Rarely does he miss talking about it, but this year, for the first time since assuming office three years ago as the President of India A P J Abdul Kalam omitted his customary support for the linking of the country's rivers in his address on the eve of Republic Day. Since he has repeatedly set the framework and provided political cover for the government to pursue the US $ 120 billion project - purportedly to rid the nation of the twin problems of drought in some places and floods in others - should we regard his rare missed opportunity to tout the project with optimism?

Hardly. The UPA government has literally adopted the pet project of its predecessor, and any turnarounds now are unlikely. But coalition mathematics, in the form of the Common Minimum Programme (CMP), is the obstacle; in line with the CMP, the ruling alliance has constituted a Committee of Experts to replace the high-profile Task Force on Interlinking Rivers to address social and environmental concerns emanating from the project. The establishment of this committee has helped the ruling alliance fulfill its political obligation and also make room for dissenting voices on the other.

But this could all be a sham - for curiously, the committee’s terms of reference do not permit raising fundamental objections to the project per se. Expert opinion is only being sought towards strategic inputs to the environmental and socio-economic aspects related to the project. Thereafter, the onward march will resume.

What is the point of a committee that cannot conclude, based on its assessment of social and economic costs, that interlinking is best shelved permanently? As it is, much of the battle for the opponents to the project would seem to have already been lost. The ruling alliance has been elusive in examining the fundamental objections to the project; the left has been evasive in re-visiting its election manifesto that had serious reservations on the project; and the much-hyped National Advisory Council has so far been tight-lipped on this subject. If the Finance Minister’s pre-budget meeting with Mrs. Sonia Gandhi is any indication, the budget may have provisions for funding the project too.

What is the point of a committee that cannot conclude, based on its assessment of social and economic costs, that interlinking is best shelved permanently?
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Apparently, the Congress-led alliance is no different from the BJP-led NDA government in its water resource management planning. Contrary to the somewhat optimistic belief that Manmohan Singh’s government may opt out from the interlinking project, what we have witnessed instead is Congress emrace of the mega-folly as Rajiv Gandhi’s cherished dream! Mercifully, opposition from neighbouring countries has forced the Government to proceed with the Peninsular Component of ILR only; the Himalayan rivers are relatively safe in their natural homes.

While outright denial of the mega-project may have ramifications that no ruling government may want to risk, the manner in which the project has been dealt with thus far raises doubts over the competence of the hydrocracy to handle it.

Shockingly, the National Water Development Agency that has been conducting the feasibility studies for over two decades has placed an outdated 146-page feasibility report on the Ken-Batwa link on the Water Ministry’s website that has neither been approved by the technical committee nor has the requisite section on environmental aspects of the proposed rivers link. Once the Supreme Court ordered the publication of the feasibility reports, the Ministry had no choice but to publish it. The agency has technically complied with the SC directive, but surely what it has put out is not a feasibility report, simply some document purporting to meet the SC's order. Now we find out that the so-called studies that were claimed to have been conducted to establish feasibility are in fact sham. Mr. Kalam, who has put forward such a public faith in interlinking, surely must be embarassed at this revelation.

By using twenty-year-old population data and a decade-old agricultural statistics in the report, the NWDA has exposed its incompetence in handling a project of such magnitude. Can the unsuspecting masses rely on an incompetent agency whose reports will form the very basis for the launch of the mega-project? While NWDA may have turned itself into a laughing stock, it remains to be seen how much the SC is swayed by its shoddiness.

Unfortunately, it is quite unlikely that these developments would have any negative impact on the government’s resolve to get on with the project. That decision has nothing to do with social and economic concerns, or accountability to the people, and was always likely to be made without good evidentiary support. The irony is that no government, whatever its stripes, shies away from large projects, no matter what serious socio-economic and environmental implications may arise! Instead, obsessed with presenting economic figures that the international investment community will applaud, every party in power becomes convinced that it must have projects of the riverlinking kind to demonstrate its seriousness in pursuing economic growth.

Given the number of people whose livelihoods are tied to agriculture, high growth targets are achievable only if agriculture also participates. No wonder, then, the government has set itself a goal of achieving 4% growth in agriculture per year during the 10th Plan - to enhance agriculture's contribution to the country's gross domestic product. The operational chief of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, has indicated increased focus on irrigation to accomplish these targets, which itself has raised eyebrows (see this article on corruption in irrigation projects and this one on the Planning Commission). Clearly, interlinking of rivers is the most significant irrigation project in the country’s current development portfolio. Even the World Bank's report India: Re-energizing the Agricultural Sector to Sustain Growth and Reduce Poverty says that investment climate in the rural sector can only improve through enhanced investments in irrigation, rural markets and services.

By an inverted logic, therefore, the steps needed to achieve the growth rate stand accepted! But accepting a target growth rate and exempting the growth steps from scrutiny is surely a paradox. But it has also become a convenient paradox, under which successive governments feel no obligation to address the socio-economic consequences of their proposals. Those who oppose mindless investment in infrastructure, therefore, must develop an alternate growth paradigm that can help attain the desired economic growth rates in rural areas without having to invest in infrastructure (e.g. in irrigation) as the driver of the agriculture growth engine.