June 2003

Interlinking rivers in India:
Panacea for Water Ills or Deceptive Mirage?

To people ravaged by drought and flood, the government has grandly announced its plan to wave the magic wand of ‘interlinking rivers’. The mind-boggling grandeur of the plan is meant to dazzle the common citizen so that they forget to ask questions. But ask questions we must, because this water is a life and death matter for all of us.

Has there been any competent study that has recommended such a step? Before committing the nation’s people to such a major policy decision affecting the most vital, life-giving natural resource, has our government bothered to find out what impact it is likely to have? Tracing the history of this plan, we find that no one knows enough about the complex impact of such a plan. We are being forced to plunge blindly into ‘interlinked rivers’; if this water solution turns out to be a mirage, the entire country’s people will suffer terrible consequences.

Interlinking of rivers has often been floated as an idea, especially whenever there is an acute drought or when there are water-sharing disputes between states. There after the whole idea is forgotten only to be revived when there occurs the next crisis. In official quarters the idea has been bandied about every now and then for the last three decades. Dr. KL Rao, the then Union Minister for Irrigation and Power, proposed it in 1972 and Captain Dastur suggested the Garland Canal Project in 1977. In July 1982 National Water Development Agency was created to carry out surveys and prepare feasibility reports. But, strangely enough, the National Water Policy (1987) doesn’t even make a mention of interlinking the rivers. The National Water Development Agency is only collecting the data offered by various state governments and compiling them into reports. Even to do that the agency seems to be having 2010 as the time frame to complete all “feasibility studies”. The River Valley Guidelines (1983) discuss the adverse environmental and social impacts due to transfer of water. This has not been taken into account subsequently. In the 1990s, the Government appointed Hashim commission to examine the strategy of water resource development, including the possibility of interlinking rivers. Its report, submitted in 1999, — which is not available to the public — is understood to have supported the project. But the interlinking programme has not been worked out in sufficient detail to qualify for serious examination, leave alone immediate implementation. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court got a sudden brainwave and, on a public interest litigation, issued a judicial fiat on October 3, 2002, directing the Centre to draw up and implement by 2015 a programme to interlink major rivers. Interlinking of rivers was rejected in the nineties by the centre, on advice of experts and bureaucrats such as Dr. M.S. Reddy, and the recent Supreme Court order termed an ‘error’ by Dr. Ramaswamy Iyer (both ex-Secretaries, Water Resources Ministry). Meanwhile, APJ Abdul Kalam, having the reputation as a man of science, has also thrown his weight behind the project. NDA, in its manifesto, proposed interlinking of rivers. When the Prime Minister proposed interlinking of rivers in the parliament the leader of the Opposition promptly seconded the proposal for purely political reasons. There was no informed debate otherwise. In September 1996, the government set up a National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan to study the interlinking of rivers. A National Perspective Plan (NPP) for water resources development was formulated by the Union Ministry of Water Resources, envisaging interlinking of rivers. The National Water Development Agency is reportedly studying the proposals of NPP but is yet to give concrete shape to it.

What are the government’s concrete plans to implement this scheme? The Prime Minister announced the Government’s decision to act on the court directive and appointed a task force to ensure the implementation of the project by 2015. Initially there was speculation that LK Advani would be heading the task force. But because the task force is an ornamental body without any executive powers to implement the project, LK Advani declined to head it and a lightweight person like Suresh Prabhu was made its chief. The task force headed by Suresh Prabhu is now active. Thus, in the official circles, proclamation has followed proclamation and committee has followed committee and the idea is now kept alive by a task force. Strangely, the task force dealing with such an important proposal has no independent staff but will be assisted by the National Water Development Agency. The task force doesn’t even have an office of its own! ‘Interlinked water’, at least for now, seems to be good only for election eyewash!

