The NDA-II government at the Centre is on course to begin a dream NDA-I project — linking up major rivers of the country to solve its chronic water woes. The grand (or grandiose) ‘Interlinking of Rivers (ILR)’ plan envisages 30 river links by damming up ‘water surplus’ rivers and diverting the water along cals to ‘water deficit’ rivers. If completed in 2-3 decades, this biggest water network in the world could end up creating 30 mega cals of 15,000 km total length and around 3,000 dams. Apart from bringing water to drought-prone regions and thereby raising the country’s irrigation potential to 175 million hectares by 2050, this plan also has a massive hydropower component. The tiol Water Development Agency (NWDA), which has designed the projects for 14 Himalayan and 16 peninsular rivers, claims the ILR could add 34 gigawatts to the country’s hydropower generation. The Union Water Resources Ministry’s latest report says that feasibility reports (FRs) of 14 links for peninsular rivers and 2 links for Himalayan rivers have been prepared after survey and investigation. Among these is the FR that proposes linking the Mas and Sankosh rivers of Assam, Tista of west Bengal and Ganga flowing through Bihar (M-S-T-G link). Another proposed link under Himalayan component that concerns Assam — the Jogighopa-Tista-Farakka link — has however been shelved. This may have something to do with Dhaka’s opposition; after all, 54 rivers from India flow through Bangladesh and it is bound to be wary over any move to tamper with their flows.
River linking plans
Lest we think the ILR is a wild hare scheme the Centre periodically keeps noising about, it will do well to remember it is one of Prime Minister rendra Modi’s pet projects that may soon roll by linking Ken river in Madhya Pradesh to Betwa in Uttar Pradesh to bring water to parched Bundelkhand. But clouds of uncertainty are already massing over this proposed Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP), with the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) under Union Environment Ministry asking for a fresh report in March this year — noting that 23 lakh trees will be felled in the area to be submerged by the dam. The FAC further questioned whether Ken’s water capacity and possible damage to its eco-system have been properly assessed. If such doubts are dogging a ‘model project’, it puts into perspective why the river-linking project on the whole has attracted widespread misgivings. Pointing out the lack of a proper water audit covering the entire country, environmentalists have asked on what basis the NWDA classified rivers as water surplus or deficit. Apart from furnishing data that could be prejudiced or manipulated, the very premises of such a classification are on shaky ground. If Himalayan glaciers are receding due to climate change, will a river fed by such a glacier and classified as ‘water surplus’ — remain so in future? If the water of such a river is diverted and not allowed to flow along its origil course, will it not impact groundwater recharge in that area? This is important, because nearly 60 percent of the country’s agriculture is actually dependent on groundwater. Rivers also carry silt and other deposits, so dams and cals as a solution are suspect in the first place, as they cause massive siltation and choke its flow. So in building thousands of dams and cutting down forests to obliterate entire ecosystems, surely there is a need to be circumspect.
Then again, submergence due to dams will displace farm and forest communities, resulting in migration of these newly landless poor to the cities in huge numbers. Experts are also asking whether it is at all scientific to think of trapping most of the country’s riverwaters within its landmass for irrigation and power generation. This would cause decreased freshwater flows into the seas, leading to fluctuations in salinity, temperature and pressure that could impact the very monsoons — the Indian economy’s lifeline. Questions are being asked about how much this gargantuan project will cost and who will foot the bill. Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti once said it may cost Rs 11 lakh crore, but that is still a guesstimate. If the private sector is roped in — which seems inevitable — the big dam and land lobbies will surely seek to corner benefits. Interestingly, the Supreme Court and the tiol Green Tribul both want progress on the river linking project ‘in tiol interest’. The Modi government is contending that the country’s population will stand at 160 crores in 2050, which will need foodgrain output to be ratcheted to at least 45 crore tonnes. This needs a reliable irrigation mechanism that can be set up only by reducing ‘inequality’ between river basins, so goes its argument. However, considering the endless wrangling between Kartaka and Tamil du over sharing Cauvery waters, the ILR plan seems a recipe for more inter-state rows — water being a State subject. Drought prone Odisha has already rejected Central data that Mahadi basin is ‘water surplus’, thereby nixing plans to link Mahadi with Godavari and 8 peninsular rivers. There is a strong case for the government to study holistic and benign solutions like conserving water, harvesting rainwater, protecting traditiol recharge systems, watershed magement, growing crops appropriate to regions and seasons, and embracing drip irrigation technologies.