There have been arguments for and against the desirability of the grand River linking Project for some time now. However, these arguments face one fact: that the national Executive - an executive that is likely to stay on - and the ‘most powerful Supreme Court in the world’ had already taken a decision in favour of the project. Knowing this, there is a need to also focus on the feasibility and specific aspects of execution and not merely the intentions behind and the desirability of this mega project. If an objective assessment of these aspects finds that the project simply cannot go ahead in its present form and strategies, the ambitious plan should either be shelved or the proponents should start over again. We need to get real; this realization informs the facts and arguments below.

Some recent developments on the dream of linking the rivers of the country are noteworthy. The Chairman of the Task Force for Linking Rivers Mr. Suresh Prabhu, has recently resigned due to the Lok Sabha elections. This was close on the heels of the resignation of the Member Secretary of the Task Force. More than a year after the project was announced by the Prime Minister, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), the apex technical body in charge of the executing the mega project, was without a head. Seen in that light, the recent resignations are more bad news. Elsewhere there has been news that the Ken-Betwa link involving Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh has also not come through. It was one of the critical links under the Peninsular Component of of the River linking plan.

The interlinking of the Ken river with the Betwa had been proposed by the NWDA and this was perceived to be one of the easier and among the least controversial of the links. However, even after a technical go ahead for the proposed link, the present Chief Minister of U.P. has jettisoned the initiative saying that the presumption that there are surplus waters in the Ken basin to be diverted to the water deficit Betwa basin is incorrect. In the absence of any specific study supporting this, the UP CM's decision – more aptly an announcement - can only be characterized as political and grounded more on expediency in times of elections than on principles.

Take the example of another proposed link in the peninsular component: The Parvati – Kali - Sindh – Chambal Link. Territorially these rivers fall into the states of MP and Rajasthan. Despite the two states being run by the same political party - which is also in charge at the centre - it has not been possible thus for to arrive at any sort of an agreement on this comparatively small and technically feasible link.

India now has a reasonably good policy mandate for inter basin transfers of waters. The National Water Policy both in 1987 and the new one in 2002 had said that water should be made available to water shortage areas. The National Water Policy 2002 has recently asserted that “the water sharing/distribution amongst the states should be guided by a national prospective with due regard to water resource availability and needs with in the river basin”. It also included guidelines for water short states outside the basin that need to be involved for future agreements amongst the basin states. In addition, there is an existing ‘Draft National Policy Guidelines For Water Allocation amongst the States’ prepared by the Ministry of Water Resources that has been under consideration for over a decade. Despite all of this, States seem to be agreeing to disagree on proposed links.

These draft guidelines for inter basin transfers have proposed that the centre would take care of the allocation required in the national interest. But little progress has been made by both the Centre and State in actually finalizing these guidelines. In some sense, the policy directives and drafts guidelines seem to be a good means of buying time and pushing key central questions repeatedly under the carpet. Some of these can be discussed here.

Policy assertions for transferring the river water between states are multiplying thick and fast, but a mandatory legal regime for diversion of surplus water to deficit areas simply does not exist.
When it comes to the mandate for inter basin transfer of river water it is absolutely critical to appreciate the distinction between policy and the law. While the policy assertions for transferring the river water based on a national interest perspective are multiplying thick and fast, the approach has not manifested itself in any single change in any point of law applicable in inter-state river projects. Thus while we have scores of policy assertions for facilitating inter-basin transfer of waters, a mandatory legal regime for diversion of surplus water to deficit areas simply does not exist.

This is not unexplainable. Straightaway, there is a legal obstacle as ‘Water’ is a State Object. Even though this obstacle can be overcome even within the existing legal framework, there is a low likelihood of this happening. An obvious reason is that the transfer of waters from one state to another state is a highly political issue and as the recent stand of the Chief Minister of UP in the context of Ken-Betwa link suggests, no state would be willing to accept that it has surplus flow after meeting its requirement. Quite simply, accepting the existence of surplus waters does not seem to make political sense in a water-starved nation.

It is hardly surprising therefore that on last count more than half a dozen Chief Ministers of various States have gone public voicing their opposition to the river linking project itself. In fact how much the States relate to the Project has been clear right from the time when only one State (Tamilnadu) responded favourably to the notice issued by the Supreme Court to all the Sates to elicit their stand on the mega project. In this context also note that the resolution constituting the Task Force in December 2002 appended a time table for interlinking the rivers according to which by May/June 2003 the task force was to carry out the meetings with Chief Ministers “to deliberate over the project and to elicit their cooperation”.

(Every citizen has a right to know each and every public act of the government; it is high time the task force submitted a public progress report to the nation on the issue.)

It has been suggested by those who believe that the solution to the problems of water and in particular inter-state disputes lies in stronger central government for these aspects – that water, including inter-state rivers, should be made a subject either under the Union list or at least under the Concurrent least of the Constitution. But the Sarkaria Commission reviewed the question over two decades back, and concluded that the present Constitutional position is proper and should be maintained. Since then, there has been no serious debate on the issue.

There are other critical issues that now demand resolution in the context of the River Linking Project. It has been argued that instead of a state-wise approach to linking rivers, a basin-wise planning approach could be more useful and in this regard there have been repeated suggestions to institute River Basin Organizations (RBOs) at the basin level. However, an entirely basin-wise planning approach ignoring the state-wise or regional considerations can also be hazardous.

An example provided by Indian Water Resources Society strengthens the point. The society has argued that a total basin-wise planning approach “may make the upstream states suffer large submergence, while reducing their irrigation benefits through costly canals in rugged topography in favour of simpler canals in plain lands lower down. Even if more efficient in terms of national economy, such actions may be objectionable. The fact that states in India represent not only political administrative units, but also sub-cultures which need to be preserved and developed, may give more credence to such objections.” Clearly this is an intricate question but ignoring it is surely not the answer.

In the context of funding of inter-basin transfer projects, the National Commission for Water Resources Development had raised an important question in 1999: “should such a project be taken up as a Central Project or a Joint Project involving the Centre and the concerned states or a joint project of the States concerned?” Notably the Commission felt that the answer to the question would be ‘project specific’ presumably depending on the specifics of each of the proposed links. But given that all inter-basin transfer projects are currently being considered as constituting a large national grid, surely the answer to the all important question can no longer be project specific.

The paradox of trying to come up with a bottom up approach to the execution of a top down decision has to be contended with – head on and sooner not later.
 •  Interlinking the Chief Ministers
Even then, States merely agreeing with the Centre in national interest may also not be the end of the problem. The Ken Betwa link case would also suggest that the issues involved might need to be thrashed out first at the level of the State where solutions acceptable to the local populace may be evolved. Forcing the project from the Centre, or it being pushed by the Supreme Court which continues to oversee the Project, is likely to lead to initiatives that would be insensitive to local issues. Political statements at the end of the day cater to the dominant public opinions and if links are seen as going against popular aspirations, political commitment for them would stay elusive.

In sum, the paradox of trying to come up with a bottom up approach to the execution of a top down decision has to be contended with – head on and sooner not later. Having said that, without any agreement among the States both on the desirability and feasibility on the proposed links, carrying out separate negotiations in respect of each of the small and big links appears to be an exercise that is so unrealistically ambitious that it may just be futile. We just cannot be putting the cart before the horse and then keep wondering why the horse is not galloping!