Six prominent advocates of people centred policies met President Abdul Kalam on 20 April over the controversial and massive Interlinking of Rivers project proposal. They were Medha Patkar, L.C.Jain, Kuldip Nayar, Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere (Retd), Himanshu Thakkar and Ramaswamy R. Iyer.

Representing a growing body of opinion in the country about the ILR project, the six citizens were concerned that Dr.Kalam was repeatedly pushing for the ILR project at every possible opportunity in various fora, including when addressing school children. Taken together with the the Supreme Court's favourable views of the project, the entire government planning process with its checks and balances was (perhaps inadvertently) running the risk of being short-circuited.

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They engaged Dr.Kalam to persuade him to re-think some of the points that he has been stressing in favour of ILR, especially that flood and drought can be relieved at one shot by transferring surplus flood water to drought-prone regions. The meeting lasted around 45 minutes. Dr.Kalam is reported to have raised several questions at the meeting. On 3 May, the same individuals sent a jointly signed letter to the President addressing his questions and concerns.

The transcript of the letter.

* * *

The Hon’ble Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam,
President of India
Rashtrapati Bhawan
New Delhi 110001

03 May 2005

Respected Rashtrapatiji,

We are very grateful to you for having given us an appointment on 20 April 2005 and for sparing a good deal of your valuable time for the meeting.

During the course of the meeting, you kindly made some observations and raised some questions, to which it was not possible for us to respond immediately and adequately. However, the points were important and needed to be answered properly. In fact, you asked us for notes on some of your questions. In this letter we are therefore taking the liberty of putting down some of your comments and questions in writing and responding to them.

The following recapitulation of your questions and comments is subject to your correction if there is any inaccuracy in it.

(1) “There are floods in Assam and Bihar and droughts in Rajasthan. Through water-transfers, it makes sense to moderate the former and mitigate the latter.”

(2) “There are huge floods in the Brahmaputra. How can we use them? Let us not talk about flood management; let us think about how the flood waters can be used

(3) “How much of the Brahmaputra basin or catchment is outside India? How can you do water-harvesting there?” (Similarly about the Ganga.)

(4) “Rainwater harvesting is all right if there is rain. How can we do water harvesting in Rajasthan?”

(5) (In the context of work done by Tarun Bharat Sangh in Alwar): “How much water is a villager getting in those villages, and how much does a citizen of Delhi get and waste?”

(6) “Pointing to success stories (local augmentation of availability through water harvesting, social mobilization) in a few villages here and there is not enough. We have to think about the 600,000 villages of India.”

(7) “Narmada waters are now available in Kutch. Is that not a good thing?”

(8) “It is not good to be negative all the time. Instead of saying why things cannot be done, let us consider how they can be done.”

(9) “The ILR is not yet a Project. Everything will come into the public domain. The Project will be discussed in Parliament. There will be plenty of opportunities to examine everything in due course. There is no need for anxiety at this stage.”

Some of those issues and questions are covered in the submission that we left with you, but (even at the cost of repetition) we would like to address them briefly and in broad terms here. The points are categorized for convenience.

I. Floods and droughts (questions 1 and 2):

(a) Yes, there are floods in Assam and Bihar, and droughts in Rajasthan and elsewhere. The answer to the latter does not lie in the former. The two phenomena have to be dealt with separately.

(b) Floods (sometimes high floods and occasionally catastrophic ones) are bound to occur in our rivers periodically. They cannot be prevented or controlled. Embankments are a remedy worse than the disease. Big dams (if properly operated – which is problematic because of the claims of irrigation and power-generation) may moderate floods to a small extent, but may themselves cause problems if waters have to be released in the interest of the safety of structures. (This has happened from time to time.)

Increasing green cover in the catchment area, extensive water harvesting, groundwater recharging, and so on, may perhaps slightly reduce the incidence of floods. However, floods will occur from time to time, and we have to learn to live with them, minimize harm and damage and maximize benefits. Good and timely information systems, and contingency plans for dealing with disaster when it comes, are the answers.

