My blog post "Huge amounts spent on canal irrigation, but more irrigation from groundwater" (http://devinder-sharma.blogspot.com/2010/05/huge-amounts-spent-on-canal-irrigation.html) drew a spirited response from Mr E.A.S Sarma, a former Secretary to Govt of India. I read the response while I was travelling in the Narmada valley, and coming face to face with the harsh and dark realities of the irrigation potential of large dams, I simply feel outraged.
I will share with you in the days to come my impressions about the bitter and sordid truth of Narmada resettlement and rehabilitation programmes.
Meanwhile, I am in agreement with the suggestion floated by E.A.S.Sarma on the urgent need to start a national debate on this crucial and important issue, important not only from the point of view of the efficacy and utility of big dams and hydel projects but also from its socio-economic and environmental fallout. Reading the communication below I am sure you will realise that the 'Jal Yagna' scheme that Andhra Pradesh is pushing aggressively is actually a 'Jal Magna' programme where a few people involved with the construction process make merry and walk away with the loot. The poor are left to bear the actual cost.
In fact, this reminds of what a former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Sri Pat Mishra had once told me way back when I was looking at the devastation caused by the Sharada Sahayak irrigation network. He said that when Bhagirath was bringing river Ganga to the Earth (this is how the story goes in our scriptures), he met a modern day engineer on the way. The engineer was simply mesmerized by the gigantic river 'project' and asked Bhagirath why he was bringing such a massive river 'project'. Bhagirath replied that this was actually for resting the soul of his previous four generations in peace. To this the modern day engineer said: You are being very foolish. You are worried about the soul of those who are dead. Give me a share in this mega 'project' and I can assure you my future ten generations will achieve salvation for all times to come.
If you have something to share or write about please do. I am all ears.
WaterWatch, June 1
Shri Amit Bhattacharya's article and Shri Devinder Sharma's comments are both extremely valid and timely, especially in the context of Andhra Pradesh where the government has taken up a grandiose "Jala Yagna" that seems to have created more benefit for the contractors than the people at large.Jala Yagna consists of a large number of dams and canals that involve a huge cost. As a result of diversion of resources to this scheme, the allocations for the social sectors has declined sharply.
Polavaram Dam is a huge multi-purpose irrigation project that is yet to secure final environment clearance from the Ministry of Environment & Forests. However, even before the main project work has started, the government has started the work on the canal system! Most of the contractors who are working on the project have strong political connections. The government has given them large 'mobilisation advances" and it is doubtful whether the work done during the last five years is anywhere in match with those advances. Meanwhile, some of these canals have already started filling up due to disuse and non-maintenance.
Polavaram displaces one tribal family and deprives it of its Schedule V Constitutional rights for every five acres irrigated in the more affluent coastal belt. The project also displaces several villages in Orissa and Chattisgarh and those villagers had no way to protest. The cases filed by the two States are pending before the Hon'ble Supreme court and the AP government, in its anxiety to push through this contractor-driven project at any cost, has even gone to the extent of proposing a "Chinese Great Wall" type of a bund to ward off the submergence in Orissa and Chattisgarh! This has not only escalated the cost of the project but also increased the risk of a dam burst if it ever happens. Experts have cautioned the State that, in the event of a dam burst, there will be enormous downstream damage but the State is impervious to such sane advice.
It is a known fact that the proportion of the land irrigated, in comparison with the potential promised when an irrigation project of this kind is proposed, is quite low. It is against this background that the Union Irrigation Ministry had originally created the so-called "command area development" programme for which there are no takers. The rate of siltation in most projects is much higher than the rate assumed originally when the irrigation officials try to justify its need and push up its viability ratios. In most projects, there is heavy water logging upstream and water deficiency for downstream beneficiaries. Water logging has an adverse impact on the salinity and other characteristics of the upstream lands. Without ground water, the canal system becomes unviable, as the canals need to be closed down for a month or so for maintenance.
Even canal maintenance is highly inadequate in most States, as pointed out by Shri Amit Bhattacharya. In AP, it is strange that the government should spend thousands of crores of rupees on new projects when almost all its canals remain ill-maintained. In the absence of maintenance, it is commonplace to find that canal bunds burst during the rainy season and the water flows are hampered.
There are many cost-effective micro-solutions to our water problems but they are overtaken by the States going in for large projects in which the investments made yield much lower returns. In States like AP, every year, hundreds of water bodies, many of which are natural, are getting destroyed to give way to urban growth and ill-conceived industrial projects.
I write this letter with anguish because in Visakhapatnam where I reside, the capacity of the local reservoirs has shrunk by 40% due to silting and encroachments while the government is planning to get water from the far off Polavaram project. that is yet to be approved. Even assuming that Polavaram water is available, which is doubtful, the local authorities have already committed water at subsidised rates to several industrial ventures far in excess of what is available. All such industrial units have the blessings of the Union Ministry of Environment!! You cannot say that a new industrial project is environmentally acceptable when it eats into the drinking water supplies to the people! We have brought this to the notice of that Ministry umpteen times without any response whatsoever.
Both the Union government and the States are insensitive to this. In fact, to appease AP politically, the Central government is even considering declaring Polavaram as a "national" project, which implies that the Indian tax payer, not the AP tax payer alone, will be burdened with the infructuous expenditure on this project.
India's water situation is going to become perilous in the coming two decades. We are yet to come up with a sustainable water policy. We are fortunate that the , for reason extraneous,is going somewhat slow on the River Linking scheme, though Polavaram, in a way, is also a part of that scheme.
There cannot be a national water policy without adequate recognition of the right of the local communities to the local resources including water. There cannot be a water policy that does not respect the local communities and involves them in any decision making that affects their lives. Most of our water issues will find ready solutions if we adopt such a democratically eminent approach.
I appeal to the civil society to start a national debate on the lines indicated by Shri Amit Bhattacharya and Shri Devinder Sharma. The people of this country should be aware of what is happening.
Former Secretary to GOI
[Thanks to Himanshu Thakkar for sharing this letter]