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Monsoon Magic: Creating Rivers of Hope in India 

It is no secret why floods and droughts occur in India — because some parts of the country receive much more than normal rainfall leading to floods, especially in the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers. 

At the same time, large chunks of peninsular India receive less than normal rainfall, leading to droughts. We cannot control rainfall in India. But we could manipulate the manner in which rainwater is allocated. It is a distribution issue; and like most distribution problems, it has to be solved by removing the demand and supply side bottlenecks.  

That is why I am so upbeat about the recently announced river interlinking plan for India’s peninsular and Himalayan rivers. The government’s grand proposal, which seeks to retrieve floodwater going waste to the sea and distributing it to water-scarce areas, will link 37 rivers through 31 links and 9,000 km of canals.  

This is necessary because water resources in the Brahmaputra and Ganges basin make up 60 per cent of the country’s total resources. In contrast, water resources in Gujarat’s Sabarmati basin account for only 0.2 per cent of India’s total resources. The result? The Brahmaputra region is the most flood-prone region; and Sabarmati the most drought-prone.  

If we add to this the problem of shifting patterns of precipitation and run-offs associated with climatic change, as well as an inability to predict and manage the quantity and quality of water, we have a king-sized crisis during bad years. In 2002, for example, India incurred a loss of Rs 250 billion just on account of crop loss because of the drought.  

Relatively speaking, lack of water is a bigger problem than excess water in India. The country’s annual requirement of water is projected to increase from 634 billion cubic metres to 813 billion cubic metres by 2025. Unlike floods, which are restricted to eastern India, droughts persist over a much bigger geographical area. As a result, the impact on the economy because of a lack of water is much more severe.  

This is why the project is so significant. Take its impact on food security. The Planning Commission estimates that the country will need 450 million tonnes by 2050. At the current growth rate of production, India will have to import heavily to meet this forecasted demand. On the other hand, once river interlinking enhances India’s irrigation potential by 140 million hectares, foodgrain production could double from the current level of 212 million tonnes to 450 million tonnes.  

In other words, India could continue to retain its food security 47 years from now, even if population grows at the current pace to 1.8 billion by 2050. Or consider the impact of the power sector. The project is estimated to produce up to 35,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power, and meet the increasing energy demands of an expanding economy. 

So far, we’ve only looked at the benefits of the project when it is completed. Actually, the physical task of creating a network of water storage reservoirs across the country will also have a huge multiplier effect on the economy. Every once in a while, the country needs a big push to make it roll forward, and then gather a special momentum on its own. The Golden Quadrilateral Project is one such project: The government kick-off, linking India’s metropolitan cities, has created thousands of jobs for India’s rural landless, besides giving a fresh lease of life to India’s steel, cement and automobile industries.  

India now needs another heave to keep the growth momentum going. This is where the river networking project could fit in nicely. There will be huge requirements of steel, cement and other construction materials.  

Hundreds of feasibility reports and geological studies will require a large number of consultants, and hundreds of housing agencies could be involved in rehabilitation work. But the most positive impact of the project, however, will be in the number of jobs it manages to create: 10 million through direct employment and ano-ther 10 million through outsourced contract jobs.  

The big question: Will this mega project work? There is no reason not to hope. China has begun work on a $59 billion project to divert water from the damp south to the arid north. Scheduled to be completed by 2010, the first phase of the project will deliver water through two massive aqueducts. Each as big as a medium-sized river, the two aqueducts, up to 1,300 km long, will bring water from the Yangtze river to Beijing and the nearby industrial towns.  

In fact, we needn’t even look outside India for inspiration. Drought conditions in western Rajasthan are now virtually history, thanks to the transfer of surplus water from the Ravi-Beas to the deserts of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan through the Indira Gandhi Canal.  

But here’s the bigger question: Will divergent interest groups allow this project to work? Will there be political issues to be resolved? Will the government be able to win over environmental sceptics who are already voicing concerns about degradation?  

Equally important, will the government be able to hardsell the financial viability of this project to potential investors? Most important, of course, the project will have to be sold to the people. Sure, the road ahead won’t be easy, but river interlinking is an idea whose time has come.  

(The author is chairman & managing director, Kirloskar Brothers Ltd )







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