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Opinion - Water


Interlinking of rivers — Buffetted by international politics

S. Padmanabhan

INTER-LINKING of rivers has been much in the news. That the new Government at the Centre is also looking at the idea is clear from the Union Water Resources Minister, Mr Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi's recent statement that he would study the report of the Task Force, appointed by the NDA Government, before giving his views on the project. The project depends much on certain international treaties too — with Bangladesh, Pakistan and China.

The Bhagirati, known as the Ganga — India's most sacred river — rises from Gomukh on the Indian side of the Tibetan border at an elevation of 12,500 ft. It is 2,510 km long and flows through China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. The river is renamed Padma as it flows through the Bangladesh, merges with the Brahmaputra and joins the Bay of Bengal.

The Indus (known as Sindhu) is the principal river of Pakistan. Its source is actually in Tibet; it flows through Kashmir coming out of the hills between Peshawar and Rawalpindi. The remainder of its route to the sea is in the plains of the Punjab and Sind. Passing by Hyderabad, it ends in a large delta to the south-east of Karachi that has now been recognised by conservationists as one of the world's most important ecological regions. The partition of the Indian subcontinent created a conflict over the waters of the Indus basin.

The Brahmaputra is among the largest rivers in the world, with its basin covering areas in Tibet, China, India and Bangladesh. It originates in the Chemayung-Dung glacier, between lake Manasarovar and Mount Kailash. It has a long course through Southern Tibet before it breaks through the Himalayas near the Namcha Barwa peak at about 7,755m. The total length of the river is about 2,850 km (including Padma and Meghna up to the mouth). In the plains of Assam, the Brahmaputra is a mighty river and spreads into a vast expanse of water.

These rivers discharge about 70 per cent of their inflows into the sea. The interlinking of the river will have to capture this 70 per cent water wasted into the sea and divert it into the hinterland for irrigation and drinking.

However, before this project is finalised agreements with Bangladesh, Pakistan and China, which would want to protect their interests as upper basin and tailend beneficiaries, will have to be concluded. The Ganga and the Indus water-sharing is covered by two agreements — with Bangladesh and Pakistan respectively — known as the Farakka Treaty and the Indus treaty respectively. A look at these international agreements before venturing any further into the interlinking project.

The construction of the Farakka Barrage at the head of the delta in West Bengal was a cause of major tension between India and Bangladesh. India claimed that the Kolkata port was being affected by deposits of silt and by the intrusion of saline seawater. To counter these effects, fresh water is diverted into the Bhagirati via a large canal from the Ganga at Farakka. Bangladesh claimed that the Farakka Barrage deprived the country of a valuable source of water on which it depends because the Ganga waters are vital to irrigation, navigation and prevention of saline incursions in the Bangladesh Ganges delta region. The treaty "On Sharing of the Ganga/Ganges Waters at Farakka" was signed on December 12, 1996, but a permanent settlement is yet to be reached.

The treaty talks about the lean periods between January and May. India is only entitled to a maximum of 40,000 cusecs even if the water flow is higher than 75,000 cusecs. All water in excess of 40,000 cusecs is to be let into Bangaldesh. The treaty allows a graded sharing system for flows lower than 75,000 cusecs during these lean months. Beginning June as soon as the monsoon sets in in India, the treaty does not operate-obviously because there is a huge quantity of water flows into Bangladesh. In fact, Bangladesh would need protection from floods during the monsoon and would, perhaps, be ready to any arrangement that protects its soil from flooding, silting and other damagesuch as entry of saline water.

Before venturing into building the Ganga-Cauvery canal, the issue with Bangladesh needs to be resolved. Both countries should realise that the resolution of the issue of sharing of the water is beneficial to both the countries. For Bangladesh, the benefits are manifold — it can do away with floods and disaster. For India, the benefits are very significant — the prosperity of the central, eastern and southern States that use the diverted water. In fact, a long waterway can be created if the Ganga Cauvery canal is dug along the eastern coast from Farakka to Kanyakumari so that a lot of inter-State trade, including coal, can happen on the canal inaddition to irrigating a few of the driest regions of Andhra Pradesh Orissa and Tamil Nadu.

