River-linking: A damnable solution

On April 16, addressing a meeting at Salem in south India, Narendra Modi said that linking rivers would solve the water woes of states like Tamil Nadu and an NDA government, if voted to power, will achieve in 60 months what the Congress could not do in 60 years. A couple of days earlier, the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister had charged the BJP with betraying the state’s interests over sharing the Cauvery’s water with Karnataka. The idea of linking water-surplus Himalayan rivers with water-scarce parts of western and peninsular India has been doing the rounds for the past 150 — not 60 –years.  Never in the past has the idea generated as much discussion and debate as during the recent years, after the Supreme Court of India enjoined the Government of India to implement the grandiose project by 2016.

Modi is either not fully aware of all the facts regarding river-linking or he is just over-enthusiastic, considering that there is a strong body of expert opinion, which sincerely believes that river-linking – apart from the cost it entails – will cause irreparable damage to the country.  The ambitious project of interlinking the major rivers in India to harness their waters in a more equitable manner was launched in 2002 and the first ‘link’ between Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh has been completed.

The point has already been made that a mammoth project to link the peninsular rivers will engender a human catastrophe of an unparalleled magnitude.  The Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) project has three components: The Himalayan Component, the Peninsular Component and the Hydroelectric Component.  The Himalayan Component proposes to transfer33 billion cubic metres (BCM) of water through 16 river links.  The Peninsular Component proposes to transfer 141 BCM water through 14 river links.  The total cost of the project, last calculated in 2003 by the Institute of Engineering, Pune, was to the tune of Rs 5,60,000 crore. The Himalayan component was expected to cost Rs 1,85,000 crore, the Peninsular component at Rs 1,06,000 crore and the Hydroelectric component Rs 2,69,000 crore.

According to a paper submitted by Upali Amarsinghe, the National River Linking Project envisages to provide additional irrigation to 35 million hectares (ha) of crop area and water supply to domestic and industrial sectors, to add 34 GW of hydro-power potential to the national grid and mitigate floods in eastern India, in addition to facilitating various other economic activities, such as internal navigation, fisheries, ground water recharge and environmental flow of water-scarce rivers. It sounds marvellous. According to Amarsinghe, Brahmaputra river has surplus flow under any environmental water demand condition.  He says: According to National River Linking Project (NRLP), water is first transferred from the Brahmaputra to the Ganga and then from the Ganga to the Suvarnalekha; from the Suvarnalekha, water is transferred to the Mahanadi and from the Mahanadi to the Godavari.  Actually, for peninsular India, the National Water Development Agency has considered 16 possible links in major river basins, including the Mahanadi, the Godavari, the Krishna, the Pennar, the Cauvery, the Vaigai and the west-flowing rivers of Kerala, Karnataka, north of Mumbai and south of Tapi.  The trouble is that many states are not in favour of the inter-linking of rivers as proposed by the Agency on the grounds that their share of water will be taken away.  At the same time, the point is made that the Mahanadi and the Godavari river basins are surplus in water and that water should be made available to rivers falling in the water scarcity category.  Modi may not realise it, but any effort on his part to enforce river links may come up with strong and unrelenting opposition.  The question is: if inter-linking of rivers is unacceptable, how are water-scarcity areas to function in reasonable comfort where water is concerned?

The answer is available in a letter from an NGO to the Chairman of the Task Force on River Linking despatched way back in 2003.  The letter said: “A pillar of the River-Link proposition is that it will drought-proof the country….But as a recent report has shown, in reality, after 50 years of dam building, the drought prone areas in the country has gone up! On the other hand, now we have before us hundreds of cases across the country that show that the real solution to drought problem is watershed development and local water systems.  Three years back, when country was facing one of the worst droughts of the 20th century, when the Prime Minister was making appeals to the nation to come to the rescue of drought areas like Gujarat and Rajasthan, there were villages in those drought-prone areas that did not have water shortage or other drought-related problems because they had done their rainwater harvesting over an extended period of time..”

Surely, Modi knows what was done in his own state of Gujarat? Since 2002, the number of people and organisations opposing inter-linkage of rivers has greatly risen.  According to C Rammanohar Reddy, for example, “connecting the rivers will be a disaster because the gigantic project, which will take decades, if not centuries to complete, will cause massive human displacement.”  As he put it, “the construction of dams and the excavation of thousands of kms of canals will make villages disappear, flood towns and cut through millions of hectares of agricultural land.  It will uproot millions, the number exceeding the population shifts of Partition.  The mammoth project will be another kind of disaster as well because of its cost.” Modi is warned.  He means well, but before he seeks to take up a major task, he would do well to work out its consequences, not just in terms of cost, but in human suffering.  There are wider ways to help drought-prone areas than river inter-linking, a point once well noted by no less than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru himself.

M V Kamath

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