NEW DELHI: The BJP’s election manifesto 2014 promises “inter-linking of rivers based on feasibility” to pander to those regional parties which have already exhausted the local water resources in their respective states. To drive home the message, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate says, “In Gujarat, we have inter-linked 20 rivers and the agriculture growth is 10 per cent.” Its manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections in 2009 had promised, “massive public sector investments in job-generating infrastructure programmes, especially building of roads and highways, and linking of rivers”.
In NDA’s ‘Agenda for Development, Good Governance and Peace: Lok Sabha 2004’ it had promised, “The river-linking project will be launched before August 15, 2004. An initial set of identified schemes will be implemented with public participation by 2015. An effective rehabilitation package for the project-affected persons shall be finalized and implemented.” An earlier BJP-NDA ‘Agenda for a proud, prosperous India: Lok Sabha 1999” had stated, “We will examine and take time-bound steps to link Ganga-Cauvery rivers.”
In September 1999, Prof SR Hashim, who was heading the Government’s National Commission for Water Resource Development (NCWRD), submitted the Integrated Water Resource Development Plan. This plan stated that “the Himalayan river-linking data is not freely available but on the basis of public information it appears that the Himalayan river-linking component is not feasible for the period of review up to 2050″.
APJ Abdul Kalam, the then president, in his Independence Day speech on August 14, 2002, affirmed, “It is paradoxical to see floods in one part of our country while some other parts face drought. This drought-flood phenomenon is a recurring feature. The need of the hour is to have a water mission which will enable availability of water to the fields, villages, towns and industries throughout the year, even while maintaining environmental purity. One major part of the water mission would be networking of our rivers. Technological and project management capabilities of our country can rise to the occasion and make this river networking a reality with long term planning and proper investment.” Had he sought existing wisdom within the government regarding networking or river-linking of rivers, he would have learnt that after rigorous examination the NCWRD had examined and rejected the idea. The Kalam speech was either echoing the BJP’s manifesto of 1999 where the linking of Ganga-Cauvery rivers had been mentioned, or, merely giving expression to his own fancies without any scientific basis.
The linking of rivers came into the picture in 1972 when the Ganga-Cauvery link proposal mooted by KL Rao, former union irrigation minister, was examined and dumped by the Union Ministry of Water Resources after the Central Water Commission found it to be “grossly under-estimated”. Prior to this, Captain Dastur had proposed a ‘garland of canals’ connecting the Himalayan rivers and the peninsular rivers; this was found “technically unsound and economically prohibitive”. Despite these rejections, some unknown lobbies kept pursuing it and planting it in the minds of key functionaries of the Government of India.
Notably, Mukesh Ambani, Chairman, Reliance Industries Limited, had also said that “a convergence of civil engineering and agriculture can build a trans-India water resources system by linking rivers.”
The ‘networking of rivers’ does not mean drawing some mega litres from one river and pouring it into another, like one does with containers (or even with canals). The ramifications are much wider because a river is not only the water that flows or the channel which holds the flow. A river is the dynamic face of the landscape. In the drama of history, the eco system is not a stage — it is the cast.
Kalam claimed that inter-linking of rivers will provide 300 billion cubic metres (BCM) of additional water. However, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) provided a different figure of 174 BCM. It has been estimated that canals involved in this project will cause the submergence of 625, 000 hectares of land while reservoirs will lead to the submergence of 1,050,000 hectares, leading to the displacement of about 3.l4 million people. He has repeatedly observed that floods affect eight major water basins, 40 million hectares and 260 million people.
However, the ‘surplus’ water being diverted through inter-linking ranges between 2 and 2.5 per cent of peak flood discharge of surplus rivers like the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Mahanadi. This is corroborated by the Central Water Commission, NWDA, and authors of the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan.
The Supreme Court judgment on the basis of an application moved by an amicus curie who put the speech of Kalam before the court has put the focus back on the Interlinking of Rivers (ILR). If implemented, it will be the world’s biggest infrastructure project and will alter the nation’s geography for all times to come. Indeed, does it make ecological sense?
The project proponents ask, ‘What is the cost of not taking up the project?’ Their argument implies that if it is not taken up it would mean an opportunity lost. However, they fail to answer several relevant questions with regard to “costs” posed by the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP): What is the cost of neglecting rainwater harvesting potential in the river basins of India, including groundwater recharging? What is the cost of not assessing and realising the benefits of watershed development in any of the river basins? What is the cost of not maintaining and rejuvenating the existing local water systems? What is the cost of not arresting siltation in existing reservoirs which are filling up at much higher rates than the design assumptions? What is the cost of not getting optimum results from the existing irrigation infrastructure in India, the largest in the world? What is the cost of maintaining drainage systems in agricultural areas? What is the cost of not arresting the pollution of India’s freshwater systems? What is the cost of not assessing the demand-side management options in water and energy systems? What is the cost of not arresting the transmission and distribution losses from our water and energy supply systems, stopping thefts, and making the elite pay for the services they use? What is the cost of not stopping the ‘hidden export’ of water with huge subsidies that India is indulging in, vis-à-vis sugar and food grains export? What is the cost of not managing peak power demands, not charging higher tariff during peak periods and not using the existing hydro capacities for peak power supply? And, finally, what is the cost of not allowing adequate freshwater flows in the dammed rivers downstream?
