ‘success’. By the end of the twentieth century, that logic of development has also led to the rise of the industrial-military complex with its extraordinary capacity to influence the state to the detriment of the citizen.
Not only native Americans, but also unsuspecting all-American Americans have paid a heavy price for this prosperity. Hollywood’s Erin Brokovitch dramatises the story of one such injustice in rural California, how small city, predominantly White America, exemplified by the town of Hinckley, is slowly poisoned by industrial effluvium. Thanks to a persistent social auditor, the residents of Hinckley were awarded USD 330 million in damages because they had been drinking groundwater polluted by toxic plume from the boilers of the conglomerate Pacific Gas and Electric. Unregulated capitalism, driven by the ethos of accumulation has caused and will continue to unleash adversity.
Given that the current system of decision-making is such that this adversity is never anticipated in advance and is only brought to light post facto, after the victims have already suffered the consequences, how can those who are responsible for other peoples misfortunes be penalised? Will there ever be Bollywood parallels of Erin Brokovitch? It is hard to imagine Aishwarya Rai playing Medha Patkar, or Shah Rukh Khan playing Chandi Prasad Bhatt or Hrithik Roshan cast as Sundar Lal Bahaguna, in films that portray the social consequences of unbridled technological arrogance and profiteering.
Even if Bollywood ignores these issues, and even if the polity imposes no penalty on those who wreak havoc on others, the critique of orthodox engineering has nevertheless gone too far in society to be disregarded by engineers. In the past, civil engineers did not have to worry about questions of benefits and their distribution, but now there is a persistence with which they demand answers through stubborn social movements. Those on the social and physical margins, the romantics, the tribals, the eco-freaks, and the lumpen proletariat, who throughout the long years of industrial civilisation could safely be neglected, cannot be ignored anymore in the age of information and popular democracy.
Hierarchic civil engineering faces the choice of a transition to a new era. But this ossified establishment shows no signs of making the appropriate choice, responding as it does in the same old defensive and apologetic manner when it has to, and bludgeoning its way to dominance when it can. But civil engineers cannot evade confronting the problem and modifying their internalised understanding that has served them so well for so long. That understanding is increasingly out of step with the social reality and it is no surprise that mechanical, electrical, instrumental engineers and even medical practitioners chide civil engineers for still being so profoundly dominated by the gigantism, shackled to age-old concepts that have remained unchanged since the days their predecessors erected the pyramids.
The manner in which the river-linking proposal surfaced also shows the deep-rooted stress facing civil engineers dealing with water and working in centralised management structures. The traditional definition of civil engineering is the harnessing of the forces of nature for the benefit of mankind. One of the benefits that civil engineering provided came from manipulating stock and flow of water. Historically, the benefits were obvious. It ensured the regulated supply of water and energy. But with these solutions came many technical hurdles as well. Early civil engineering attention was focused on the science that allowed it to understand and explain the forces of nature with a view to using engineering skills to overcome the hurdles that stood in the way of obtaining benefits. But there are civil engineers and there are civil engineers. A civil engineering that serves the benefits of a few is one that colonises nature and leaves in its wake more problems than it solves.
This unfortunately is the kind of civil engineering that has come to dominate South Asia and reflects a hierarchic ethos that denies the plurality of interests in society and therefore rejects the need to examine alternatives that better accommodate the needs of a greater diversity of people and livelihood forms. No alternatives please, because the sine qua non of hierarchism is, “There is No Alternative”. This is deemed to be a self-evident axiom that requires no proof.
So, averting water problems, we are told, can happen only through augmentation of supply and the manipulation of stock and flow on a scale that exceeds the limits of a reasonable engineering of nature. We are further told that the burgeoning population, fifty years on, will face an unimaginable water crises, and hence the bulk transfer of water must be initiated now. Those who have been trained to exploit nature also believe that they can anticipate the future with unerring accuracy, and since they can where others cannot, their judgement on the choice of solutions cannot be faulted.
This allegedly faultless choice is based on the simplistic and entirely ignorant equation that an increase in the number of people translates into a proportionate increase in water consumption. But is that what really happens in human societies characterised by enormous differences in consumption patterns and practices? In the 1970s, the physicist, John Holdren and the biologist, Paul Ehrlich popularised the IPAT (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology) model to explain environmental crises. Environmental impact, the model suggested, is the combined outcome of population, affluence and technology. The model assumed that people everywhere are same and behave in similar fashion and this behaviour is positively related to standard of living and technological growth.
