Environment & energy, International relations, Food & water | Asia, South Asia

29 March 2017

The Indian Prime Minister’s plans to stop the flow of rivers to Bangladesh and Pakistan, together with his discriminatory immigration policies is creating a human health catastrophe, Karen Piper writes.

In 2014, at New York’s Madison Square Gardens, India’s newly-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi was greeted by a cheering, chanting crowd of 19,000 Indian-Americans at an entertainment spectacle complete with traditional dancers, speed-painters, and giant screens. Modi walked up to a flower-surrounded, spotlighted podium and said, “This kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever. I’m very grateful to you. And I will repay that loan by forming the India of your dreams.” It was his first time to the United States after being banned for a decade for his role as Governor in overseeing the 2002 riots in Gujarat that killed 1,000 to 2,000 Muslims.

After Modi’s New York speech, the audience was asked to watch a six-minute video about the Ganges River, a river that in Hindu mythology is an embodiment of the goddess Ganga. In the video, Modi promised to clean up and restore the river to its former glory, a vision central to his campaign platform.

During an earlier visit to the Ganges, Modi had said, “I feel Mother Ganga has called me . . . I feel like a child who has returned to his mother’s lap.” For Modi, India’s rivers, especially the Ganges, are symbols of Hindu national identity.

Yet while promising in a worshipful tone to restore India’s rivers, Modi is at the same time planning to redirect nearly every major river in India through a grandiose $168 billion River Linking (aka Interlinking) Project. In direct contrast to the idea that rivers are sacred, the rationale behind this project is that rivers are “wasted water” if even one drop reaches the sea, an idea that originates in the same British colonial narrative that has dominated water policies in the American West.

More on this: India’s accelerating and invisible groundwater crisis

Modi’s River Linking Project will ultimately traverse all of India, linking 30 major rivers through a network of canals while storing water in 3,000 new dams. Initially designed by British engineer Sir Arthur Cotton over a century ago when Pakistan and Bangladesh were still part of British India, the River Linking Project has since become a pet project of Modi’s far-right Bharatiya Janata (India’s People) Party or BJP.

The project is based on the idea that some parts of India are “water short” while others have a “water surplus” and that all one needs to do is connect the rivers in “water surplus” regions to those in “water short” regions through canals or “links.”

Essentially, the project will turn India’s rivers into a nationwide plumbing system, as well as flood an endangered tiger reserve, displace at least half a million Indians, and cut off water to neighbouring Muslim-majority Bangladesh and Pakistan. In fact, the latter seems to be precisely the goal. Modi has already threatened to cut off three major rivers flowing into Pakistan, which is a violation of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. On November 15, 2016, he said, “The waters in these rivers belong to India and our farmers . . .  Now every drop of this water will be stopped and I will give that to farmers.” Modi’s plan is to take water from Muslims and give it to Hindus as part of his far-right “Hindu-only” vision of India.

In Bangladesh, the consequences of the nation’s water shortages can be seen in the face of 36-year-old Kamala Mandal, a woman banished from her home when nasty scars began to form on her skin. Kamala said of her husband, “He used to curse me for my disease. Even my other relatives, neighbours and acquaintances avoided me. To them, I am untouchable, as they say I have leprosy.”

Kamala has arsenic poisoning, a problem that has reached epidemic proportions in Bangladesh and is often mistaken for leprosy. In 2011, the World Health Organization revealed that 37 to 77 million people had been chronically exposed to arsenic-polluted groundwater in Bangladesh. One in ten will develop cancer.

The problem emerged when people began to drink the groundwater, which is naturally full of arsenic, rather than drink from the country’s shrinking, polluted rivers. Faced with worsening health, increasing poverty, and only toxic water to drink, many Bangladeshis are now migrating to India. Meanwhile, Modi has further promised to divert or dam two out of three of Bangladesh’s major rivers – the Ganges and the Brahmaputra – before they can reach Bangladesh.

More on this: Water as a political weapon in India

According to Indian water activist Medha Patkar, half of Bangladesh’s groundwater will become saline after the Brahmaputra link is completed due to the fact that the mouth of the Brahmaputra will recede and shrink, thereby allowing seawater to push inland. Tens of millions of people will be displaced, most likely heading for India. Ramaswamy Iyer, a former Secretary in the Ministry of Water Resources, called the project “technological hubris, promethean madness” and campaigned against it until his death.

In response to an impending immigration crisis, Modi has focused on his own version of a “Muslim ban” on immigration. Long before Trump, Modi was working on a legal amendment that would give immigration preference to “religious minorities” (aka Hindus) facing “religious persecution” in Bangladesh or Pakistan. The amendment is now going through Parliament for approval. At the same time, Modi has long promised to send Muslims back to Bangladesh. Modi once said that, after the election, “You can write it down. After May 16, these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed.” He did not mean Hindus. Modi’s rhetoric of fear and hatred depicts Muslims as terrorists or fraudulent voters who must be stripped of their Indian citizenship and sent home before they destroy India.

Perhaps, not surprisingly, Modi’s sudden rise to stardom has often been compared to President Donald Trump’s. Like Trump, Modi is known for his compulsive tweeting, meme-making, and high-end promotional videos. His “India First” campaign platform preceded Trump’s “America First” by two years, and both are united in their love of Vladimir Putin and the far- or alt-right.

Today, the River Linking Project is being implemented as part of Modi’s far-right Hindu agenda in which Muslim immigrants are kept out while rivers are kept in, threatening both international water treaties and human lives. If completed, the River Linking Project will most certainly be India’s most spectacular failure, sending a reminder to the world about what lies in store for those who rely on far-right, hyper-masculine leaders who tweet-talk, hold violent rallies, and otherwise enchant the public with Promethean fantasies of grandeur.

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