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'Interlinking rivers will be disastrous for India'

By Shobha Warrier
Last updated on: April 27, 2015 14:23 IST
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'Why should the people of Odisha divert water from the Mahanadhi when 13 out of 32 districts are chronically drought prone?'

'Water is a state subject. Can you really nationalise rivers for which you need drastic amendments in the Constitution?'

The Union ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation recently constituted a task force to look into the issues relating to interlinking of rivers in the country.

The task force, headed by B N Navalawala (one of the advisers to the Gujarat chief minister on water resources development), will try to forge a consensus among states that are not on the same page over the interlinking plan.

Not everyone is convinced with the Centre's ambitious mega plan.

Professor S Janakrajan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies believes that the interlinking of rivers will spell disaster for the country.

Professor Janakrajan, a specialist in water management, water conflicts, disaster management and livelihood resilience, spoke to Shobha Warrier/

When was the idea of the interlinking of rivers first mooted? Was it because some areas experienced drought and some other areas experienced floods?

The idea is not new. From 1857, this has been discussed. There were two other proposals in Independent India -- the National Water Grid project by Dr K L Rao in 1972 and the Garland Canal proposal by Captain Dastur in 1977.

Every time, it died out due to several reasons.

Whenever people witness a huge flood in an area like, for example, in Uttarakhand or Kashmir, they start pondering over the river-linking project and talk about the possibility of diverting flood waters to drought-prone areas.

In recent times, the idea came up in 2003 and then in 2012, all because of extraordinary judicial interventions or what is regarded as judicial activism.

This idea also got an enormous boost due to the extraordinary interest shown by then President A P J Abdul Kalam. He dreamt about an India where the whole country had adequate water and nobody was thirsty and where agricultural growth and food security were ensured.

I would say this is nothing but the outcome of his concern for the country. A normative concern!

Nevertheless, in reality, it is not that simple and straightforward.

You can't just dig a new passageway to create rivers or canals or mega pipes for the diversion of water from the so-called surplus regions to the deficit regions.

Such water diversions will have to pass through a series of diverse topographies, terrains, contours, elevations and mountains.

This would mean that the project is going to work against the existing ecology and environment and on the whole work against nature.

Professor S Janakrajan. Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj
'The big surprise is that a mega project of such huge dimensions has not come through a democratic process, but through judicial intervention without going into the details of socio-economic, financial, ecological and political implications.'

Does that mean the existing topography and terrain in the country would be affected by implementing the National River Linking Project?

Yes. Linking different rivers (inter-basin transfers) would mean meddling with nature, ecology and environment.

This mega project involves linking of 37 rivers through 30 links.

These 30 links will have to travel a distance of 9,600 km in order to deliver 173 billion cubic metres of water through 4,500 km-long canals.

The estimated irrigation potential to be created is 34 million hectares of land.

This project is expected to provide drinking water to the five metros and 101 districts. The expected hydro power irrigation is 34,000 MW.

On paper the project appears to be really grand. Yet, you are doubtful.

Let us look at the peninsular (southern) rivers link alone: It involves 16 links with 27 major dams and the total length of the canal is 4,777 Km.

The length of the tunnel will be 94 km and the water to be diverted is 141,288 million cubic meters and the cost of the southern link alone is Rs 150,745 crore (as estimated in 2003).

The surplus rivers are going to be the Mahanadi, Kim, Tapati, Tapi, Daman Ganga, Pampa, Achankoil, Netravati and Beti.

Why should the people of Odisha divert the water from the Mahanadhi when 13 out of 32 districts are chronically drought prone?

Their need for water for irrigated agriculture, industrialisation and urbanisation is increasing.

Furthermore, who has arrived at the surplus in river basins? How is surplus defined?

Who has initiated this project? Is it the Planning Commission? Civil society? Political parties? The state government or the Government of India?

Unfortunately, the directive has come from the Supreme Court.

The big surprise, therefore, is that a mega project of such huge dimensions has not come through a democratic process, but only through judicial intervention without going into the details of socio-economic, financial, ecological and political implications.

How do you think the project should have surfaced?

It should have come up through serious public debates, through debates in the assemblies and in Parliament.

What are its cost implications?

The total cost of the National River Linking Project is estimated to be around Rs 5.6 lakh crores in 2003. Since then, I am sure the cost must have gone up several times.

More than anything else, I am surprised, and so also are many others, that on what basis was such a cost estimate arrived at for a huge project of this dimension.

