Heard of interlinking rivers? In India these days, this phrase refers to a gigantic proposed project to link several of India’s rivers. It would involve canals and dams and much more to transfer water across hundreds of miles of Indian geography. In the last year or so, it has been endorsed and encouraged by our Supreme Court and president. The Vajpayee government has formed a Task Force on Interlinking of Rivers chaired by the former union minister for power, Suresh Prabhu, to implement it.

Predictably, the project has dedicated proponents and opponents. On an e-list I belong to, I hear from vocal and passionate members of both sides. Not long ago, one vocal proponent circulated an account of a meeting in Houston that Prabhu attended last June to drum up support for the project. Prabhu was enthusiastically received, he said, and made very compelling arguments for linking rivers. So compelling, that a senior scientist from NASA, an Indian immigrant, endorsed the project whole-heartedly. The scientist, said this account, “appreciated the energetic minister’s speech and said [NASA] would use Prabhu’s model if NASA needs to link rivers on Mars.”

Now I would think this had to be a joke. Wouldn’t you? But this man reported it as just one more point in favor of the project made at the meeting. So I tracked down this scientist and wrote him a note. Here’s his reply:

“My comment about linking rivers on Mars based on Mr. Prabhu’s discussion is not to be taken seriously. It was a comment made jokingly to lighten the mood of the meeting. I am surprised that [the man] considered this light-hearted humorous comment as serious.

[Also,] in my personal opinion: there are many aspects of this project that need further development. I am not a hydrologist or a hydraulics engineer, but my engineering colleagues tell me that this concept is still at phase zero.”

Isn’t that interesting? A joke by a man who is not even persuaded of the merits of this project is twisted to sound like he—and by implication NASA—endorses the project.

In fact, here in India we heard that the Lower Colorado River Authority in Texas offered, as a result of Prabhu’s Texas tour, its support for the project. Is that another misconstrued joke?

Now I, and a lot of other people, have many questions about linking rivers. A big project does throw up questions, and previous projects have never satisfactorily answered them. But more than that, it is the curiously inept duplicity of the NASA episode that makes people like me even more skeptical about such projects. And so we ask our questions again, and louder. Here are just three:

Question 1: Precisely what is the problem for which linking our rivers is the solution? Suresh Prabhu once said that it “would lead to creating employment, power generation, economic growth, and elimination of poverty.” Other things often mentioned are floods in water-surplus areas, droughts elsewhere, falling food production, and irrigation.

Fine aims. Any one of all these, by itself, might be reason enough for this gigantic effort; all of them, even more so. Nobody argues that these are not serious concerns. Yet the evidence is that it’s hardly because of them that river-linking suddenly came to life, and found itself an official Task Force. Because that happened when a Justice of the Supreme Court made an observation, in a different context, about linking rivers. Does an observation, even from the Supreme Court, amount to the normal—or what should be normal—process of identifying a problem and working out its solution?

Which, of course, leads directly to …

Question 2: Is it clear that linking rivers is the best solution to the problems it is claimed to solve? Are 5.6 trillion rupees—yes, almost $125 billion, and as a taxpayer some of that will be my money—best spent this way over the next 10 years to address these problems? Or was this just assumed and then stated to be the case?

If we are told that linking rivers will eliminate floods, say, who are the experts who have studied floods and come to this conclusion? Where are their studies? What were the other possible solutions they considered before pronouncing this one best? How do they answer those who suggest, for example, that we cannot really control floods; that instead, we have to learn to live with them and ensure that they cause as little damage as possible?

Why must Question 2 be asked? Because the way this project is going, it seems it’s been decided that rivers must be linked, period. After all, the Task Force is charged with the “modalities of implementing” the project, and that on a “war-footing.” Not with the prior steps: spell out the problems, identify possible solutions, evaluate them, and then decide whether and how to proceed.
It may certainly turn out that linking rivers is the best way to proceed. But where is the effort to decide, and then persuade us, that it is? Or is the sheer audaciousness of the idea, given the starry eyes it generates, assumed to be persuasion enough?

Starry eyes lead to …

Question 3: This time, may we have some transparency? In essence, this is the demand of those who criticized Enron’s activities in India, or other major projects; it is the demand of those who are less than starry-eyed about linking our rivers. Tell us what is going on. Don’t take decisions without explaining their rationale thoroughly. Do the requisite studies and release their reports for public consumption. Take us into confidence. The tragedy is this: now that Enron in India is effectively dead, we know its critics were right in every respect. What would have happened had we listened to them, instead of dismissing them as “anti-development” nuts, as critics of linking rivers are already labeled? We would not have had a white elephant of a “power plant” disfiguring the Konkan coast, rusting while its builder crumbles in shame and scandal, while the rest of us scramble to find some way to use the beast.

The thing is, it’s experiences like Enron that make us cynical today about linking rivers. That, and oddly enough, Mars.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

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