Political divide

Print edition : April 20, 2012

Rahul Gandhi, congress general secretary, issued a statement saying interlinking of rivers may damage the environment.-R.V. MOORTHY

The political class by and large sees the court order on interlinking rivers as unduly hasty.

In purely political terms, the Supreme Court order directing the Union government to set up a special committee to take forward the idea of interlinking the country's rivers is a shot in the arm for the principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). While other political organisations such as the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) have referred to the idea from to time to time, especially in their election manifestos, it was the BJP that consistently brought up the topic for discussion in national political forums.

Commenting on the court order, BJP spokesperson Prakash Javadekar stated that it was a vindication of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's vision. One of the first actions of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) when it came to power was to mismanage this visionary programme and ensure that it did not advance, Javadekar told Frontline.

Javadekar's party colleague, Hari Babu, who had taken a more active role in the project as a member of the Task Force on Interlinking of Rivers set up during NDA regime, said that the apex court order had given the UPA an opportunity to make amends and take up the project without further delay.

According to a number of BJP leaders, the interlinking project was one of three priority ideas personally advanced by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The other two were improving roadways across the country through the golden quadrilateral highways project and building better relations with Pakistan. According to Hari Babu, the Vajpayee government had prepared a detailed project report for the interlinking of rivers with an estimated investment of Rs.5,00,000 crore. The report had visualised completion of the project by 2016.

While the apex court order has come as a political shot in arm for the BJP, it remains to be seen whether it will actually goad the UPA government into taking up the project as advised by the principal opposition. The Congress, which wound up the special panel set up during NDA rule immediately after coming to power in 2004, does not have a stated position on the project. Party general secretary Rahul Gandhi had said in a statement that interlinking of rivers could cause environmental damage, without dwelling on the issue in detail. In the absence of a formal position, sources in the Congress, including a number of senior leaders and spokespersons, would only say that the overwhelming view in the party is one that goes against the concept of interlinking rivers. These sources pointed out that this objection was based on environmental considerations.

According to them, the party has closely studied the experience of one of the six inter-basin water transfer projects that are already operational in India, namely the Beas-Sutlej Link Project executed over three decades ago.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in New Delhi in October 2003. Kalam supported the interlinking of rivers envisaged by the Vajpayee government.-R.V. MOORTHY

It is apparently this assessment that has led to the overwhelming objection to the linking of rivers. According to a senior Congress functionary from Punjab, the linking of the two rivers was believed to be a measure that would usher in prosperity in the beneficiary States of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.

But all that these States, especially Himachal Pradesh, has got is a continued period of misery. In fact, the project turned the fertile Balh valley and Mandi district into a veritable desert because of the silt thrown out of the hydel channel and the open reservoir. We cannot afford to repeat such developmental misadventures, the leader said on condition of anonymity.

Why does the Congress not have a formal position on the issue despite such experiences and studies on the problem? The query does not evoke a unidimensional response. Most sources in the party attribute it to the Congress' informal and open style of functioning.

But some others suspect that certain changes in the administrative hierarchy of the UPA, particularly in the office of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, have created a view supporting the idea of interlinking rivers. Certain powerful new entrants in the PMO, said to enjoy the confidence of the Nehru-Gandhi family, are, according to these sources, supportive of the idea. This is also said to be the reason for the government's failure to make a strong case in the court against the interlinking project.

Whether these surmises have any basis, only time will tell. However, partners in the ruling coalition such as the DMK and Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party have expressed qualified support for the idea. The qualifications and the support these parties have expressed depend largely on regional political considerations. The CPI, too, has expressed broad support for the idea. In its election manifesto presented for the recent Uttar Pradesh elections, the party supported the idea as a measure to improve irrigation in the country.

However, CPI leader Atul Kumar Anjan pointed out that the environmental implications of the project should be studied thoroughly before embarking on it. He also pointed out that utmost care should be taken to avoid inter-State disputes such as the one that exists over the sharing of Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.

The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or the CPI(M), expressed amazement at the sudden activist mode that the Supreme Court had adopted on this issue. Talking to Frontline, party leader Nilotpal Basu said that the CPI(M) had all through advocated a thorough assessment of the physical, financial and environmental implications of the proposed project. One cannot afford to embark upon the project without doing this. Even after doing this, there should be a detailed exercise to define and distinguish the share and role of various State governments in taking forth the project, he said.

The dominant view in the political class is clearly that the court order was unduly hasty. And this, surely, will have an impact on the implementation of the project.

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