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Sunita Narain: Grand idea - or distraction?

The idea of interlinking rivers is appealing because it is so grand, but this is also the reason it is nothing more than a distraction

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The recently issued a diktat to the central government about the scheme to interlink rivers. The directions are straightforward. The government shall set up a high-level committee of ministers and other representatives on interlinking of rivers; the committee shall meet “at least once in two months”; in the absence of any member the meeting shall not be adjourned; the committee shall submit a biannual report on actions to the Union Cabinet, “which shall take final and appropriate decisions in the interest of the country as expeditiously as possible and preferably within 30 days from the matter being placed before it for consideration”.

Without getting into the obvious matter of judicial overreach, let us take a careful look at what interlinking is all about, and what the decision will imply. The fact is that interlinking of rivers or transfer of water from one river basin to another is not, per se, either a novel or an untested idea. Every irrigation project involves this transfer at some scale. The question is: what does this particular idea of linking rivers imply?

The term “river linking” has come from an idea floated by irrigation engineer K L Rao way back in 1972. He proposed the construction of a grandiose Ganga-Cauvery canal, which would divert the floodwaters of the Ganga near Patna for about 150 days in a year. The floodwater would be brought to the river Cauvery in the south through a canal spanning some 2,640 km. This idea captured imaginations, since it seemed to state such a delicious proposal: take excess water from the Ganga to the water-deficit and stressed areas of Tamil Nadu. Later, Dinshaw J Dastur suggested a variation: construction of garland canals, one for the Himalayan watershed and the other for the Western Ghats.

The idea of long-distance irrigation projects then spawned a huge water bureaucracy. In 1982, the National Water Development Agency was set up to study and implement the project to first link peninsular rivers and then Himalayan rivers. Its objective is based on the same simple concept: there are floods in some parts, droughts in the other. If we link the rivers, we will all be happy.

But for equally obvious reasons the agencies’ proposals were, government after government, studied, considered and buried. Then in early 2000, the Supreme Court and the government got back into the game. The Supreme Court ordered the government to speed up implementation of the project and set the date for its completion in 2016. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government quickly announced the setting up of a task force for linking rivers and put the former environment and then energy minister, Suresh Prabhu, at the helm. They were tasked to complete some 30 river links in two years, adding to some 1,000 km of canals. This was, again, a non-starter.

The next government came to power and while the concept appealed, better sense prevailed. Interlinking was found technically unfeasible and costly. Now the Supreme Court has bought this line and ordered the government to obey or face contempt.

The question remains: what does this project imply, given that a massive number of irrigation projects on the government’s wish list remain incomplete? First, it implies that there is huge surplus of water in river basins. This assumption is flawed. The fact is that most river basins today are overextended in usage, and in most regions tension is growing between old rural users of surface water and new industrial and urban users. The Mahanadi basin, which would be linked to the Godavari, is a classic example of this calculation error. There is little unallocated water in the basin. The tensions are growing as new users are vying for water that does not exist.

Second, the assumption that flood waters can be channelled is equally erroneous. The fact is when one river is in spate so is the next river, and so transferring water would require huge storage facilities. Construction of large reservoirs involves massive environmental impacts never considered in the scheme. Many irrigation projects are stalled because such damage cannot be justified or mitigated. More importantly, we know that the government’s track record in resettling people displaced by such projects is abysmal.

Finally, the assumption that India will gain from investment in irrigation projects is indeed true. But it is equally true that the current challenge is to ensure that the projects already built and commissioned are kept operational. The 12th Five-Year Plan working group clearly states that the priority is to bridge the growing gap between the irrigation potential created and that utilised, which currently stands at a high 18 per cent.

The idea of interlinking rivers is appealing because it is so grand. But this is also the reason it is nothing more than a distraction, which will take away precious time and money from the business at hand. The task is to provide clean water to all and to use the resource with efficiency and wisdom. This agenda needs our attention. Indeed our obsession.  

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