Gushing concern

around 500 residents of Pune jostled for space at the S M Joshi memorial hall on February 11. They were keen to get a ringside view of what was perhaps the first interaction between the Union government's task force on interlinking of rivers and civil society representatives.

The debate turned into a verbal slugfest in which neither side pulled its punches. Finally, non-governmental organisations (ngos) pinned the task force down on the latter's lack of transparency regarding the Rs 5.6-lakh-crore project. The task force was also hard put to answer some probing questions posed by members of the public.

The National Alliance of People's Movements (napm) organised the event. Among those who attended it were task force chairperson and former Union cabinet minister Suresh Prabhu, and Narmada Bachao Andolan activist Medha Patkar.

The river networking concept is based on the transfer of water from surplus to deficit river basins (see: Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 13, November 30, 2002). Prabhu began by pointing out that the subject had been broached as early as the 1950s. On the current status of the programme, he revealed that a total of 30 river linkages were proposed. Eight pre-feasibility reports had been prepared and despatched to the state governments, he added. Significantly, none of these reports have been made public. Highlighting this aspect, Patkar said: "If the reports are with the state governments, surely the task force is empowered to procure them for the public.'

Ramaswamy Iyer, ex-secretary, Union ministry of water resources, asked how the project's cost was assessed without a single detailed report. Prabhu retorted that several institutions such as the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (neeri), The Energy and Resources Institute (teri) and the Indian Space Research Organisation (isro) were studying the project.

But Patkar expressed doubts about the accuracy of government reports. She cited the instance of Madhya Pradesh's Ken river and Betwa basin, which were declared surplus and deficit, respectively, in a booklet provided to the participants of the meeting by the task force. "It is just the other way round,' she asserted, quoting from a report prepared by Himanshu Thakkar of New Delhi-based ngo South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People.

Task force member C C Patel explained that only excess water would be tapped from rivers during floods. "This will be stored in special reservoirs and sent to deficit areas,' he added. These arguments, however, did not wash with activists such as napm member Sudhir Vombatkere and environmentalist Vijay Paranjpe, who presided over the function.

Meanwhile, the people voiced some key concerns. They wanted to know why integrated water management couldn't be undertaken in river basins instead of inter-basin transfer. They also wondered whether states were in a position to contribute to the mammoth interlinking exercise.