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#RIP – Ramaswamy R. Iyer – A visionary on water issues 


# passed away on September 9 in Delhi after a severe bout of viral fever. The water policy expert, who last held the position of an honorary research professor at the Centre for Policy Research, earlier served as Secretary of Water Resources in the Central government. Iyer’s passion for water-related issues won him the Padma Shri in 2014.

Besides being a policy expert, Iyer was also a fine writer. He wrote several books, and the last one titled Living Rivers, Dying Rivers (Oxford University Press, 2015) signifies the very cause he wrote extensively and indefatigably about. In the introduction to the book, he explains the reason for the title, also adding a few words of warning: “When the title was initially thought of, the expectation was that the chapters in the book would highlight both healthy rivers and sick rivers, though not in equal numbers. However, it was found that most chapters tended to present grim pictures of rivers in decline…Even the few ‘living’ rivers (for instance, the Shastri river in Maharashtra and Tamraparni in Tamil Nadu) are said to be under threat…Similarly the rivers of North-East have remained relatively free-flowing and clean (‘pristine’) because of the absence or limited nature of human intervention, but that situation is changing. A large number of hydroelectric projects are planned in the North-East and some are already under construction….In particular, the most well known of them, the Brahmaputra, is now the victim of project planning by both China and India, with Bangladesh also involved in the controversy as the anxious lower riparian…One shudders to think of… the consequences of interventions in this river by the state, whether Chinese or India.”

The book was to be officially launched on September 7 at Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s house, but Mr. Iyer’s ill-health stalled the programme. Personally, I know just how deeply devoted he was to giving this book its shape and how diligently he had worked on the idea (preceding the book, he had given a lecture series at the India International Centre, Delhi). Though he had been Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources, he was unlike any average water bureaucrat. He consistently stood by the idea — as he had written in his book, Towards Water Wisdom: Limits, Justice, Harmony — that in the Indian context the problem of water has been a “crisis of gross mismanagement” and in the international context, “a crisis of rapacity.” In the same book he wrote, “The theory that ‘development’ entails ‘costs’ and that this is a ‘sacrifice’ that some must accept in order that others might benefit must be recognised to be disingenuous and sanctimonious; it must be firmly abandoned. Pain and hardship imposed by some on others cannot be described as a sacrifice by the latter…‘Stakeholder consultation’ is another misleading and sanctimonious formulation. Both the beneficiaries of big projects (farmers receiving irrigation in the command area, industries and cities getting electricity, etc.) and those lands, livelihoods, and centuries-old access to the natural resource base are being taken away are lumped together as ‘stakeholders’ who must be consulted. In truth, the beneficiaries are stake-gainers whereas the project-affected groups are stake-losers, and the primacy of the latter over the former needs to be recognised…”

“He was one of the petitioners seeking a review of the Supreme Court order on interlinking rivers project.”

Again — “The engineering-dominated supply-side approach meant that attention was focussed on what is referred to as water resource development; the manner in which water was used or managed received little attention… That view continues to hold sway in the Indian Water Establishment. They see the problem in terms of (a) spatial variations in the availability of water, and (b) a crisis looming on the horizon… Their answer, once again, is more supply-side engineering.” (Towards Water Wisdom)Iyer’s opinions on the Indus Waters Treaty, the Cauvery water dispute, the Mullaperiyar issue, the interlinking of Indian rivers project, are well-known. He was one of the petitioners seeking a review of the Supreme Court order on interlinking rivers project and he remained, until the very end, one of its most vociferous critics. About interlinking rivers, he had written: “Rivers are not human artifacts; they are natural phenomena, integral components of ecological systems, and inextricable parts of the cultural, social, economic and spiritual lives of the communities concerned. They are not pipelines to be cut, turned around, welded and rejoined.”

Iyer was always prompt in replying to emails. He was also encouraging of people. I was fortunate that he not only penned one of the blurbs for my book, but also discussed it (along with Professor Amita Baviskar) at an event at India International Centre, on September 9 last year. While speaking on my book, he shared his broader critique of the nature of development, placing my book in the context of a longer debate on displacement and relief and rehabilitation. Since the struggle of people affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and other projects still continues, I feel I must recount what Iyer said that day: “The present…official and industry thinking seems to be that land should be had for the asking. The average administrator…engineer and expert think of the peasantry, the boatmen, the fisherfolk and others, particularly tribal communities, as backward, needing to be brought into the mainstream…They have no understanding of the pain of the displacement that will remain in spite of the rehabilitation package, however good it may be. From the perspective of development as currently understood, Polavaram and other similar projects are symbols of development. In that view, the disappearance of traditional societies and their centuries’ old relationship with nature will seem inevitable and necessary transition to modernity. A person holding such a view will have little time or patience for the agony and anguish experienced by the dispossessed…” About the river he added, “The engineer thinks of it as a feature of nature to be subdued, controlled and manipulated. Or pushed around (as remarked by a famous American water manager); the economist thinks of it as a commodity like any other, left to market forces. What is common to all these perceptions is the reduction of the river to the water that it carries. And an instrumentalist or utilitarian view of the river.”

In a condolence message, several groups such as the National Alliance of People’s movements , the Lokshakti Abhiyan, the Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti, the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti said of Iyer: “At Narmada Bachao Andolan, we still remember how, as a key official in the Water Ministry, way back in 1993, he patiently sat through the proceedings of the five-Member Review Committee and worked as the Committee’s backbone, painstakingly trying to understand and later convince himself and other members of the costs and benefits of the SSP. The Report of the five-Member Group is nothing short of a classic. We can never forget how Iyerji stayed for the entire three days in the Narmada valley with his family, during the mega events marking the 25 years of the struggle, interacting and expressing solidarity with the tribals and farmers in the hills and plains. As a petitioner before the Supreme Court in the Narmada petition … he questioned the unconstitutionally of displacement by offer of meagre cash compensation to the Sardar Sarovar oustees…”

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