Rs 4,000 crore vs Rs 10 crore

The emperor's new river-linking scheme is expensive

By Anupam Mishra
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Rs 4,000 crore vs Rs 10 crore

-- "Rainfall and floods are annual features in many parts of the country. Instead of thinking on interlinking of rivers only during flood and drought, it's time we implement this programme with a great sense of urgency. We need to make an effort to overcome various hurdles in our way to the implementation of this major project. I feel it has the promise of freeing the country from the endless cycle of floods and droughts."
-- President A P J Abdul Kalam
Eve of Independence Day speech, August 14, 2005

"Large parts of our country are still dependent on rainfall and we will focus on removing the problems of farmers in dry land areas. We are considering setting up a National Rainfed Area Authority for this purpose."

-- Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
Independence Day speech, August 15, 2005.

The State speaks in many voices, often at once. Our national emblem has four lions looking in four directions. While this can be interpreted as lack of coherence, it can also be seen as a mark of diversity. The State's consistency is revealed in the emphasis it places on different voices coming from different directions.

While within ten days of president Kalam's exhortation on river-linking, Uttar Pradesh (up) and Madhya Pradesh (mp) agreed to link the Ken and Betwa rivers, we are yet to hear of the National Rainfed Area Authority the prime minister promised. The Ken-Betwa link's project report will cost Rs 30 crore. The scheme itself will cost Rs 4,000 crore.

If we were to put the president's and the prime minister's views together, better management of rainwater should also be given a chance to meet the requirements of the area expected to gain from the Ken-Betwa link. It's only fair competition. After having spent about two decades researching rainwater management, it's my estimate that the area can meet its water requirements with an investment of Rs 10 crore, and a fraction of the commitment the Indian polity is showing to river-linking. I have seen 700 villages in Alwar, Rajasthan, improving their water availability with an expenditure of Rs 5 crore.

Actually, the time when India's polity became obsessed with the scheme to interlink rivers needs scrutiny. A nuclear scientist and poet was president -- no ordinary Rajendra Prasad. A poet and a mass leader was prime minister. An iron man was home minister, then unperturbed by ghosts of Mohammed Ali Jinnah. A strong lady, not yet a renouncer of power, was leader of opposition. Learned justices were ensconced in the country's highest court. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, an organisation committed to social action at the grassroots level, was the intellectual guardian of the single largest party in the government. Not to mention the Indian bureaucracy with its hallmark nameless, faceless efficiency.

It's incredible that such diverse entities were in complete unison over the biggest scheme India has ever imagined. When it comes to a relatively small-time political leader like Madan Lal Khurana, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani -- the closest of friends for decades -- end up washing dirty linen in public. But on river-linking, there is complete consensus.

The word consensus has never sounded as ominous.

Pigs might fly in up, given Japanese encephalitis, but it won't give mp irrigation. up can't give drinking water to Delhi, even if chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav is willing. Because Ajit Singh, the strongman in western up won't let his farmers be denied irrigation even if people in Delhi die of thirst (I'm not defending Delhi's wasteful habits here).

The river-linking scheme is The Emperor's New Clothes, to borrow from Hans Christian Anderson's 1837 story. Nobody but a child has the courage to say the king is naked. The spirit of that child is also there in our national emblem, in the one lion that can't be seen. That is the face of government that can do good.

Perhaps that will call out for the National Rainfed Area Authority.

Anupam Mishra is secretary, Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi

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