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John Daly

John Daly

Dr. John C.K. Daly is the chief analyst for Oilprice.com, Dr. Daly received his Ph.D. in 1986 from the School of Slavonic and East European…

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Former Indian President Urges Military Control of Nation’s Dams, Rivers

Imagine former U.S. President Bill Clinton suggesting that Washington nationalize the nation’s rivers, including the Mississippi.

Or former French President Jacques Chirac suggesting that France do the same.

On 14 December in Chennai, inaugurating a Conference on Agriculture Research and Development Trends (Agricon) 2020, organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry, former Indian President Dr. Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam did exactly that.

Dr. Kalam, who served as India’s President from 2002 to 2007, told his audience, "India cannot afford to fight a civil war over water. Like the national highways, the power grid and Indian Railways, there should be a national water grid and nationalization of rivers. The dams should be managed by the Indian Army or Navy so that the nation could march towards prosperity. Rivers and dams have to be operated and maintained by the Army, Navy or other armed forces for equitable distribution. The nation is bigger than individuals and political parties."

Dr. Kalam argues his case from his extensive scientific background, being a renowned aerospace engineer, professor of aerospace engineering and first Chancellor of the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology Thiruvananthapuram. Dr. Kalam is popularly known as the “Missile Man of India” for his work on development of ballistic missile and rocket technology.

As Dr. Kalam sees it, India’s water resources because of the country’s predicted soaring food needs are too important to be left to civilian political control, reminding his audience of the ongoing interstate political dispute between Kerala and Tamil Nadu over the Mullaperiyar dam, which was constructed between 1887 and 1895 by the British Government to divert water eastwards to Madras Presidency area (present-day Tamil Nadu.) The dam and the river are owned by and located in Kerala but the dam is controlled and operated under a 999-year lease by neighboring Tamil Nadu state. The two states have subsequently disputed issues not only of the control and safety of the dam but the validity and fairness of the lease agreement as well and their dispute is heading for the Indian Supreme Court.

Driving Dr. Kalam’s observations is the fact that India's grain is produced by 600 million people involved in farming, nearly 60 percent of India’s population, and output has to be doubled as people's purchasing power and the population numbers are going up. Instead, cropland may be shrinking as according to Dr. Kalam, "We use 170 million hectares to produce 235 million tons of food grain. By 2020, the land available for agriculture... may go down to 100 million hectares. Growth in agriculture has stagnated relative to other sectors; last quarter the agricultural sector grew at a rate of 3.2 percent, which is much lower than all other sectors." Furthermore, Indian farming is both labor-intensive and inefficient, as Kalam noted, in no other country nearly 60 percent of the population is involved in agriculture.

Dr. Kalam is also a strong supporter of the Indian Rivers Inter-link, a large-scale civil engineering project seeking to connect the majority of India’s rivers by canals in order to reduce persistent water shortages in certain parts of the country. Dr. Kalam said that even if only a third of India’s riverine waters that flow into the sea can be conversed and reapportioned by the Indian Rivers Inter-link, India can be a fertile country.

But critics of the Indian Rivers Inter-link also point to its enormous projected costs, conservatively estimated at $115 billion, which India can ill afford.

Ceding control of internal water supplies is a potentially momentous step, and New Delhi should carefully consider the potential consequences. While the Indian military would be above the fray in such interstate disputes such as between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the issues of water flow extends beyond India’s borders and it is questionable as to whether the military could better cope with such issues than the country’s politicians, as India is also involved in a number of transboundary river disputes with its neighbors, most notably Pakistan over the Indus.

The Indus originates in the Tibetan plateau of western China before flowing through Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan before emptying into the Arabian Sea near Karachi in Pakistan’s Sindh province. Pakistan has repeatedly accused India of threatening the Indus flow with dams and hydroelectric projects, a vital concern in Islamabad as the Indus provides water to over 80 percent of Pakistan’s 54 million acres of irrigated land.

Other Indian transnational water disputes include issues with China, Nepal and Bangladesh.


The issue of military versus civilian control of indigenous issues is particularly acute in developing nations, and it is unclear how India’s military would deal with political issues such as rising civilian opposition to energy projects, which could produce increased civil unrest.

Accordingly, while many elements of Dr. Kalam’s proposals are insightful and have merit, authorities in New Delhi should carefully consider the larger potential political consequences before embracing such a proposal in its entirety.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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  • Philip on December 23 2011 said:
    Surely as with any fundamental resource around which conflictys may arise such as water what is needed is joint civil-military control.

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