Farce on wrong flows

The issue of interbasin transfer of water in India has got muddied by controversies and official indolence

Published: Sunday 15 December 1996

AT A multi-disciplinary panel discussion on "Interbasin Transfer of Water", organised by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) in New Delhi on November 20, 1996, the former secretary of union ministry of water resources, M S Reddy, said, "Whenever I think of Interbasin Transfer of Water (ITW), one question that comes to my mind is, is it tragedy or farce? It seems it is both."

The genesis of interbasin transfer, as was pointed out by R B Shah, former chairman of the Central Water Commission (CWC) and C C Patel, former secretary to the union ministry of irrigation in the early '80s, was in the technical non-feasibility of K L Rao's (irrigation minister in Pandit Nehru's cabinet) proposal of the National Water Grid in 1972 and Dastur's plan of Garland Canal in 1974 (proposing linking up all major rivers).

Said Patel, "Former Prime Minister Morarji Desai asked if we had a more feasible proposal if this was not feasible. That gave birth to a task force, whose report National Perspective on Water Development, submitted in 1982, was liked by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who immediately decided to form the nwda for preparing feasibility and detailed project reports for the proposal."

The nwda has, by now, prepared proposals for 20 links in Himalayan rivers and 17 links for peninsular regions, and it is hoped that some of the links investigated by the nwda will be taken up for implementation during the Ninth Five Year Plan.

The basic philosophy of the itw is based on the premise that there are river basins with surplus water and there are water deficit basins. "Hence, it seems logical that water is transferred from areas where water is going waste to basins where there is acute water shortage." said Shah.

The other strong argument supporting the itw is the scary projections of future food requirements. The most important of the criticisms of the itw comes from the fact that without optimum planning and development of water resources at the basin level, there is no point in talking about interbasin transfers.

Countering Patel's view that "we need a Constitutional amendment to make water a central subject", Reddy said, "I don't think that nationalising water resources will solve the problems unless we see the issue in totality. We need to look at all the available alternatives to water resources development, including the potential of extensive microwatershed development, optimum basin level planning and utilisation, increase the efficiency of available water resources, and our actual requirements."

As a matter of fact, Reddy told Down To Earth that the Rs 9 crore spent annually by the Centre on the nwda is not justified and that the agency can be scrapped. Said S Maudgal, senior advisor to the Union ministry of environment and forests and one of the panelists, "The obsession with more of the same, more of the storages without learning lessons from the past mistakes is not desirable. How do you define which are surplus and deficit areas? Have we looked at the issues of carrying capacity and biodiversity of the areas we are talking about? Have we exhausted the possibility of the use of water in river basins as available now? What quality of life are we talking about? We have to take a multi-sectoral view with all these issues."

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