Riverlinking: Demand for government-public dialogue

Guwahati, November 30: The Union Government’s proposal to link the rivers of India needs to be connected with livelihood generation and greater dialogue with stakeholders as well as deeper research cutting across sectors such as environment, social and economic conditions, participants at a seminar on the issue said today.

They cautioned against large scale interventions in the river, without adequate comprehension of either long-term effects or peoples will in a discussion organized by the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research which is working in the area of river livelihoods in Assam.

The Brahmaputra is an international waterway and the proposed water diversion has been resisted by water-dependent Bangladesh, into which the river flows. It also traverses Tibet in China before entering Arunachal Pradesh.

Despite differences in perception, the participants at the day-long discussion, “Livelihoods and Linking,” agreed that a major project like river linking demanded extremely detailed studies developed across multi-disciplines to seek environmental impacts of artificial change and on communities across the Brahmaputra Valley and its tributaries.

“Our understanding of the river is limited,” said one speaker, cautioning against any large-scale physical intervention without taking into consideration the long-term impacts of such steps. Such impacts had not been adequately studied by government or any group, it was felt.

“It should not be like the ban on cutting trees when you impose a ban after the forests are gone,” said Dr Tapan Dutta, agriculture adviser to the state government, in a lively debate. Another participant questioned the rationale of linking polluted rivers. Referring to the claim that only “surplus water” was to be diverted, Prof JN Sarma of Dibrugarh University questioned the definition of the term. “Is there a ‘genuine’ surplus?” he asked, pointing out that the water needed for navigation was different to that needed for sustainable fishing.

Dr Chandan Mahanta, from the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, explained the need to understand the complex “environmental chemistry” of the Brahmaputra and spoke of growing concern about the increased deposits in heavy metals in the river sediment downstream of Guwahati.

The natural dynamism of the river, its enormous potential as a provider of livelihoods and jobs, the richness and diversity of its wetlands were defined as natural advantages which should be protected. Speakers agreed that the pros and cons of the project needed to be debated fully, including the potential of reducing flood havoc and enabling the North East to break out of its landlocked position through a network of canals between Upper Assam and North Bengal.

The participants included Dr Jayanta Madhab, economic advisor to the Chief Minister, Assam, NN Goswami, former Commissioner, Water Resources, Assam, representatives of the Brahmaputra Board, residents of North Guwahati, bankers, representatives of industry, teachers and lectures, media and researchers.

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