But this is an assumption neither physics nor biology can prove. For one, neither affluence nor technology is uniformly distributed across this increasing population, and per capita water consumption has increased disproportionately among a smaller group of more prosperous users than it has among the larger group of less affluent users. But that in itself does not add up to the full picture, for, though water consumption is income elastic, there are also numerous instances of net water use having stabilised even at higher income levels, in part due to the development of relevant technology. There are technologies of conservation that have come to play an important part in mitigating the effects of the technologies of consumption.
Simplistic assumptions and equations often lie at the heart of so-called scientific forecasts about future demands. To that extent, the solutions chosen for the future by the present have little justification, and the denial of alternatives in the name of knowing the future have even less. Doomsday predictions are usually invoked to provide the rationale for ambitious technological innovations, and invariably the cause of the projected doom is always attributed to ordinary people going about their everyday lives. The engineer watching with alarm then comes up with mechanisms that will solve the problem and save people from their own follies.
Hazard and vulnerability
In the course of implementing solutions that save the future of the planet, natural resources pass from the hands of the users to those of the experts. Thus, the peasant depletes water and to secure the future the engineer must take it away elsewhere to ensure rational use. The villager depletes the forests and so the forester takes it over and puts it to more efficient use. The poor destroy the commons and hence it is handed over to commercial developers so that its potential is not wasted. Nature and society, however, are not reducible to such self-serving equations that portent doom unless engineers get down to the urgent task of saving humanity.
But they are routinely invoked for reasons that legitimise the technocratic establishment by creating a narrative justifying intervention. This is how the idea of ‘waste’ articulates itself with the idea of ‘mitigation’ to produce excesses such as the river-linking proposal. Using unsound predictive tools, large problems of great urgency are forecast, for which large solutions are then posited. These solutions usually affect large numbers of vulnerable people. Even if we ignore the flimsy ethics that rationalises the ousting of so many people from their meagre resources just to secure the future for an abstract humanity, there are still the consequences of the intervention to be dealt with, because the process introduces destructive externalities, which, in ever-increasing spirals, demand greater doses of the same therapy that invited the problem in the first place.
The engineering solution to an ill-diagnosed problem gradually inserts itself into the cycle of what has conveniently come to be labelled ‘natural disasters’. The idea of a natural disaster is very appealing to the technocratic establishment for this very reason. The utilitarian idea of ‘waste’, having unleashed its own developmental wasteland, reinvents itself in a compassionate and heroic guise, by proposing the humanitarian idea of ‘mitigation’. Hedonism and humanism now become indistinguishable. Technological hedonism first defines ‘disasters’ as natural and then sets about mitigating them. Profligate solutions set up extravagant problems to address, so drought and flood become the obvious targets of the kind of engineering self-indulgence that culminates in the plan to link all rivers.
Will the bulk transfer of water mitigate drought and flood, and avert water-related natural disasters? To asses that it is first necessary to outline what these so-called natural disasters actually are. Natural disasters, in reality, are not any more natural than the hole in the ozone layer, or the rapidity of climate change in the 20th century. A growing body of research has persuasively demonstrated that disasters are outcomes not only of natural hazards, but also of socio-economic structures and political processes that make individuals and families vulnerable. This perspective focuses on the various ways in which social systems operate to make people susceptible to disasters. The capacity to anticipate, cope with, resist, and recuperate from the impact of a natural hazard determines the impact. Those who are more vulnerable are at greater risk of being stricken by disaster.
In South Asia, people live in vulnerable conditions even during normal times, and it is hardest for them to salvage their livelihood immediately after being affected by a hazard. But is the solution to this technological? Vulnerable people do not live in vulnerable conditions out of ignorance about natural hazards or poor assessment of the risks. It is because they have little freedom to choose how and where they live. Low-income families often have no alternative other than to live in vulnerable locations such as flood plains, and the vulnerable conditions contrive to keep them economically on the margins. They are forced to live in such condition not because regulation or planning of land use is poor, but because prevailing agrarian relations, and the attendant procedures of social and economic exclusion, deny them sources of livelihood in safer areas.
