Arthur Cotton's offsprings

Civil engineers love river-linking, and hate all who question it

By Avilash Roul
Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Arthur Cotton's offsprings

-- Developmental issues held centre stage during the recent general elections. Curiously, however, there was little debate on that mother of all development projects -- interlinking rivers (ilr). In fact, an opinion poll conducted by the news weekly, India Today, showed that 78 per cent voters spread over 185 constituencies supported the project. Does this indicate widespread consensus about interlinking? Or is it that opposing voices have been stifled? The ground realities point to the latter.

In fact, nearly 18 months after the Supreme Court's (sc's) famous directive, the interlinking programme has not managed consensus among stakeholders. The sc has been informed that the progress on preparing feasibility reports is quite slow. Only eight out of 31 envisaged linkages have been prepared so far. So, it is almost certain that the task force on river linking would not be able to prepare all feasibility reports by the 2006 deadline.
Slander mongering Such tardy progress has made little difference to the pro- ilr lobby -- mainly civil engineers from the Indian Water Resources Society and the Indian Institute of Engineers. In fact, their favourite ploy today is raising aspersions on the expertise of environmental non-governmental organisations that oppose them. Among other things, they question the centuries'-old wisdom of rainwater harvesting. According to them, such "non-professional groups" have produced no scientific data or empirical data to demonstrate the pertinence of concepts such as rainwater harvesting and watershed management vis--vis ilr.

Such indiscriminate attack was in fact initiated by the National Water Development Agency by tossing up insinuations such as "pseudo-environmentalists," "self-claimed experts" "dolphin lovers," and so on. Of course, such slander mongerers conveniently forget that ilr's critics include experts such as Bharat Singh -- distinguished engineer and former vic-chancellor, Roorkee University -- and former Union water secretary, Ramaswamy R Iyer. In fact, according to Iyer, those questioning river linking include an engineering doyen, a present member of the Planning Commission and two of his successors as Union water secretary.
A conspicuous silence Moreover, why should a handful of engineers question the experise of ilr's critics? In fact, one can easily turn around and label these so-called professionals' dream programme as a technological fantasy. And what are the exact bases of the opinion polls that claim support for river-linking? For all one knows, they might be as flawed as the ones conducted before the recently concluded general elections.

River-linking was first mooted by Arthur Cotton in the mid-nineteenth century and was subsequently proposed again by C P Ramaswamy Aiyer in 1926, K L Rao in 1972 and K G Dastur in 1977. All these projects were found unfeasible. So what is new about the new programme? ilr's supporters have conveniently elided discussion on such doubts; in fact, the few feasibility reports remain cocooned in secrecy. Such denial of information has frustrated the anti-river linking group no end. Meanwhile, Goa has become the first state to join the ilr bandwagon and Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh (all states governed by the Bharatiya Janata Party) are about to follow suit.
Take proper stock If ilr is to succeed, it must be accompanied by a comprehensive analysis that takes stock of its engineering (civil as well as hydro-geological) and technological aspects. The study should also analyse the project's socio-economic and environmental fallouts. At the same time, the environmental organisations that support rainwater harvesting, watershed management and traditional knowledge must pick up the gauntlet and furnish convincing data to strengthen the claims of these systems vis-a-vis ilr. That will put all aspersions to rest.

Avilash Roul is a research scholar at the New Delhi-based Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict

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