Verghese’s Middle Way
WATERS OF HOPE
Oxford and IBH, New Delhi
1990, ISBN 81-204-0519-6
The Gangetic plain, making up about 2.5 per cent of the Earth’s area, supports almost one-tenth of its population. Even then, according to M.S. Swaminathan, the eminent Indian scientist, the region has the potential of being the bread-basket of the world. Today, 43 years after India’s independence, the region is still sunk in its hallmark destitution. Waters of Hope questions why this is so and seeks answers from the Brahmaputra and Ganga rivers.
Journalist George Verghese presents abroad and detailed canvas of the potential held by the waters of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Barak basin: 214 hectare-meters of annual runoff, a staggering 250,000 mega watts of electricity, irrigation of 115 million hectares of land, and an array of associated benefits. Why not say “Open Sesame”, and extract the benefit that is there for the taking, asks Verghese. The only thing lacking is “regional will”, he contends.
The actors in this search for regional will, and the subjects of the book, are Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal. The book discusses, at the micro and macro levels, the policies and practices of these countries’ water resource development.
Verghese starts by describing the natural setting and provides a perspective on the sociopolitical setting. He then discusses the issues of land reform, irrigation management, floods, watershed management, forests, public health, displacement, seismicity (as they relate to dams), legal compacts, inland navigation and regional cooperation.
FEEDING 625 MILLION
His thorough research enables Verghese to pack Within these covers (412 pages) as many facts and figures of the region as it seems possible to collect. At the very least, he eliminates the need to scour the libraries for information on South Asian water. In fact, the book is sometimes daunting, so infested is it with facts and minutae. On the whole, however, Verghese succeeds in communicating his deeply felt belief that the countries of the region have to overcome mutual fear and suspicion, if the quality of life of their Peoples is to be Unproved.
The population of the Brahmaputra-Ganga region will surpass 625 million by 2.000 A.D. To feed these many people, agricultural production has to increase by 2.5 per cent annually, and this will require irrigation water. But, as Verghese points out, irrigation is considered more a protection against famine than a means to increase productivity. Undertaken by rule-bound rather than result-oriented bureaucracies, projects often ignore farmer-participation and force them to adopt unacceptable cropping patterns. Many systems in India operate at low average irrigation-water efficiency because water management is neglected.
The region, with its perennial rivers and topography, is a storehouse of energy in the form of renewable hydro-power. In that sense it is one upon Kuwait even. Naptha Jhakri (Sutlej Basin), Chulcha, Arun III, Tehri, Karnali and Pancheswor are some of the projects which offer immense potential. However, several problems have clogged hydro-power development in the region, including long gestation periods for projects, time and cost over-runs, environmental objections and other uncertainties.
Nepal’s experience in hydro-power development, including the much-discussed Arun III project, is replete with problems that arise from the paucity of data, and also ad-hocism. A general failure to forsee the effect of natural processes and to understand sedimentation has been one of the banes of Indian dams and barrages. As Verghese points out, reservoirs in India heavily lose their, storage capacity due to siltation. All new project designs in the region have to take account of the sedimentation rate of Himalayan watercourses by providing larger “dead storage” and effective flushing mechanisms. Watershed management remains important in reducing silt-load.
The existing uncertainty or lack of knowledge regarding physical processes peculiar to the region has to be remedied, and Verghese is right to point to the urgent need to improve the data base. But this is easier said than done, given the lethargy that afflicts the region’s water bureaucracy.
While lack of data is a major problem, perhaps a bigger problem (at least in Nepal) is the penchant shown by those in power to team up with vested interests (read commission agents and contractors) to ram through projects that do not deserve priority. Kulekhani was one such project, built when the government should have prioritised other ready-to-go projects. As for Arun III, Nepal’s power development has been heavily mortgaged to this particular project at the cost of other worthy ventures. Unfortunately. Verghese does not even mention the word “corruption” spawned by the lure of the mega-bucks of mega-projects. In ignoring the role of corruption in power and irrigation projects in the Sub-continent, the author provides an incomplete picture of the political-economy of development.
Waters of Hope, rightly, addresses the problem of populations displaced by water projects. The insensitive uprooting of hapless villagers and indigenous people with inadequate compensation has been one of the failings of major water development projects. Verghese merely describes the rehabilitation packages offered in the Narmada, Tehri and Koel Krim projects. Packages always look good on paper; Verghese might have analysed their actual implementation. India’s past experience with projects such as Pong in Himachal does not inspire much hope.
