“Resources are always a constraint”

Water resources minister on pawan Kumar Bansal speaks on water disputes and other issues

sweta-ranjan

Sweta Ranjan | July 12, 2010




Pawan Kumar Bansal, minister for water resources as well as for parliamentary affairs, is a seasoned parliamentarian. He was a member of the Rajya Sabha during 1984-90, he was elected to the Lok Sabha and now he is in his fourth term in the lower house. In an interview with Sweta Ranjan, he spoke candidly about issues relating to both the ministries he handles.

How serious do you think is the water problem in our country?
The water problem is very serious everywhere. I am not (trying to) sound alarmist on that but the mankind takes water for granted. It is becoming increasingly scarce all over the world. Take the case of India, at the time of Independence our per capita availability of water was 5,550 cubic metres. Today it has come down to 1,700 cubic metres. Why? Because of the population pressure, for no other reason.

Is the situation really alarming?
It is not alarming, but we have to wake up to that entire situation.

Is desalination of water a way out?
For Tamil Nadu, a project has been started with the World Bank. That is desalination of water.  That is an expensive project at the moment. We have a few projects here and there in the country in quite a few places. The Bhabha Atomic Energy Centre has started one of its own projects. There are certain other organisations which have set up their own desalination plants but that needs to be explored more.

An official of your ministry once said that the water resources ministry doesn’t have sufficient funds to repair irrigation channels.
He is not wrong. Resources are always a constraint. For the current five-year plan the allocation is Rs 39,000 crore. It may sound quite a huge amount but you distribute it and it is nothing. In our country, out of 320 million hectares of land the ultimate irrigation potential is the area which can be irrigated through irrigation, not rain or anything else. That we estimate at 140 million hectares. At the time of Independence it was about 26 million hectares. Our achievement till date is perhaps a little more than 107 million hectares. We still have to provide for 33 million hectares. The current capacity of reservoirs is 225 billion cubic metres. Sixty-four reservoirs are under construction but then we have to do much more. This is for 107 (million hectares) and we have to take it to 140 (million hectares). This gap requires an expenditure of Rs 6.6 lakh crore that is to be borne by the government of India, borne by all the state governments.

What is the status and plans for the river interlinking project?
Thirty rivers were identified for which pre-feasibility studies were carried out – 14 in the Himalayan region and 16 in the peninsula region. The Himalayan region rivers, we can’t touch at the moment because they all have international implications, as they also flow through China, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal or Bangladesh. There are other rivers and out of those five probable links have been identified as priority links. Some further work has been done on these rivers.

Water is a state subject. And often there are interstate disputes like Cauvery.
This altogether is a different subject. We are first talking of the harnessing of the water as such... as to what needs to be done. There are areas where there is surplus water; there are areas where there is deficient water. Therefore a need is felt why not transfer this water to those areas. People call it interlinking of rivers. Actually it is transferring of water from one basin to another: inter-basin transfer of water.

You ignored my question regarding the Cauvery issue. How do you tackle interstate water disputes?
All that the government of India can do – which we have done – is to enact a law, the Interstate Water Dispute Act. Under this Act, whenever there is a dispute between two states it is our sincere endeavour to
resolve it through their mutual meetings.

How do you plan to reduce interstate water disputes?
It is very difficult. Very difficult. Everybody expresses a pious intention saying water is a national resource. It should be treated as a national resource. But when it comes to two states they are very particular about every drop of water of a river common to them.

Do you think setting up a tribunal is the only solution?
It is something which we should avoid. We should try to settle matters without that. But ultimately in the system which is governed by the rule of law that is the ultimate. You take the case of Punjab and Haryana. See the number of years. I think over 20 years have elapsed. We are not able to solve the problem because contentious issues are raised.

Turning to international water disputes, Nepal had accused Bihar of neglecting its responsibility to maintain the Kosi barrage.
No, there was no blame game. When I went there, the minister of water resources of the government of Nepal said on record in a press conference that they were fully satisfied with the work that the government of India had done. The government of India has taken it on itself to repair and maintain the Kosi barrage.

Water is a contentious issue between India and China too.
Sometimes it is only a perception which prevails upon you. It is not the factual position. The government of India has its own systems. We are having total up-to-date information about that. The Brahmaputra starts from Tibet, takes a long route before entering India. Would it not be their right to utilise its water – not to the exclusion of India but to utilise the water? If ever they will have a run-of-the-river project, India's concern, at any future date or even now, has to be if that route is impounded. Or if they store water and divert it elsewhere. If those two concerns of India are met I don’t think there is a problem. So, we should not blow these things out of proportion.

China is also planning to build a dam which will divert water from rivers that flow into the Brahmaputra.
What sort of a dam, that’s the question. The Teesta water is going to Bangladesh; we are building dams on this. Everybody is building dams. Question is what (kind of) dams. There are  run-of-the-river dams, in which you store water for some days, water comes down, it generates electricity and moves further. Without impounding water, without taking away water, you let the water go there. If that is done then we should have no problems. Our problem would be only if water is impounded or diverted.

You are also the parliamentary affairs minster. How difficult it is to do the floor management?
It’s always a challenge. Challenges have to be converted into opportunities. I am getting an opportunity. We are aware of our numbers. The UPA has only 276 members. Difficulties do crop up at times and you have to try to take the opposition along. On good many occasions we are able to take them along but sometimes they are determined to stall something. If 10-15 or 20 members choose to come to the well of the house then you can say there is no floor management. But then you can’t concede to everything that the opposition says.

Did you ever think of doing something like what late Pramod Mahajan of BJP used to do when he was parliamentary affairs minister – sit with the opposition to sort out differences?
I feel I don’t want to make any comparisons but please look into the records and see how often that used to happen. It’s a very difficult question indeed that you have asked me. But as everything is liable to be reported let me put it this way. The attitude which was of the NDA then was a recalcitrant one, was not of cooperation. I was a member of the Business Advisory Committee and I know with what authority the government then used to talk. “This is the government business, we will carry out that.” Point out one day in my entire tenure when I have done that. Well, I am candid in my reports. When I have to talk to the members of opposition I have my best relations with them but I don’t behave with them the way NDA government behaved with us.

Who do you think would be the right leader of opposition for you?
I think it’s their (the opposition's) business to decide. They have decided. Sushma Swaraj is a good leader of opposition. She is playing a good role. On many occasions we all agree and this is a question you should not pose to me.

This first appeared in the July 1-15 issue of the Governance Now magazine. (Vol 01, issue 11).

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