It is not for the Supreme Court to decide how the government should ensure the right to water; in any case, the connection between this right and the river linking project is tenuous.
In recent times the Supreme Court of India, with a series of remarkable decisions, has earned our admiration, respect and gratitude. Alas, it has now come out with an extraordinary order on the Inter-Linking of Rivers (ILR) Project, which has caused consternation and dismay to many of us.
In 2002, in a post-retirement explanation, a defensive Justice Kirpal had said that his order on the river-linking project was not a direction but merely a recommendation. That defensiveness has now been abandoned. In the present order, the Supreme Court explicitly directs the Executive Government to implement the project and to set up a Special Committee to carry out that implementation; it lays down that the committee's decisions shall take precedence over all administrative bodies created under the orders of this court or otherwise; it (graciously) authorises the Cabinet to take all final and appropriate decisions, and lays down a time-limit of 30 days for such decision-making (though it has the saving grace to say “preferably”); and it grants “liberty to the learned Amicus Curiae to file contempt petition in this court, in the event of default or non-compliance of the directions contained in this order”.
The normal course
In the normal course, a project goes through certain stages and procedures: formulation; examination from various angles by the appropriate agencies, Committees, and Ministries; statutory clearances under the Environment Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act; compliance with the procedures prescribed in the National Rehabilitation Policy; acceptance of the project by the Planning Commission from the national planning point of view; and finally a decision by the Cabinet. The Supreme Court rides roughshod over all this and orders not quick consideration and decision-making by the government, but implementation.
Are the proposed Special Committee and the Cabinet free to examine the project and come to the conclusion that it is unacceptable and must be rejected? No, they are under the Supreme Court's order to implement the project and may face contempt proceedings if they fail to do so. The project decision has been taken away from the hands of the government; it has been exercised by the Supreme Court; the government and the Planning Commission have been reduced to the position of subordinate offices or implementing agencies of the Supreme Court.
It could be argued that the above is a misrepresentation of what the Supreme Court has done, and that the learned judges are only concerned at the delay in the implementation of an approved project and asking for early implementation. In fact, there is no approved, sanctioned project called “the inter-linking of rivers project”. In 2003, when there was a raging controversy about this idea, an important defence by its supporters was that it was not a project but a grand concept; that it will consist of 30 links, each of which will be a project that will go through all the usual examinations and procedures; and that the critics are needlessly raising the bogey of gigantism. If it is a concept, how can it be ‘implemented'? It has first to be translated into projects, and each of those projects has to be properly approved or rejected, as the case may be. Thereafter we can talk about implementation.
How many of those 30 projects have been actually approved? None. Three — Ken-Betwa, Damanganga-Pinjal, Par-Tapi-Narmada — have reached the stage of preparation of Detailed Project Reports, and one (Polavaram), though included in the ILR Project, was separately taken up by the Andhra Pradesh government on somewhat different lines, but is mired in controversy. There is not a single case of a project actually sanctioned and ready for implementation.
The learned judges may say that this is precisely what worries them; that by now the projects should have been well under way; that a good project or concept or whatever it was, announced in 2002, is languishing; and that the judiciary has to step into the vacant space created by non-action by the Executive and issue the necessary direction. This is the gap-filling theory. However, there is a fallacy here. The “delay” is not the result of executive failure or inefficiency, but a deliberate (though unstated) slowing down of action on the project. The NDA had announced the project in 2002 with fanfare and trumpets. The UPA government which followed in 2004 was not very enthusiastic about the project but at the same time did not want to abandon it; its Common Minimum Programme stated that the project would be comprehensively re-assessed in a fully consultative manner. This was a clear indication of reservations about the project. Thereafter the project has been in the doldrums. Unfortunately, the government's attitude towards the project was never made unambiguously clear to either the general public or the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court was clearly entitled to ask the government to state categorically where it stood in this matter: whether it considered the project to be a good (or the only) answer to the country's needs; if so, whether it intended to proceed with it; or alternatively, whether it had decided to drop the whole idea, and if so, on what grounds. What the Supreme Court was not entitled to do was to issue a direction to the government to implement the project.
Why has it done so? It would be wrong to attribute this to a desire for aggrandisement. The Supreme Court is convinced that the project is good and urgently needed; and that a very important national initiative is getting bogged down because of various reasons and needs to be galvanised. It has come to that conclusion because of a report by the National Council for Applied Economic Research.
There are two problems here. First, assuming that there is a serious water scarcity problem, it is not the business of the Supreme Court to deal with it; there is an Executive Government to deal with such matters. True, the citizen's right to water is a fundamental right, and therefore the Supreme Court is concerned with it; but while it may direct the government to ensure that the right is not denied, it is not for it to lay down the manner in which or the source from which that right should be ensured. Moreover, the connection between the right to water and the ILR Project is very tenuous; it is the large demand for irrigation water that generally drives major projects and long-distance water transfers. It is true, again, that there are intractable inter-State river-water disputes, and these are of concern to the Supreme Court; but the Supreme Court can at best direct the Executive Government to find early answers to river water disputes, and not recommend a particular answer such as the ILR project, which may in fact generate new conflicts.
Secondly, and finally, we come to the heart of the matter, namely the view that the country faces a looming water crisis; that the answer lies in augmenting supplies; that given the magnitude and distribution of India's future water requirements, the ILR project is the best possible answer; and that it is in the national interest to implement it quickly. It is that conviction that provides, in the Supreme Court's view, the justification for its intervention. If that view of India's water crisis and its solution is challenged, the whole basis for the Supreme Court's order collapses.
This article will not enter into a discussion of this vital question, but will merely point out that there is a diversity of views on it, which the Supreme Court has failed to consider. The NCAER may have taken one view of the matter, but there are other views. The cogent case against the project has been succinctly stated in the editorial in this paper on 1 March 2012. That knocks the bottom out of the Supreme Court's order.
In 2002, when the NDA government announced the ILR Project, a fierce controversy broke out. There were many who hailed the initiative, but there were many others who deplored it as not only uncalled for but as positively disastrous. Many State governments expressed strong reservations on the project. Articles appeared in newspapers and journals. Books were published on the subject. How much of this vast literature have the learned judges read? How could they rely on the NCAER's report without reading other scholarly work? Even if the learned judges did not have time to read all the available material, should they not at least have heard a dozen scholars representing different disciplines and a few social activists before they decided to issue directions to the government?
This article will conclude with an earnest and respectful request to the Supreme Court to withdraw or at least put on hold its order, conduct further hearings, listen to a wider range of opinions, and reflect on the matter before it comes to firm conclusions.
(Ramaswamy R. Iyer is a former Secretary, Water Resources, Government of India.)