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Tuesday, October 12, 1999

The never-ending river sutra

Yoginder K. Alagh  
The seriousness of the water crisis that India is facing and the fact that it will get worse before we turn it around, only if we make an effort, is just being dimly realised. In terms of per-capita water availability, India and China are at the bottom of the league. Per person water availability of most larger countries is five to ten times higher than ours. At present our availability is higher than China, but with our population growing faster, in a couple of decades it will be the other way round. Interestingly, for every solution that we have, some group is happy to create a problem.

For example, there has been a lot of comment on the Cauvery. Very little was well informed. For starters, it is somewhat exaggerated to start talking of a crisis in the garden areas of Karnataka and in Thanjavur, in September. True, the monsoon cycle in that part of India is different from the rest and rice in Tanjore is grown thrice, but the peak of filling in the four dams in the upper reaches in Karnataka, as also inthe Mettur reservoir on the borders of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, is the first fortnight of October. To cry wolf before that is not very credible.

In the earlier crisis years in the Cauvery, a bad year followed a few good years. The farmer had sown on the basis of plentiful supplies he was getting earlier and then was literally left high and dry. In a well-ordered system, he should be told in October what he would be getting, but our systems are not well ordered. It is not that the ryot in Tanjore does not know that there are good and bad years, for he has a history of irrigated agriculture of two centuries, and the flows in the river varied. To start mourning the Cauvery accord in September was very Indian, but not quite realistic.

Two aspects need noting. First, the second level of reconciliation in the accord, namely the official and technical level, has to be alert, pro-active and anticipate problems. History and hydrology must be exhausted before the fireworks begin at the highest levels. Second,everything possible should be done to supplement the available water supplies, particularly in water-short years. When I was asked by the then prime minister to look into the problem, the farmer had not been told that the year was hydrologically bad and so all hell broke loose. Apart from a sharing formula, I kept on saying in public that adversity should be turned into advantage. The Tanjore delta has quantities of groundwater. The chief ministers of Tamil Nadu have argued that ground water should not be taken into account because they are afraid that in our system if you are efficient you are punished. If you use groundwater or convey water more efficiently, you will get less water. But allocation rules are made by men and can be such that those who are efficient are rewarded, rather than punished. The canals in the garden areas of Karnataka were dug in the days of the venerable M. Visvesarraya and if they are repaired, the same water will go much farther. Also, water-saving devices like drips andsprinklers can be used in the garden areas. It is important to build on accords, rather than erode them. Next time resist the temptation of jumping to the worse conclusion first.

Now the other big dispute, the Narmada. Soniaji came to Gujarat to help her party and everybody went to her and said please solve the Narmada problem. She was kind enough to promise help. Later Vajpayee Saheb came for the same purpose and everybody went to him and said please solve the problem. He was kind enough to promise help. We in Gujarat are in a happy position on this national consensus. Now the last mile has to be covered to divert water in that great engineering marvel, the Narmada main canal, as big as the Jamuna in high flood. In Gujarat feelings naturally run high. We have built a large part of the distribution system in many parts. This year the monsoon was bad. Water scarcity started in September. I chair the advisory group for one of the most successful attempts at water harvesting and minor irrigation. The villagerssee the lower-level canals, but there is no water. Meanwhile, there was a flood in the Narmada and millions of acrefeet of water went into the sea.

Very little additional relocation is required to reach the level when water will be diverted into the canal. There are some questions remaining. But it is an engineering fact that you can go up to 320 feet, to divert water and keep open the issue of crossing 430 ft to reach 454 ft. Wisdom lies in taking the next step. With a Congress government in Madhya Pradesh and a BJP government in Gujarat, only the lunatic fringe will talk of sellouts, if an agreed solution is found. Civilised societies do not stop dissent, particularly of the young, but they also go forward.

Thousands of crores of rupees have been spent on the Narmada. One of the most efficient distribution system exists which has demonstrated capabilities to deliver 0.6 acrefeet of water to the field for every acrefeet released at the headworks. More than 8,000 families have left their homes and built anew life. That is around 40,000 people. It is time to cover the last mile here.

India's needs of water and energy will ultimately need cooperation with neighbouring countries. Some progress has been made. A lot more needs to be done. Water is critical to the security of the subcontinent. Thoughtful men across borders are talking of transforming triangles of misery and poverty into triangles of prosperity. But credible answers will require that we make demonstrated progress at home.

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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