The Supreme Court’s startling directive to the Centre to set up a “special committee” to expedite river interlinking, which the Court declared was in the “national interest”, has caused the grandiose project to be, once again, closely examined. The idea has been fashionable in fits and starts; it was conceived as far back as the 1970s, and was promoted by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government after the 2002 drought. It was, however, viewed as essentially too utopian and was, unsurprisingly, put on hold. The Centre is now in a bit of a quandary: not only has the Supreme Court decreed that the project is in the national interest, but it has also declared that it will oversee its implementation, by setting up a high-powered committee to ensure compliance with its verdict, under the supervision of its own representative.
The idea itself, of interconnecting the country’s major rivers, is commendable — in theory. It seeks to transfer surplus water from the eastern rivers to the arid west and peninsular zone, to control floods and ensure equitable distribution of water, points which the Court emphasised. Linking the Brahmaputra and the Ganga to, say, the Mahanadi, Krishna and Cauvery would, if implemented, be the world’s largest water transfer exercise — about four times the size of the Three Gorges Dam project in China and five times that of all inter-basin water transfers carried out in the US so far. It would undoubtedly raise the country’s ultimate irrigation potential, assessed currently at 139 million hectares from all available water sources, to well over 160 million hectares. It might also help generate an additional 34 gigawatts of power.
However, the project was shelved because some giant projects are just too impractical. The potential hurdles that an effort so gigantic would have to overcome are too many. First, of course, there’s the cost: the lower end of the estimates is Rs 5 lakh crore, which in itself seems prohibitive. Moreover, interlinking is very land-hungry; when no projects are coming up because of land constraints, can the government undertake one that would require the displacement of, perhaps, millions? The courts themselves have not gone easy on state action in land acquisition. The litigation engendered by the project would take ages to settle. Also, the socio-political tensions such a project could cause would be immense — and would have to be managed by the elected government. Besides, water is a state subject, and its relocation is bound to give rise to inter-state disputes that are notoriously tough to resolve. On top of that, the environmental impact of such a mammoth manipulation of water resources may be colossal. It does not seem that river interlinking is, indeed, an idea whose time has come. There are less grandiose schemes, however, that might aid the distribution of water. A task force set up by the NDA to review the project could be mined for viable inter-basin water linkages. It had suggested 14 Himalayan linkages and 16 peninsular linkages, some of which might be practical. Some useful inter-basin water transfers have been carried out successfully in the past — Sarda-Sahayak, Beas-Sutlej, Kurnool-Cuddapah and Periyar-Vaigai. If some more such limited linkages are feasible, these, at least, may be worth pursuing.