Is this grand-sounding plan really feasible at all? Till now, even the techno-economic survey has not been taken up to find out whether the project is technically feasible or not. No cost-benefit analysis has been done. The chairman of the government’s Task Force on Interlinking of Rivers, when asked if the plan has been discussed threadbare, replies that the pluses and minuses are yet to be considered, but the ‘benefits clearly outweigh the costs’. But he was unable to say who exactly had calculated the benefits and costs! A figure of Rs.5, 60,000 crore has been mentioned as the required investment for the project even before the completion of feasibility studies. This is about 50 times the total allocation for the ongoing water resource development projects in the Tenth Plan. Given the sharp cost escalation traditionally associated with all our irrigation projects the actual figure may be much more. A government, which is already on financial doldrums, can hardly be expected to raise this much amount of money. Long pending irrigation projects require only Rs.80,000 crore according to a parliamentary committee and the governments, both at the Centre and the States, are able to raise only a fraction of this amount every year. Raising Rs.5,60,000 crore from private sources is being mooted as a fashionable idea forgetting the fact that private funds of this magnitude cannot be easily raised for infrastructural projects of this kind. Rather this would only open the way and offer a pretext for private sources monopolizing water resources. Depending on external lending agencies is also not a viable option as the country’s current external debt has already touched a whopping Rs.5,00,000 crore. Only the government has to raise the resources and raising resources of this magnitude by our present government and those to come in the immediate future is simply out of the question. Hence this grand idea would remain a mere fools paradise for the foreseeable future.

The technical feasibility of the project remains doubtful. At Patna, which is the only point along the course with a divertible surplus, the Ganga flows 200 ft above the mean sea level (MSL). If it is has to be linked with any river in the peninsula, the water has to be raised over the Vindhya Chain—i.e. to 2860 ft above MSL. Pumping 20,000 cusecs of water to that height would have required the entire day’s power generated in the country.

What impact will it have on people and ecosystem? It is not just the economic costs that are unviable. The environmental costs and human displacement involved is unimaginably high. The construction of barrages and excavations of thousands of kilometers of canals will make villages disappear, flood towns, and cut through millions of hectares of agricultural lands. It will uproot millions, the number exceeding the population shifts of Partition. Suresh Prabhu has vaguely asserted that displacement costs would be factored into the project. But the government is yet to commit itself on a rehabilitation policy. They have not come forth on rehabilitating the people displaced by this mega project. Activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan remind us that in mega projects like Narmada and Sardar Sarovar, the displacement has been huge and rehabilitation has simply been ignored by the government. Further, even in these existing projects, there is no land to rehabilitate all those who will be displaced. ‘Interlinking’ will displace many, many, more times the number of those displaced by existing projects; how can rehabilitation on that scale even be imagined?

How can we be sure that this is not a scheme to centralize and nationalize water only to privatize it subsequently? Involvement of international funding agencies in this grand plan is very likely, and that will be a sure road to the corporatization of water. In Chhattisgarh, where the Shivnath river has been privatized the contractor is depriving people of their right to drinking water! This will be the fate of people all over India, if the government hands over water to foreign and domestic companies (as it is doing with other assets and resources). Further, irrigation remaining primarily a state subject, the Centre has no legal provision or mechanism to centralize the water resources by linking rivers. Already Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Kerala have opposed the Centre’s proposal for interlinking rivers and the political parties in Assam have opposed it too. This mega project would involve construction of thousands of kms of link canals and irrigation canals and hundreds of massive reservoirs and all these are a long-lasting gold mine for corrupt politicians and contractors. This appears to be the main reason why BJP is interested in this. This is also the reason why many vested interests and busybodies have started advocating the project enthusiastically. The nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and contractors is well known. Those who raise questions about the project are dubbed as “anti-development”.
Are there not other ways, less devastating and costly, to solve our water crises? Why are long-pending localized minor irrigation schemes, watershed programmes and other water harvesting methods, on water conservation and wastage reduction measures and on other traditional sources of irrigation being dumped? Water management expert A.Vaidyanathan has opposed ‘interlinking’ on the grounds of its feasibility, desirability and viability. (The Hindu, 26-27 March, 2003) Enormous amount of water in perennial Himalayan rivers flows into the sea whereas monsoon-fed rivers in the peninsular south remain dry for most part of the year. Hence on the face of it the idea of interlinking looks sensible. But A.Vaidyanathan argues that the volume of flows during the flood season is misleading as a basis for judging surpluses. Three-fourth of the water flows in perennial rivers occur between June and September. The “deficit” regions are far from those considered “surplus” requiring transport over very difficult terrain and long distances. Moreover, since the surplus occurs in the rainy season and the demand is in the dry season, it is not enough to merely carry the water from one point to another. Large storages will be necessary. One needs to know the quantum of water to be stored, and whether and where potential sites on the required scale are available, and their likely impact on environment and human displacement, he says. According to him, decentralised local rain-water harvesting, by reviving and improving traditional techniques, can meet essential requirements more effectively and at a far lesser cost. There is much scope for increasing the efficiency of the irrigation systems in place by reducing waste and through better water management. Measures needed for this purpose — by way of investment in physical improvements and institutional reform — are not receiving due attention. According to Sanjay Sangvai of NAPM, Suresh Prabhu has reportedly made a statement that Himalayan rivers would be linked separately and peninsular rivers would be linked separately without any interlinkage between the two. He however didn’t clarify as to which peninsular river has surplus water. If true this makes the whole project meaningless.

