Why Nationalisation Of Rivers Is A Distant Dream For India

Ramesh Babu

Mar 11, 2018, 03:49 PM | Updated 03:49 PM IST

River Cauvery
River Cauvery
  • Instead of tussling over sharing river waters, the states in need may as well look at adopting innovative water conservation techniques.
  • But are the alternatives to nationalisation of rivers enough to meet water demand?
  • During a meeting over Cauvery River Authority held by then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, then chief minister of Tamil Nadu J Jayalalithaa walked out of the meeting protesting against the disinclination in nationalising rivers of the country. It is a long and contentious issue for the country which is nearing a 150-crore population mark. Water has already become a scarce resource, and has hence, attained greater economic value. India would need 1.5 trillion cubic metres of water during 2030 according to a Central Pollution Control Board estimation.

    Currently, the country has the potential to use 1,123 billion cubic metres of water that is available in total. The results of various government and private body estimates of water availability and demand cautions that water resources must be augmented to meet future demand. Water scarcity is an alarming trend across the world, which was caused by rapid urbanisation and depletion of ground water among other developments.

    The country has several perennial rivers and water is not monsoon dependent at large. However, dry regions are plagued with shortage of water and need a permanent solution. Ongoing tussles over waters of Cauvery, Krishna-Godavari, and Polavaram project and Godavari-Cauvery linking etc, besides several other similar issues require immediate legal and long term solutions. In particular, the agrarian crisis of recent times is due to a lack of sufficient water. Therefore, the issue has attained political importance.

    Rivers of India had in fact attracted the colonial masters and some engineering brains assisted in drawing few river integration projects to boost agricultural production and, thereby, land revenue. Independent India also saw such few suggestions put forward by K L Rao and in more recent times by A P J Abdul Kalam. However, it is still a non starter due to various reasons. Prominent among them is opposition by state politicians like Lalu Prasad Yadav and others. Later the NDA government brought about an act called Nationalisation of Inland Waterways Act of 2016 and passed it successfully.

    Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, N Chandrababu Naidu nurtures a dream to build a reservoir at Polavaram, which, in fact, is a part of inter-linking of river water in India. It is a multi-purpose irrigation project involving the states of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Later it would be connected with River Cauvery. The project, which plans to utilise 3,000 thousand million cubic feet of water that is flows into Bay of Bengal, was launched in 1980 is yet to be accomplished. There is strong opposition from the environmentalist for the project as it would mean clearing tracts of forest land and evacuating inhabitants.

    Several other states are also against such linking as they think water sharing may hurt their interests. Since states like Andhra and Tamil Nadu have larger dry regions they insist on such projects to fulfil public water demand. The total river interlinking project might cost about Rs 6,00,000 crore. There is no availability of funds to launch the project despite various objections. Moreover, water experts like A Vaidyanathan have said that it is possible that only meagre benefit can be drawn from the project and a detailed study is required. He has suggested that decentralised local rainwater harvesting by reviving and improving traditional techniques, combined with measures to conserve the water use and recycle waste water, are more effective in meeting domestic water usage in a country, which stands at 5 per cent of total water usage. As far as irrigation is concerned, using surface and recharged ground water would be ideal because of the negative consequences arising out of the project, he says. These arguments are countered by few technocrats who suggest detailed geographical information services to put aside negative impacts of the project. Another successful example shown in favour of the project is China, where it has created about 1.2 lakh waterways, said Prof A C Kamaraj, chairman of National Waterways Development Technology. But few neighbouring countries like Bangladesh oppose river interlinking projects since India is sharing waters of Ganga and others with them.

    Water Usage In Modern India

    Water scarcity or large demand for water emerged post green revolution implementation as high yielding varieties demanded more volume of irrigation. In traditional farming, farmers had options in cropping rather than canal irrigated mono-cropping under the new revolution. Canal irrigation needed larger water resources and projects like inter-state river linking are proposed. Several pro-organic farming activists like G Nammalvar stressed that farming is itself a way of living even in 21st Century.

    Beyond the farming, modern utilities in households, which consume more amount of water, have to be replaced with innovative ways similar to dry toilets etc. This is also because recycling potential of waste water is restricted to just 30 per cent, and this area possesses a huge business opportunity according to a World Bank study. In line with this, Chennai has launched river restoration projects to retrieve water from Coovum and Adyar, which were once used by the public across the year, of course, a hundred years ago!

    Alternatives for the proposed project are mostly restricted to proposals like artificial groundwater recharge since groundwater has replaced surface water usage especially in agriculture.

    Nationalisation of river water comes under the purview of article 262 of the Constitution and the government can pass a bill to take under its control all rivers in the country by amending the Constitution. This action requires consensus among ruling governments of the states. In this regard, a bill forwarded by a Lok Sabha member (though several predecessors will be there) Ramen Deka in 2012 suggested to hand over the necessary powers to the central governments and to formulate proper mechanisms to share precious resources of water and power among disputing states. In contrast, a private member bill from the treasury benches was presented to de-nationalise six rivers of Goa from the list.

    Above all, while Jayalalithaa did the walk out then Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister D B Chandre Gowda, said, “Such a thing is not possible since river water is dependent on local conditions, involvement of riparian states and monsoons. A national policy is impractical and our Constitution-makers were aware of this and hence did not include it.”

    Ramesh Babu is a journalist and writer. He tweets at @Axewords.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.