The proponents obstinately pursuing the ILR project, in their bid to outwit the resistance to such projects, have a Plan A and Plan B. The State’s proposals are part of Plan B. Plan A is the national interlinking of rivers. The ILR programme is estimated at an aggregated cost of a gigantic Rs 1,25,342 crore in terms of 2002-3 prices. It is aimed to create additional storage facilities and transfer water from water-surplus regions to more drought-prone areas through inter-basin transfers. It is claimed that it will provide additional irrigation in about 30 million hectares and net power generation capacity of about 20,000 to 25,000 MW.
While the NWDA claims that Ganga, Kosi and Gandak rivers have surplus water, the Bihar government has refuted the claim. Similar reservations have been voiced by other states. Jairam Ramesh had submitted in Parliament in 2005: “…in my view, there would be no greater calamity than massive inter-linking of rivers.” However, after the Supreme Court’s verdict and BJP’s support of ILR in its current manifesto, Ramesh and the Congress leadership chose to maintain a collusive silence. The Congress-led central government, the BJP-led Gujarat and MP government, and the Samajwadi Party-led UP government have signed MoUs to undertake the ILR project. Even the JD(U)-led Bihar government is keen to undertake ILR projects. States like Kerala, Punjab, West Bengal and Maharashtra had earlier rejected the ILR project of Plan A; but they have got trapped by the state-specific Plan B. The NWDA has proposed 30 major river link canals involving 37 rivers throughout the country to transfer water from so-called surplus basins to water-deficit basins as part of the peninsular and Himalayan components of the ILR project.
Notably, Bangladesh, as a downstream country, will be directly affected. The apex court judgment acknowledges that the construction of storage reservoirs on the principal tributaries of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers in India, Bhutan and Nepal makes this an international issue. Bangladesh is also an affected party, but it does not find mention in the judgment.
Ironically, Justice Swatanter Kumar, who authored the judgment to undertake the world’s most ecologically disastrous project, is currently the chairman of the National Green Tribunal, whose mandate is to prevent environmental damage.
A study conducted by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) cites A Vaidyanathan’s 2001 paper titled ‘Irrigation Subsidies’ and the ‘Report of the Committee on Pricing of Irrigation Water’ (1992) drafted for the Planning Commission under his chairmanship. Ironically, his views debunking the myth of ‘surplus’ rivers are deliberately ignored. Indeed, the judgment also did not take note that as per NCAER the new aggregated cost is Rs 1,25,343 crore or 22.4 per cent lower than the earlier aggregate estimate of Rs 5,60,000 crore, at 2002-03 prices.
In the past, the court has rightly and consistently held that large infrastructure projects invariably raise technical and policy issues which the courts are not equipped to handle. In view of the reasons cited above and especially an evolving international law on transboundary rivers, here is a clear case for the apex court to review its order on “networking of rivers.”
In any case, the critical issue is how to solve India’s water problem. As per the Planning Commission’s Tenth Plan document, there are 383 ongoing major and medium projects awaiting completion, 111 of which are pending for more than 26 years. All these projects can be completed within five to eight years yielding an additional potential of about 14 million hectares at a cost of Rs 100,000 crore, as estimated by the Tenth Plan task force.
The second component listed in the Plan is the development of minor irrigation, mostly in the eastern and northeastern regions. The total potential assessed is 24.5 million hectares with a total investment of Rs 54,000 crore of which the government is expected to provide only Rs 13,500 crore, the balance coming from beneficiary farmers and institutional loans. The cost per hectare is only Rs 20,000 and gestation period almost nil, against a cost of Rs 100,000 and a 12-year gestation period for major and medium projects.
The third, equally beneficial scheme mentioned in the Plan is the groundwater recharge master plan prepared by the Central Ground Water Board, needing Rs 24,500 crore to trap 36 billion cubic metres of water annually. These measures are clearly better than the networking of rivers. In this context, the judgment seems akin to what the science journal, New Scientist, referred to as “replumbing the planet.”
Rivers shape the terrain and lives of people by its waters which are always in a dynamic state. Breaking this dynamic would unleash forces of uncontrolled change and invite the ‘law of unintended consequences’. Let’s remember the terrible Aral Sea disasters in which two Siberian rivers were diverted.
Certainly, if water scarcity is the perennial question, aren’t there better answers available?
The writer is a public policy analyst and Convener, Toxics Watch Alliance, New Delhi.
Dr Priyambada Hejmadi, noted zoologist, once told me that this river linking project would cause absolute damage to India’s reverine ecology. Once realised, some of the special variety pisces like the the Gangetic Hilsa and the famous Brahmaputra catfish may go extinct in a few year.