The figure of Rs 5.6 lakh crore (as per the 2003 estimates) was arrived at without any detailed analysis.

Even to construct a small house, you make serious estimates.

The estimate of Rs 5.6 lakh crore had no scientific basis. Even assuming that the figure of 5.6 lakh crore is realistic, in 2014 it would be easily three times that of what was calculated in 2003, which is 16 lakh crore.

The project has not yet started and nobody knows when it would begin. By the time the project starts and by the time the project ends, the total cost might be, god knows, how many lakh crores!

In many countries, including China, such projects have been implemented. Are they facing ecological disasters?

Wherever this has been implemented, it has turned out to be an ecological disaster.

Ecological disaster means when a river carries a certain amount of water, it generates certain flora and fauna, certain livelihood and life support systems and levels of groundwater. All these will be seriously affected.

Have there been no successful interlinking of rivers?

Small projects are manageable. For example, in Tamil Nadu, we have diverted the west flowing rivers in the Parambikulam-Aliyar project towards the east to irrigate lakhs of acres in the dry tracts of Coimbatore district.

Small links of that kind may be sustainable though it is not ecologically sound.

You said thousands of acres of land need to be acquired for this project...

We will need 8,000 sq km land. It will take years to acquire so much land. The government has so far acquired a lot of land for so many projects, but they have not compensated adequately.

We have around 3 million people still to be rehabilitated. When they talk about a project of this magnitude, do they have any plans on how to rehabilitate many more millions of people who are going to be thrown out of their habitat?

Do you see any other serious difficulties in this project?

When you create an asset of this dimension spending so many lakh crores of rupees, we should have a system to maintain it.

The current system is grossly inadequate to maintain such mega assets that we will be creating.

Assuming that there would be operations and maintenance need, it may be at least 10 per cent of the total cost of the project, which would be about Rs 2 lakh crore (assuming that the total cost of the project is Rs 20 lakh crore)!

Do you have that kind of money to maintain it? Or are we going to outsource the operation and maintenance to multinational corporations? If it is the latter, then it would amount to selling away all our rivers to MNCs.

Furthermore, we need a large force to protect the dams, canals, and other assets created. This project is myopic in nature precisely for these reasons.

We already have states fighting over river water. Do you think states with more water will agree to share water and link their rivers?

Water is a state subject. Can you really nationalise rivers for which you need drastic amendments in the Constitution? This is going to be very difficult politically.

There are already many unresolved inter-state disputes in the country. For example, we still have not resolved the fight between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the Cauvery water. At least 16 chief ministers have to agree to implement peacefully the national river linking project.

India is a nation of many states with diverse cultural and linguistic identities. All states have enormous political interests in preserving water resources of their state boundaries and this interest gets more strengthened because water is primarily a state subject.

The NRLP may not be implementable unless a donor state fully agrees to supply water. Indeed, as of now, all donor states do not agree with the river linking project (such as Bihar, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, the North-Eastern states, Kerala etc), whereas the recipient states such as Tamil Nadu welcome such an endeavour.

Sociologically, how will this project affect people?

When you need 8,000 sq km of land, many villages are going to be submerged.

Several lakhs of tribal population are going to be affected and nobody has any action plan to rehabilitate them.

You cannot give them just any land that cannot support their livelihood system. Many lakhs of people have been evicted and thrown out of their habitat since Independence; they are still awaiting rehabilitation.

Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have strong reservations about this project...

We have assured Bangladesh that we would maintain a certain quantum of water in the Brahmaputra. If we divert all the river water, how are you going to maintain the river flow?

Not only neighbouring countries, India's North-Eastern states are also extremely worried.

Another thing to remember is all these mega rivers carry more water only during the monsoon. During the monsoon, you have a flood situation elsewhere also.

During the dry months, the so-called surplus rivers do not carry water.

Therefore, the so-called surplus water may be diverted when it is much demanded.

Furthermore, at best, one can only divert 10 per cent of flood water through huge diversion canals and 90 per cent of the flood water may still remain. Therefore, the myth of controlling floods elsewhere by diverting a river may not happen.

Do you think this project will remain only on paper?

We will only end up in a deadlock situation. I am not being pessimistic, but this project is not going to take off.

Even if they take this forward, are you of the opinion that it will be disastrous for the country?

It will be disastrous for the people, the ecology, the environment and for the country as a whole.

Image: Villagers using a temporary raft navigate on the Ganga in Patna. Photograph: Krishna Murari Kishan/Reuters

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Shobha Warrier /