The resolution with Bangladesh will not be simple. Bangladesh does not have the economic wherewithal to develop the system that would allow it to optimise the diversion of the water. For centuries, the problems of East Bengal have been the salinity of soil and non-irrigability of the land due to overflows of the sea water as well as the floods. Bangladesh will need a large capital flow to convert these lands into usable land. Obviously, India has to provide this capital, perhaps on a non-returnable basis to gain the goodwill of the people of Bangladesh in return for their consent to interlink the rivers within India.

This will also mean that we need to mend our fences with Bangladesh. Politically, our hopes of 1971 that Bangladesh would remain grateful to India have been belied for various reasons. We need now to work on a sustainable peace to achieve economic progress for both the countries. This, of course, needs statesmanship and a political maturity in addition to a deeper understanding of the reality on both sides.

Partition created a conflict over the waters of the Indus basin. In 1960, after several years of arduous negotiations at the behest of the World Bank, the Indus Waters Treaty was signed. Till date, this is the only agreement that has been faithfully implemented and upheld by both India and Pakistan. Through all the wars and turbulations, this treaty has stood the test of time.

In terms of the treaty, all the waters of the Eastern Rivers — Sutlej Main and the Ravi Main — shall be available for the unrestricted use of India, except for domestic use and non-consumptive use within Pakistan. Pakistan shall be under an obligation to let flow, and shall not permit any interference with the waters of the Sutlej Main and the Ravi Main and their tributaries in the reaches where these rivers flow in Pakistan and have not yet finally crossed into Pakistan.

India paid 62,060,000 pound-sterling in ten equal instalments to Pakistan to protect its interests in the treaty. The treaty calls for non-interference in these rights and, obviously, any attempt to divert the waters into the hinterland of India would cause a serious protest as it would be perceived as violation of Pakistan's right to use the available water for drinking, non-consumptive and agriculture usage. The diversion of the Indus is key to the growth of Rajasthan and neighbouring states.

A lasting peace with Pakistan is a must for development of the interlinking project. The major source of comfort though is the non-violation of the Indus Treaty by both the countries in spite of three wars since 1960s. This again is a big political decision and one wonders whether Pakistan will cooperate with this project unless a solution is reached for the Kashmir problem. For a country that treats the terrorists in Indian Kashmir as jehadis, any plan to dramatically improve the economy of India which, in turn, will make it stronger, will not have the active support of Pakistan unless other inter-se issues are resolved.

The Brahmaputra flows through some of the most heavily disputed and unstable areas in South Asia. China and India currently dispute 83,000 square km within the basin.

North-East India is one of the poorest regions. In 1980, the Centre established the Brahmaputra Board as a statutory body under the Ministry of Water Resources to plan for and implement projects to harness the Brahmaputra for hydropower, flood control, and economic development. The rivers power potential is put at 48,000 MW, which constitutes as much as 30 per cent of the total hydropower reserves of India, but to date less than even 3 per cent of this has been harnessed.

The presence of China needs to be reckoned with. It was rumoured at one time in 1995 that China would explore plans to use nuclear weapons to blast the Brahmaputra basin to divert the river water into China's north-west territory, including the Gobi Desert, which makes up almost half of that country's total landmass, but only seven per cent of its freshwater. The economy, ecology, and the very existence of Tibet, Bangladesh and the north-eastern States of India will be at stake, if China carries out its designs. It is to be noted that the Brahmaputra basin covers 651,334 sq km, 58 per cent of which lies in India and 20 per cent in China and, hence, India has a greater right on the river though in reality, China, as the upper basin user, can sabotage any plans by India to use the downstream flow.

These problems will plague the development of the interlinking project and it is not as simple as the politicians make out to be. While such a project would dramatically change the fortunes of India's economy, narrow political motives merely to win a few million votes will not suffice. The success of the project needs a broader vision, statesmanship to find a consensus not only within the country, but make a lasting meaningful peace with our neighbours without whose support the project is a non-starter. Therefore the aim should be to bring in a national consensus first, instead of making it an election issue with promises, which normally is forgotten once the counting is over.

(The author is a consultant and can be contacted at paddy8@vsnl.com)

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