Atal Bihari Vajpayee had backed two grand projects during his tenure as prime minister. The first project was to build four-lane highways to connect the four largest cities in India in what came to be known as the golden quadrilateral project. The other was an analogous project to link the major rivers in the country.

The roads project has been an unquestioned success. The rivers project never really got off the ground, as the Vajpayee government was soon voted out of power in 2004. There were also other objections. Some asked whether a $100 billion project (at 2003 prices) would end up a white elephant. Others worried about the impact of the project on the environment. There were also practical problems such as the energy that would be needed to lift the water over difficult terrain; the cost-benefit balance has yet to be worked out. Supporters claimed that joining the main rivers would break the floods-drought cycle and raise farm output from 200 million tonnes to 500 million tonnes.

Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The Supreme Court has now asked the Manmohan Singh government to take a fresh look at the possibility of linking our rivers. Given tangles in land acquisition and environmental clearance that much smaller projects have been running into, it is hard to see how a project to link our rivers can be pulled off. Yet, the court has done well to put the plan back on the table.

Food, water and energy are three prominent structural constraints that India could face in the coming decades. The rivers project may seem like a technocratic white elephant, but one hopes it reopens the overdue debate on how these structural problems are to be overcome.

Vajpayee was attacked for being unrealistic when he first proposed the golden quadrilateral project, but it was his vision that led to one of the few infrastructural successes India has seen in the past ten years. It would be wrong to dismiss the rivers project without a debate.

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