(c) As for ‘using’ flood waters, floods and waters that flow to the sea are in fact ‘used’ waters and not ‘wasted’ waters. Floods bring many benefits. They carry silt and make lands fertile; deltaic areas are their creation; that is why all folklore praises floodwaters as a ‘gift’. Waters that flow to the sea also serve many economic, social, cultural, ecological and other purposes, including the control of salinity ingress from the sea.

(d) Massive transfers (which might moderate floods to some extent) are infeasible, and if attempted, will cause enormous problems. Small diversions through canals will have hardly any ‘moderating’ effect during the flood season, but could cause problems downstream in the lean season. (A 100m-wide 10m-deep canal that can carry only about 1,500 cumecs cannot make a dent on the Ganga floods that are around 50,000 cumecs on an average, while the same level of diversion can seriously deprive the downstream area of water during the lean season when the river flow is at 5,280 cumecs.)

(e) In so far as the Brahmaputra is concerned, its location in a corner of India, its sheer size (it can be 18 km wide in places), and the magnitude of its floods (60,000 cumecs), are such that its waters simply cannot be ‘transferred’ to distant areas. Any such attempt will make little techno-economic sense. The best that can be done is to use the waters locally to the advantage of the North-eastern States. There are apprehensions (well-founded or not) in the Northeast of their waters being taken away. It seems unwise to add one more irritant in an already troubled area. (The links envisaging transfers from the Ganga and the Brahmaputra have also caused great anxiety in Bangladesh. That anxiety needs to be allayed through appropriate explanations.)

(f) As for droughts, experience of decades has shown that the existence of thousands of dams, reservoirs and canals has not prevented or reduced droughts. (Incidentally, droughts are not entirely natural phenomena; there are also politico-socio-economic factors behind them.) The answer to droughts has to be primarily local. It is only in an exceptional case where local answers are inadequate or infeasible that one needs to think of bringing in external water. In any case, the ILR will not serve the needs of the uplands and dry lands of India.

II. Rainwater-Harvesting and Watershed Development (questions 3 to 7):

(a) It is true that parts of the catchments of the Himalayan rivers lie in the mountains and outside India. When we talk about water harvesting, we usually have in mind areas in central, western and southern parts of the country with medium to low rainfall, and not mountainous or high-rainfall areas in the country, much less areas outside the country. However, among the early success stories in water harvesting was Sukhomajri in the Shivaliks; and even Cherrapunji, one of the wettest places on earth in terms of seasonal rainfall, suffers from drinking-water shortages in the lean season because of rapid runoff, and rainwater harvesting seems to be the only answer to its problem.

(b) As for the question “How can rainwater harvesting be done in Rajasthan?” the answer is that it has been done, and successfully. The well-known efforts of Rajendra Singh and Tarun Bharat Sangh have covered several hundred villages, and the message continues to spread not merely in Rajasthan but in other low-rainfall areas. Earlier, in the transformation that Annasaheb Hazare brought about in Ralegan Siddhi (Ahmadnagar District, Maharashtra), water harvesting was an important element. The celebrated example of Ralegan Siddhi inspired a similar transformation in another nearby village (Hiwri Bazaar) under the leadership of Sarpanch Popat Pawar, and this village too has become well known.

In Gujarat, the Sadguru Foundation and other institutions such as VIKSAT have done remarkable work, again in low-rainfall areas. In the southern States, Dhan Foundation has been trying to bring about the restoration of tanks. Dr. G.N.S. Reddy of BAIF Institute of Rural Development has worked wonders in a 1,000 ha area of Mylanahalli village in the semi-arid Hassan District of Karnataka by watershed management. We are therefore talking, not about isolated local initiatives, but about a movement that is gathering strength.

The Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, has brought out two important books (‘Dying Wisdom’ on the subject of traditional water management practices and ‘Making Water Everybody’s Business’ on water harvesting), and its efforts in this and other water-related matters have been recognized by the award to it of the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize 2005. It is clear that improving water availability does not always or necessarily call for mass transfer of water from distant river basins.