The Nagpur Declaration (2000) on “Natural Resources Planning and Management for Sustainable Development” envisages that for integrated water resources planning and management, both “river basins management” at the macro level and “watershed management” at the micro level should mutually complement each other. But watershed management has not been receiving adequate attention and funding in rain-fed areas. Rain-fed areas account for 70% of the net cultivated area in India. About 30% of this area is under dryland agriculture wherein the annual rainfall is under 400 mm only. Even if rivers are interlinked canal irrigation cannot cover this entire area. By rainwater harvesting, Israel has done wonders with only this much minimum rainfall, which can be repeated in our country also. Developing Countries like India are still to harness their water potential1. Against the annual precipitation of 4000 Billion Cubic Metres (BCM) occurring over the Indian landmass, the available run-off is estimated as 1953 BCM. The balance is lost to atmosphere by immediate evaporation and also to the ground as soil moisture. Out of this 1953 BCM, the utilisable flow is only 1086 BCM comprising 690 BCM of surface run-off and 396 BCM of replenishable ground water. While the ground water is being over-exploited, it is possible to harness only about 250 BCM of river flows through major, medium and minor storages, allowing the balance flow of more than 400 BCM (i.e. 60% of the surface run-off) to be wasted to the sea every year. Such an enormous waste of this precious natural resource is going to have a telling effect on the lifestyle of the Indian people. According to one estimate tens of thousands of mini rainwater harvesting structures need to be constructed within a limited time period, to store the 400 BCM of river flows discharged into the sea without being utilised. This is a better substitute – or, at least, a necessary complement – for interlinking the rivers through canals as irrigation under this would cover a wider area.
What is the guarantee of transparency and accountability at every stage? So far there have only been ominous signs of just the opposite. The Centre is flaunting such a mega project like interlinking of rivers without detailed surveys – which would take years to complete – and concrete cost-benefit assessment. Only a few maps, purported to have been taken out of the Hashim Commission report, are doing the rounds in the media. But it is claimed that the plan has been technically upheld by the Technical Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Water Resources, the Central Water Commission and the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development Plan and that the studies have been ratified by engineers, sociologists and economists and so on. If this is so, why these are shrouded by secrecy? Addressing a FICCI conference recently in March this year Suresh Prabhu made the astounding claim that the project for interlinking the rivers would create 35,000 to 40,000 MWs of hydel power. How? This he did not bother to explain. Pulling these numbers out of a hat might make a good pre-election gimmick, but this cannot be allowed to fool people. A.Vaidyanathan has rightly demanded that the least that Suresh Prabhu, head of the task force on interlinking rivers, could do is to make all the relevant reports and documents available to the public for a thorough scrutiny.

Water is an essential for all people. This is why corporations are so keen to make it a marketable commodity rather than a human right. It is also why it is imperative that all citizens must vigilantly on having an informed say in all matters pertaining to this precious resource, to make sure that policies are made to ensure water for all, not water which flows through people’s hands into the profit-making tanks of a few.

– B.Sivaraman