The propensity to disaster, whether from flood or drought, is the outcome of hazard acting on vulnerability. When social vulnerability is accentuated, the scale of loss and destruction increases. Conversely, strengthening social institutions that conduce resilience reduces vulnerability. Therefore, the idea of mitigation in the river-linking proposal is vacuous, since the solution relies on manipulating the hazard and not on minimising vulnerability. As a justification for the project the idea of mitigation is limited in its conceptualisation because it simply does not admit that disasters are the unresolved problems of societies during ‘normal’ times. Disaster is the latent complement of the South Asian normalcy. Misplaced ‘scientific’ enthusiasm has reduced the problem to a set of static factors that science can comprehend, leaving out causes that lie within socio-economic relations and are therefore outside science.
Even if we were to grant that the solution lies in controlling the hazard, there is not much that can be done with a hazard that is not even understood, let alone controllable. In 1998, floods caused extensive damage in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Mitigation of the hazard, had the idea been entertained, would have been pre-empted by the fact that the flood was caused by a massive cloudburst along the region south of the Chure range. What is the possible technological response to such a deluge? The floodwaters could not have been stored in dams because there are no sites where they can be built. There is no option but to let the floodwaters drain. The hydro- meteorological characteristics of the region and the social conditions of agrarian society in the affected region compel a re-conceptualisation such that there is a transition from hazard mitigation through drainage control and risk management to flood-disaster mitigation through strengthening resource capacities among vulnerable people.
The Supreme Court
Given the corpus of knowledge about the physiognomy of disasters and about water management, drought- and flood-impact mitigation, why did the Supreme Court of India succumb to the unqualified technological exuberance exhibited by the NWDA in preparing its proposal? Judicial activism has in the past helped address many social issues, including creeping environmental problems. However, in recent times courts have allowed themselves to answer questions about matters that lie outside the ambit of their jurisprudence. These include ruling on questions of historical interpretation, the veracity of mythology or the development paradigm, especially when facts are uncertain. Clearly, the values differ and the stakes are high, the consequences for the credibility and authority of the judicial system are adverse and self-defeating. Courts that compromise their judicial dignity by making questionable decisions and recommendations cannot command respect.
In this particular case, the court acted in breach of its own mandate. A court of law can pronounce on questions of law or of fact. A bench of judges can make decisions based on the laws, protocols and proprieties of evidence. Private opinion, personal prejudice and articles of faith, even irrational faith in science and technology, are inadmissible in the working of the courts of law. Most importantly, courts must function with the laws given to them. They cannot create laws in accordance with their views. Court systems are created for different purposes–to adjudicate, and to provide a systemic check on violations of the law by the executive.
The courts can direct the executive to perform necessary acts that it is required to perform and to proscribe acts that it is not authorised to perform. It can order the government to ensure that suffering caused by drought or floods be mitigated. But it cannot, under any circumstance, dictate to the government what specific methods it should adopt in attaining this objective. Most certainly, it cannot prescribe remedies of a technical nature about which it has no technical expertise and also institute a timeline for the technical ‘fix’ that binds society. The Supreme Court in the present instance explicitly decided that the macro-method of bulk water transfer was the solution to India’s problems. Macro-responses do not address micro-level concerns at the household, family and community levels, where flood and drought respectively have a highly visible but differential impact. The court has voluntarily ventured into an arena of knowledge, politics and dispute that is far beyond its competence.
Modification of stock and flow of water is a practice that goes back to the dawn of human history. That is in itself not the problem. It is the assertion by the technocracy and the judiciary that the linking of rivers is the deus ex machina to simultaneously solve the problems of flood and drought once and for all that constitutes a deep conceptual threat to the emergence of a plural intellectual environment for the formulation of public policy. This is all the more so since, in the current political-economic milieu, at least some part of the river-linking project will be implemented, yet the vulnerabilities to flood and drought will remain. And when problems come home to roost decades hence, there will be no mechanism to ensure that irresponsible and hasty conduct on the part of the judicial and technological bureaucracies will be penalised.
Hum us desh ke vasi hain echoed a sentiment that runs deep in the Subcontinent. Today, are we living with the banality of listening to a preposterous remix of that song.