(c) The benefits brought by local community-led water harvesting are not negligible. The instances mentioned above not only brought about prosperity and economic transformation, but they enabled the villages in question to cope with three or four successive droughts. If such instances are multiplied in thousands across the country, the results will not be minor or insignificant. Two distinguished scholars (Profs. Kanchan Chopra and Biswanath Goldar of the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi) have estimated the “additional runoff capture” as 140 BCM, which is a substantial figure. Others may differ on the number, but there is no reason to doubt that this can be a significant component of national water planning. (In other words, the 600,000 villages of the country can benefit by this approach; it is difficult to say whether, and if so to what extent they will benefit from the ILR Project.)

The National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development Plan in its report (1999) had stressed the importance of local community-led water-augmentation activities. The former Prime Minister Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee had commended this in his Address to the National Water Resources Council in April 2002. These ideas are now virtually part of mainstream thinking, and figure in the national Plan and the Government of India’s Budget.

(d) As for ‘Narmada water in Kutch’, the Sardar Sarovar Dam (now at 110 m) and reservoir have been built and the waters have to be used, including perhaps in Kutch. However, as was pointed out at the meeting, there have been successful instances of water harvesting in Kutch, and if these had been multiplied, taking Narmada water to Kutch might not have been necessary.

III. Being positive rather than negative (point 8):

We have not been content to criticize, but have been putting forward alternatives such as local, community-led water harvesting initiatives and watershed development. Even under the ILR, it is possible that some of the individual links may be worth considering. We have suggested that they should be properly formulated, examined, evaluated in relation to alternatives and options, approved by the appropriate committees and organizations, budgeted for, and undertaken. We have been questioning the announcement of a massive project when neither the umbrella scheme nor the component links have been formulated, examined or approved. This is merely a reminder of existing procedures (some of them statutory).

IV. “The ILR is not yet a Project. Everything will be in the public domain in due course..” (point 9):

(a) If the ILR is not yet a Project, we wonder how it could be announced at the Prime Minister’s level, monitored by the Supreme Court, and repeatedly commended by the President of India. (If it is too early to pass adverse judgments on the ‘Project’ or ‘Concept’, it seems also too early to praise it or commend it as the answer to the country’s problems.)

(b) For three years we have been promised that everything would be put in the public domain, but those promises remain unfulfilled. At a meeting in Pune on 11 February 2004, the former Chairman of the Task Force on ILR, Shri Suresh Prabhu, actually retracted the old promise and said that the Pre-feasibility and Feasibility Reports could not be made available. What confidence can we have in promises of openness or transparency?

(c) Finally, one Feasibility Report (on the Ken-Betwa link) has been made available. The Link had earlier been studied by the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). The Feasibility Report has now been studied by two distinguished academics. All these studies have found the proposal to be seriously wanting. This makes it all the more necessary for the Government to put all the remaining reports and studies in the public domain for study. It is the absence of information that gives rise to anxieties and apprehensions. What is needed is the sharing of information and agreement on a framework for appraisal and decision-making.

"Rather than making the river-linking scheme the touchstone of patriotism, I think we should go cautiously."

-- Jairam Ramesh, MP (Rajya Sabha)

 •  Water debate in Rajya Sabha
Those of us who have been invited to the National Water Convention on the theme of the ILR Project, to be held on 11 May 2005, will certainly participate in it, present our papers, and ask for information and reports. We look forward to listening to your Inaugural Address at the Convention. In this context, our earnest and respectful request to you is to study the material that we have submitted to you, including this letter, and give careful consideration to the points that we have made.

May we add that on the very day that we had our meeting with you, there was a debate on the working of the Ministry of Water Resources in the Rajya Sabha, and the River-Linking Project figured in the debate. Shri Jairam Ramesh, MP (RS), Congress, made some cautionary observations on the subject. We would like to draw your attention to the extract from his speech, which is reproduced below.

Once again, our grateful thanks to you for meeting us, and encouraging us to write to you.

Yours sincerely,

Medha Patkar, L. C. Jain , Kuldip Nayar, Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere (Retd), Himanshu Thakkar, Ramaswamy R. Iyer.