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Friday, July 8, 2016

Interlinking of Indian Rivers: The Political, Economic and Environmental Dimensions

Whenever there emerges a severe water scarcity resulting in acute drought and farmers’ suicides in the country or when conflicts relating to sharing of water resources suddenly flare up between competing states, the idea of interlinking of Indian rivers becomes the hot topic of debate among the elite of the country. And the below normal monsoon rains consequently for two years and the resulting droughts of 2014 and 2015 have now become the driving elements to revive the national interest to debate about interlinking of rivers that remained dormant for a considerable time, once again.

The striving of mankind for expanding the spatial extent of availability of water by diversion of streams/rivers is as old as human civilization. The current attempt to draw water from the rivers in northern India, which have larger run-off than rivers of Peninsular India, is a mere extension of that age-old practice. The concept of linking rivers in India was indeed aired by Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, a British Irrigation Engineer, who built a gigantic barrier thrown across the river Godavari from island to island, in order to arrest the unprofitable progress of its waters to the sea, and to spread them over the surface of the country on either side, thus irrigating copiously the land which had hitherto been dependent on tanks or on the fitful supply of water from the river, as early as in 1858, and since then similar suggestions have been voiced from time to time by such stalwarts as Visvesvaraya, K L Rao, Dastoor and several others.

The idea of interlinking of India’s rivers germinated more as a permanent solution to the twin recurring problems of India: water scarcity in the Southern rivers and the floods that affect North India. Based on the earlier work of the Central Water Commission, Dr K L Rao, proposed a National Water Grid for providing navigation and ameliorating spatial disparities—according to the latest estimates, the per capita water availability in Brahmaputra basin stood at 13,000 cubic meters as against 260 cu m in Mahi basin—between the river basins. He, therefore, envisaged a Ganga-Cauvery link that could take off near Patna and pass, en route, through the basins of the Sone, the Narmada, the Tapti, the Godavari, the Krishna, and the Pennar, before joining the Cauvery upstream of its grand anicut. It is argued that this proposal, if implemented, will alleviate poverty in the country on a massive scale by creating fresh employment, besides resulting in higher GDP.

However, one section of the intelligentsia argues that the river linking project has emerged from a false belief that certain rivers in India are ‘surplus’ and water can be diverted from these ‘surplus’ to ‘deficit’ rivers. Another section argues that in reality there are no surplus and deficit rivers: there are only ‘living’ and ‘dead’ rivers. Wherever river basins are managed ecologically well, it is said that they remained alive and wherever they are abused and managed defying all the known ecological canons of river systems management, turned dead. Hence, they air a fear that such diversion of water from the current live rivers to the dead rivers may not sustain the ‘live’ rivers for long. They even question: What if today’s live rivers that receive water from the Himalayan glaciers go dry owing to the ongoing global warming and the consequent depletion of Himalayan glaciers? Should that happen, they aver, the whole investment goes for a toss.

That aside, there are many critical questions associated with the proposed linking of Indian rivers that are still to be answered: Does the project offer the most cost-effective option for water security in drought-prone areas in India? Is India’s food security critically dependent on the interlinking project? As most of the flow in all rivers occurs during the south-west monsoon, how linking of rivers will help meet the requirements of the dry season? Who will bridge the crucial knowledge gaps on the Himalayan component? How are we sure of eliciting the consent/cooperation of neighboring countries such as Bangladesh for the proposed inter-linking project? Whether the linking of rivers will promote integration or generate more disputes and tensions between states? Do we have the wherewithal for rehabilitating the displaced people on such a massive scale—1.5 million people are estimated to be displaced by the project? Do we have the institutional mechanisms that can allocate water equitably in social terms; sustainably in environmental terms; efficiently in economic terms and political will that makes those institutional mechanisms work? Do we have the funding ability and if so, at whose cost? It is apparent from these questions that the proposed linking of rivers is not all that fool-proof—we need to shift from ‘drawing-room’ discussions to real  time scientific evaluation of the concept/project in its entirety.

A project of this nature that involves a huge estimated cost of around 11 lakh cr obviously calls for a well-informed nation-wide debate too. But as of date, there is a wide gap from what is being heard about the project in newspapers and the scientific, economic, and environmental dimensions of the proposed linking project. And unless such concerns are addressed it would not be plausible to chart a rational approach for its execution. Nonetheless, the realization of the 50-year-old dream of linking Krishna and Godavari rivers — which will help stabilize Krishna delta irrigation system — certainly suggests that the idea of interlinking of rivers is not merely a figment of someone’s imagination, rather some of such projects are doable. And that, they must be done too.


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