The recurrent problem of floods in some parts of the country and drought in some others is perennially affecting the economic viability of this country and while much deliberation has happened on the interlinking of rivers over decades since independence, it is still a pipe dream. The magnitude of the task is mind-boggling and the investment required is daunting indeed. The monsoon this year has officially ended and the prognosis is that we have ended with a 5.2 per cent deficit overall.
While 50 per cent of the country’s districts have had normal rains, more than a third—215 districts – have closed the season with deficient rainfall. That this could impact the kharif crop is a legitimate fear. Most of the districts in rain distress this year are in Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Vidharbha, according to the India Meteorological Department . These states could suffer from droughts. During the monsoon, while June and July posted a 2.5 per cent rain surplus, August and September had a combined deficit of 12.5 per cent. Expectations on the kharif crop are that it would be 2.8 per cent below last year’s record level.
The hard reality in all this is that as a country we are woefully dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon, helpless in the face of droughts and floods. The overall monsoon shortfall is manifesting inevitably in water storage levels too. According to Central Water Commission figures, 91 major reservoirs in the country were at 66 per cent of capacity at September-end which was 89 per cent of the levels in the corresponding period last year and 87 per cent of the 10-year average.
The interlinking of rivers was first mooted in the 1950s by K.L. Rao, a brilliant scientist and central minister with a vision for the country. Since then it has been followed up in fits and starts but with no sustained benefit. Shortly, at the initiative of the Narendra Modi dispensation work will begin on an $87 billion scheme to connect some of the country’s biggest rivers. The mammoth plan entails linking nearly 60 rivers, including the mighty Ganges, which the government hopes will cut farmers’ dependence on fickle monsoon rains by bringing millions of hectares of cultivatable land under irrigation.
If it goes according to plan, in the first phase of the project thousands of megawatts of electricity would be generated. That will involve construction of a dam on the Ken river, also known as the Karnavati, in north-central India and a 22-km (14-mile) canal connecting it to the shallow Betwa. These are initial steps which must be carried to their logical conclusion. There have been too many false starts in the past with the result that we are going around in circles. Yet, if we are not able to harness river waters in the right way, we face a bleak future with recurrent calamities and ecological damage.