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Thursday, Jan 09, 2003

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Rivers of ambition

GOING BY INDIA'S track record in completion of mega infrastructure projects, the super giga project for interlinking the major rivers — primarily to avoid droughts and floods — appears far too ambitious, on all counts. At a time when the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation is striving hard to monitor the completion of scores of Central projects costing a mere Rs 100 crore — especially those which have undergone both time and cost overruns — the fate and time of completion of the river linking project may go beyond the wildest guess. For the simple reason that the project, scheduled for completion by 2016 but not even on the drawing boards yet, may take double the time stipulated, especially when it is guesstimated to cost a whopping Rs 5.6 lakh crore. Truly, as Mr Suresh Prabhu, Chairman of the Task Force on Linking of Rivers, put it, such projects are once in a lifetime for a nation and will require unconventional methods of financing. Nowhere in the world has such an amount of money ever been mopped up or spent on a single infrastructure project.

The size of the project and its financing issues apart, experience has shown that the major stumbling blocks to the timely execution are the acquisition of land and the rehabilitation and resettlement of the displaced people. The first hurdle is easier to cross, as seen from the experience of the National Highways Authority of India which is successfully executing the Golden Quadrilateral highway network. Acquisition of land, it appears, is now much less messy under the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act under which compensation packages are fixed. The second issue, of rehabilitation of the displaced people, is a thorny affair, especially when non-governmental organisations jump in, leading to agitations, and litigations in various courts. An example of this is the ongoing Narmada Bachao Andolan which, for good or for worse, has delayed the project by years together. To steer clear of such hindrances, the Task Force has decided to bring in experts and advisors who would be able to guide and settle matters amicably and with a human face. Moreover, the fact that the project is being launched under Supreme Court stipulation offers some comfort as litigation over such disputes would evidently be handled by the apex court and disposed of without undue delay.

The Task Force Chairman is confident that the project, though gigantic, will be completed, especially as this is a singular project in which the three arms of the state — the Executive, the Judiciary and the Legislature — are set to join for the benefit of the nation. With no opposition from any quarter, which usually leads to delays, it is the funds mop-up that is likely to pose the biggest challenge. With the conventional grants-in-aid and loans, surcharges and user charges from the commercial activities, such as navigation, fisheries and recreational tourism during the completion of the project, are expected to chip in in a big way. The fact is that whatever the hurdles, once the project is under execution, the direct and spin-off benefits themselves will catapult the country to a developed nation.

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