Interlinking rivers will be a disaster
C. RAMMANOHAR REDDY
What is the solution if Nature plays truant?
THEY said that the conflicts in West Asia in the 21st Century would be over water and not petroleum. That has not yet happened. West Asian politics remains dominated by Israeli aggression, Arab dictatorships and U.S. interference. The water conflicts have surfaced elsewhere to South India.
We did not heed the warning from the violent Cauvery riots in Bangalore in 1991 against the interim award of the Cauvery Tribunal. A string of reasonable monsoons allowed Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to gloss over the issue for a decade. But now the effect of the drought of 2002 has exploded in our faces. While the political classes in both States play with fire, motley groups who want to demonstrate their chauvinism encourage them from the sidelines.
The immediate challenge is to find a mechanism by which both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu share the burden of "distress" equitably. But what is the permanent solution? The air has now got so poisoned and the Cauvery Tribunal has taken so long to complete its work that it is extremely unlikely that the two States will accept the final decision of the judicial body.
Unfortunately, the current crisis has become an opportunity for the short-sighted to dust off long-forgotten proposals that will create a different and gigantic set of human, ecological and economic problems.
Linking the Ganga, the Cauvery and all the rivers in between from the north to the south is the most extreme of these proposals. Another idea is to connect the three main rivers in the South the Godavari, the Krishna and the Cauvery so that all of peninsular India can share their waters. This proposal is rooted in a mindset which believes that the only way to tackle the problem is to find and use water wherever it might be and whatever the negative consequences. A project to connect the peninsular rivers will be a human disaster that will rival Mohammed-bin-Tughlak's experiment at shifting his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad.
It will be a disaster because while there is enough water if we care to use it carefully, there is never enough if our only approach is to use more and more of it. The causes of the Cauvery crisis lie in the second approach.
Farmers in the Thanjavur delta insist on growing three crops all of water-intensive paddy. The farmers in Mandya want to harness the Cauvery not to protect their agriculture with irrigation, but to cultivate another water-intensive crop, sugarcane. Similar examples of irrational and wasteful uses of water can be found elsewhere. The expansion of paddy cultivation in Punjab has led to a depletion of groundwater resources, so too sugarcane in Maharashtra. Connect the rivers, spread the waters, dry areas will become irrigated, farmers will use their new bounty to grow water-intensive crops that are not suited to local soils and indiscriminate irrigation will become the norm. It will then be a question of time before water shortages develop all over again and the intensity of today's conflicts is multiplied a thousand fold.
Connecting the rivers is an engineer's dream. But it will be a disaster because the gigantic project, which will take decades if not a century to complete, will cause massive human displacement. The construction of dams and the excavation of thousands of kilometres of canals will make villages disappear, flood towns and cut through millions of hectares of agricultural land. It will uproot millions, the number exceeding the population shifts of Partition. This mammoth project will be another kind of disaster as well because as its cost runs into hundreds of thousands, the only beneficiaries will be the civil contractors and the political distributors of largesse who will become crorepatis many times over.
History no doubt tells us that the only security agriculture can have comes from irrigation. This is the story of the Cauvery delta, 19th Century irrigation in eastern Uttar Pradesh and the early 20th Century canal networks of Punjab. But history also tells us that a blind faith in irrigation leads to over-exploitation of water resources and destroys the soils. This is the lesson as well from Punjab and U.P. where water-logging has caused salinity and rendered millions of hectares of good land infertile. Another recent lesson is that poor economic policy has pushed farmers to grow crops that consume more natural resources than are available and encouraged those with access to water to monopolise this most basic of resources. A degree of transportation of water over long distances will always be essential, especially for drinking purposes. But science now tells us that it is possible to carefully harvest the resources we have and to grow crops that use a minimum of water. There is enough water available, but only if we know how to use it efficiently. Even if a way is found to ship the immense glaciers of Antarctica to India, there will never be enough water if we can only think of consuming more and more of it. Because we have become incapable of thinking differently of using water carefully, equitably and economically we can only think of grandiose projects that feed our notions of grandeur. That is why the Cauvery crisis seems beyond solution and that is also why connecting the peninsular rivers will be the biggest human, economic and ecological disaster of independent India.
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