A discussion of the problems faced by “oustees” and the challenges of satisfactory rehabilitation would have been most instructive for planners in Nepal, which in coming years is certain to undertake projects that will entail population displacement. The performance to date is no cause for ‘cheer. The Marsyangdi Project, commissioned in 1990, did not include any provision to rehabilitate the 222 displaced households. The fate of those displaced by the Kulekhani dam has been highlighted in the Nov/Dec 1989 issue of Himal. The Karnali project alone will require the relocation of an estimated 70,000 villagers.
The author questions the passions aroused by the submergence of forest tracts by reservoirs by arguing that there are other more significant causes for disappearing woodlands in the Himalaya. That is true, as Nepal’s experience proves. For the second time in one decade, there is today an ongoing plunder of what little forests remains.
Verghese himself is passionate when he tackles the “big-vs-small controversy. His water development philosophy shuns both the eco-fundamentalism of the neo-Malthusians as well as the arrogance of the technologically-hep breed. He does not agree that large projects are necessarily all bad and small projects are good per se, but that both have their proper place in development Large storage projects on snow-fed rivers were, in fact, found to be more dependable for agriculture during the 1987 drought. “Logic pushed beyond a point is sometimes reduced to absurdity,” the author writes and proceeds to ask, who can today think of an India without the Bhakra Dam? Verghese credits the dam and the Rajasthan Canal for enhancing ecology, going by the still uncounted trees planted along canal and command areas. The need is a middle path of wisdom and environmental prudence that may be achieved by a little planning and some foresight
The message that Verghese wants to convey is that flowing water must be transformed into a productive resource. Nepal, India, Bhutan and Bangladesh, he says, must shed the mistrust which presently marks their dealings.
All this is well and good, but how are these countries going to shed their mistrust of each other to look beyond national interest? Verghese asks each country to consider the other’s point-of-view and also to not minimise the advantages re aped from such projects. Nepal’s apprehensions vis-a-vis India, for example, stems from its two earlier miscalculations regarding the Kosi and Gandak projects. Verghese attempts to point to the benefits that Indians believe Nepal derived: a bridge over the Kosi, flood control, irrigation, 10,000 kW of power from the Kosi (no longer functional due to excessive siltation), and another 15,000 kW from the Gandak. About Indian worries, Verghese does not specify except to say that New Delhi’s perception of bilateralism in water resource sharing with Bangladesh and Nepal seems to go against its smaller neighours’ concept of internationalism.
For Nepalis, the next generation of power projects to feed the Indian market, after fulfilling domestic demand, seems attractive indeed. Projects like Karnali and Pancheswor (on the Mahakali) will remain beyond Nepal’s technical and financial capability well into the next century and Indian participation is essential. Alas, both countries are still mired in the distrust Verghese decries. An unprejudiced assessment of the modality of sharing costs and benefit has yet to take shape. Who will manage the mammoth projects, during and after construction? What would be the disbursement mechanism? We are still far from getting answers to these questions.
Would politicians and bureaucrats, in the continuing confusion that reigns in South Asia, risk committing their governments to projects likely to be completed in 25 years at the soonest? Who has the vision and who has the patience? While his heart is clearly in the right place, Verghese does not grapple adequately with these crucial questions. One is left waiting for the final analytical punch from the mass of descriptive information presented in Waters of Hope.
Verghese, who is presently working on a non-governmental regional water sharing study involving Bangladesh, India and Nepal, does offer some possible scenarios. He has ventured to state, with simple clarity, what we have been too scared, proud or uncaring to admit. As the central and most powerful country of the region, says Verghese, India has a catalytic role to play in ushering in the transformation of South Asia through the use of water. India need not fear the oft-repeated bogey of “security threat” from its smaller neighbours. In the end, it would be criminal to allow the waters to flow, unproductively, just because the region’s politicians cannot come together.
Waters of Hope, perhaps because of its focus on the northern basin, does not touch upon the sensitive issue of inter-state water use and sharing in India (Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala). A discussion of this subject would have been illuminating and instructive.
Soon, for the first time in history, the new government of India will be dealing with democratically elected representatives of its two neighbours, Nepal and Bangladesh. Will each country’s representative be up to the task of tackling the essentially political questions head-on? First, they have to face up to the problems that confront the region, of which water is one. Waters of Hope is a good place for them to begin.
Dixit is a water engineer and editor of Water Nepal.