Any rational and objective analyst of India’s water and development policies has to conclude that if the country continues with its past and present practices, the country will face an unprecedented water crisis around 2025 the magnitude and extent of which no other earlier generation had to face.

In recent years, the litany of water problems facing the country has been like the universe: constantly expanding. India’s water management practices are at least 25 years behind time. Economic damages due to floods and droughts have been increasing steadily with time. Water bodies around all major urban centres are already heavily polluted. India may be an emerging economic superpower, but its urban water management has been in poor shape for decades. Irrigation management is at best mediocre and certainly way below the country should be able to accomplish. Even though water, food, energy, environment and poverty alleviation policies are closely interlinked, India has never developed a water policy which explicitly considers its impacts on other sectoral policies and vice versa. Yet, water policies affect policies in other sectors and, in turn, are affected by the others.

In addition, even though water affects the quality of life of hundreds of millions of Indians, the country never had a minister who is capable enough to understand and appreciate the complexities of water management practices, or stayed long enough to formulate a decent plan and see its implementation since the time of Dr. K. L. Rao in the early 1960s. Successive governments have at best given lip service to the importance of water to the country’s social and economic development.

The first time I heard about interlinking of rivers is when I met Dr. Rao in 1965 when he talked about the importance of studying the linking of the Ganges and the Cauvery. Thus, the concept of interlinking of rivers is not new: it has been around for over 50 years. However, the Executive branch has been consistently unable to make any hard decision on the desirability of such a scheme by its continual dithering and paralysis by analysis syndrome, both of which are not uncommon in the country.  

In 2002, the Supreme Court stepped into this policy vacuum because of a civil writ petition. Subsequently, a Task Force was set up by the Government of India, which inter alia started to look into modalities for bringing consensus amongst the states on this complex issue. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, certain political figures tried to get some mileage from it, and others tried to get some political credit for it, even though the idea was quite old. In retrospect, neither this Task Force nor its successor committees did enough work so that some tough political decisions on the project could be taken.

To start with, interlinking of rivers is a misnomer. Water transfer has to be inter-basin and not inter-state. The basin boundaries are constant but state boundaries change with time. The project is also not about interlinking of rivers.

Be that as it may, politically there has never been an unanimity at the Centre between the various ruling coalition parties on the need for the inter-basin water transfer. The views of the states are diverse and sometimes even polar opposite. There has been no political consensus on this overall issue and it is highly unlikely that there will be one in the foreseeable future.

Within this fractious political framework and bureaucratic lethargy, the Supreme Court weighed in again on February 27, 2012, when a 3-member bench which included the Chief Justice Kapadia, noted the need for the project: “This is a matter of national benefit and progress. We see no reason why any State should lag behind in contributing its bit to bringing inter-linking river programme to a success, thus saving the people living in drought-prone zones from hunger and people living in flood-prone areas from the destruction caused by floods”.  

Only time will tell if the fractious political parties at the Centre and the States will be able to make some hard choices on this difficult and complex issue.

Whatever happens in the future, the country has to get its “water house” into order so that adequate quantity and quality of water is available on a reliable basis to assure high annual economic growth in high single digits, alleviate poverty and meet the rising expectations of the people. If these objectives are to be achieved, India must follow a two-prolonged water policy which concurrently aims to reduce demands (neglected in the past) and increase supply.

Sadly, both at the Central and the State levels, demand management continues to receive inadequate attention because of political misunderstandings, bureaucratic and non-functional water institutions inertia. If the country has to have a reliable supply of good quality water, managing demands needs to receive at least same level of attention as supply management. With the current situation, this is highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

It is an indisputable fact of nature that in a monsoon country like India, some 80 percent of annual rainfall occurs in about 90-120 hours (not consecutive) in much of the country. Thus, the greatest challenge facing the country is how to store this immense quantity of rainfall that occurs over a very limited period so that water can be used during the rest of the year. India has to increase not only its storage capacities but also improve the efficiency of water management. The United States, which has a significantly more uniform precipitation over the year compared to India, has about 5000 m3 of storage per person. India has only about 200 m3 per person: the country needs significantly more storage. Even Cherrapunji, which receives around 1187 cm of annual rainfall, now has a water problem during the dry months.

It really does not matter how this water is stored: use of large, medium or small dams, groundwater recharge and rainwater harvesting, as long as water can be stored economically, and in a socially and environmentally friendly manner.

Irrespective of the progress on the inter-linkages of rivers in the future, the country must increase its storage capacities and improve its water management capabilities very significantly if it is to maintain its high economic growth and increase the standard of living of all Indians, especially the poor. The country simply has no other choice.

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore; Mentor of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bhubaneswar and Founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico. Among his numerous international awards is the Stockholm Water Prize which is the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in water.