Indeed, Rivers, including the Inter Linking of Rivers (ILR) needs democracy, in which dialogue is the starting point. The government, with all its powers, mandate and resources, needs to initiate this. Particularly when the government has taken such an ideological, fundamentalist position on ILR. So much so that the Union Minister says that anyone opposing the project is committing a national crime. And even goes to the extent of threatening even statutory regulators if the controversial Ken Betwa River Link proposal is not cleared in next meeting! That very minister is scheduled to conclude the “dialogue” of Aug 6, 2016 (to be held during 4-7 pm at Constitutional Club Rafi Marg, Delhi), is ironical to say the least. [As I was writing this, I got a call from Ms Uma Bharti ji’s home saying that she won’t be able to come for the meeting today as she is down with high fever. I hope she recovers soon and fully.]
The organisers of this meeting (Indian Social Responsibility Network, Divine International Foundation and Aranya) agreed that they have done no work on ILR or Rivers. Even on water, only one of the three organisers (Aranya) have done some local work, the spokesperson agreed. The language of the meeting invitation letter was totally biased in favour of ILR, not at all in a spirit of dialogue. The very first sentence of the invitation letter talked about “stark differences in water availability in the river basins in the country” leading to idea of ILR! The invitation letter counted the advantages of ILR, but not a word about the costs, impacts, processes and options. The spokesperson for the meeting organisers agreed about the biased letter, but offered the lame excuse that we did not understand the issue beyond that!
The meeting structure also was heavily biased in favour of the government and pro ILR persons. Among the speakers were one from NWDA (Govt of India’s Ministry of Water Resources organization National Water Development Agency, set up in 1981-82 with sole mandate of doing studies about ILR, but almost none of the studies are in public domain, the few that are there are because of Supreme Court orders), Sharad Jain from NIH (National Institute of Hydrology, another MoWR organization, a consulted hired by NWDA), former chairman of Central Water Commission A B Pandya, known for his pro ILR views, and two ministers, all in favour of ILR. By way of critical voice, only one person was invited among the speakers. The organisers’ spokesperson agreed this was biased, but came up with no concrete balanced options even after suggestions were given to them. Similarly it was pointed out that ministers, who were going to conclude the meeting are clearly pro ILR, so much so that the Union Minister of Water Resources makes statements in favour of ILR on almost weekly basis if not more frequently. This spokesperson agreed, and suggestions were given for alternative, but again no concrete result emerged.
It was also pointed out to the oranisers that the first requirement for an atmosphere of dialogue is that all information about the ILR projects is public domain. For Ken Betwa link, the top priority link, even the water flow data for the Ken Betwa rivers or the water balance study that shows Ken as surplus and Betwa as deficit is not in public domain. Numerous independent experts both from Bundelkhand and elsewhere have written to the MoEF and its Expert Appraisal Committee with voluminous documentation that the Environmental Impact Assessment of the project is most shoddy, dishonest and incompetent document and cannot be accepted as a basis for deciding about the project and must be redone by a credible independent agency. This is yet to happen. The full impact on the Ken River, the Panna Tiger Reservoir or the real costs and benefits for the Bundelkhand and upstream Ken area are not even assessed. In fact, the Ken Betwa project is likely to facilitate water transfer from Bundelkhand to the Upper Betwa basin, outside the Bundelkhand! Whatever little benefits are claimed for Bundelkhand, there are better options available than what Ken Betwa project is to supposed to offer. The Public hearings held on Ken Betwa project involved such violations and when basic information is not in public domain, they cannot be considered an acceptable public hearing, legally or otherwise. As Himanshu Thakkar[i], a member of earlier MoWR expert committee on ILR had suggested in one of the official meetings, each gram sabha in Bendelkhand and also Ken and Betwa basins needs to be involved in the decision making process by asking them what are the options for their water problems and if Ken Betwa project is even a priority option, but NWDA and MoWR flatly refused to initiate the process for this. MoWR has systematically kept all critical voices out of all the ILR committees and processes.
The way forward to achieve an atmosphere of dialogue is to resolve these issues, then the can government initiate a genuine dialogue process. On SANDRP Blog site there a lot of blogs where further information about the issues related Ken Betwa proposal are elaborated.
So while dialogue is necessary and welcome in any democracy, the meeting that is being organized today at Constitutional Club is certainly not the right step in almost every sense. We hope MoWR and those who gather at the constitution club today will deliberate on these issues and resolve to correct them before a dialogue can really begin on the issue of ILR, and in fact Rivers.
Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[i] An appointment was sought by Mr Thakkar to meet Sushri Uma Bharti during the initial phase of her appointment as MoWR, but no appointment has been given so far by the minister! So much for the dialogue! Mr Thakkar was invited to be speaker at the Aug 6, 2016 meeting, but after failing to achieve any concrete change in the meeting schedule as described above till when this is being written, have decided to decline and write this public note.
[ii] For blogs related Ken Betwa link, see: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/?s=ken+betwa
[iii] For details of the meeting, see: https://www.facebook.com/1444483802506621/photos/pcb.1745500012404997/1745491045739227/?type=3&theater and https://www.facebook.com/1444483802506621/photos/pcb.1745500012404997/1745491059072559/?type=3&theater on ISRN FB page: https://www.facebook.com/Indian-Social-Responsibility-Network-ISRN-1444483802506621/