If the central government is looking for one good justification for its continuously forming high-powered statutory authorities to tackle all sorts of problems in this era of decentralisation and people-oriented management, the words of Appleby provide just that. If the National Biodiversity Authority has been created for biodiversity protection, Disaster Management authorities for mitigating disasters and a Tiger Protection Authority is on the anvil to protect tigers, then the proposal to constitute a North East Water Resources Authority is well in line with the tradition to create authorities to tackle problems. Having said that, the proposal for setting up this last Authority - The North East Water Resources Authority - deserves scrutiny simply because of its far-reaching implications for the entire nation and not just the North East.

The Prime Minster is keen on putting in place such an Authority though legislation. He stated on his visit to the North East in 2004 that "the government will consider establishing a cohesive, autonomous self contained entity called the Brahmaputra Valley Authority or the North East Water Resources Authority to provide effective flood control, generate electricity, provide irrigation facilities and develop infrastructure. Given managerial ad financial autonomy, equipped with top class manpower, and backed by Parliamentary sanction, such a body could be the instrument for transforming the region." A Task Force of the Union Ministry of Water Resources constituted at the Prime Minster's instance has recently backed the Prime Minister's proposal.

Multi-purpose river valley projects mooted by the Brahmaputra Board were stalled for specific reasons ranging from environmental damage, interventions of the Supreme Court, state government objections and other reasons.

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The expectation from the proposed Authority is the preparation of a master plan for development of the Brahmaputra river basin in an integrated manner, incorporating issues of irrigation, flood and erosion control, hydropower, navigation etc. A close look at the proposed functions also suggests that the Authority will have a wide ranging mandate going beyond the above to include promotion of agriculture, fisheries, industries and also economic and general well being of the region.

The inspiration for the Authority apparently comes from the well known Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) constituted in the United States way back in 1933. The TVA was the result of a grand vision and this was made clear by the first chairperson of TVA, Arthur Morgan, who pointed out that President Roosevelt, while speaking to him, "did not talk at all about electricity, dams, or fertilizer but rather about the chance to create a designed and planned social and economic order". Despite that vision, within three years of the constitution of the Authority, an observer commenting on its substantially reduced actual area of operation said, that "the TVA should have been called the Tennessee Valley Power Production and Flood Control Corporation". (From the book Experiencing the State, James Scott, Oxford University Press, 2006)

That little piece of American history should serve as a ringing reminder to the brains behind the proposed North East Water Resources Authority. By way of abundant caution let us make the lesson explicit: perhaps the strength of the proposed Authority will depend on clearly defining its limitations! Will the Authority serve better if it redefines itself as a Power Production and Flood Control Authority? The history of the North East suggests that even on these two subjects, a consensus of the state governments have been elusive. In this context, one cannot lose sight of the fact that the implementation of the proposal for the Authority depends on the consent of the concerned state governments. Notably, Arunachal Pradesh has serious reservations on the mandate of the proposed Authority. The state's concerns primarily emanate from the fact that the state stands to lose land due to submergence through dams and river valley projects that the proposed Authority is likely to push through. Despite this reality on the ground, Roosevelt's assertion on 'planned social and economic order' are almost echoed by Prime Minister Singh's emphasis on 'transforming the region' a good 70 years later!

Singh's proposal of a 'Brahmaputra Valley Authority' would definitely have the jurisdiction of the Brahmaputra Board, plus more. The big question however for the proposed Authority is how does it learn - and distinguish its approach - from the existing Brahmaputra Board? Like the proposed Authority, Parliament set up and empowered the Brahmaputra Board in 1980 by a legislation. A range of factors, including persistent inter-state disputes limited its impact, reducing it largely to a master plan-making body, which in turn, never allowed it to be a basin-level river authority. Multi-purpose river valley projects mooted by the Brahmaputra Board were stalled for specific reasons, ranging from environmental damage, interventions of the Supreme Court, having to negotiate along with Bodoland Territorial Autonomous District in a case and also the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh taking a public position that he would not be allowing a single dam in his state.

Without addressing the problems that hampered the Board, the proposed Authority is unlikely to make much progress. The creation of the high-powered Authority sounds glamorous, but ultimately, hard solutions for specific schemes would need to be arrived at through hard ways. In this regard, how the proposed authority will succeed where the Brahmaputra Board failed needs to be made clear.

One way is to involve all affected people in decision making. How does an Authority with 'top class manpower' in a part of the country where most people feel alienated from the government ensure this? Appleby only provides an escape route masquerading as a justification to this trickiest question.