Expectedly, the revival of the nation-wide interlinking of rivers is on the cards, given the predilections of the BJP. Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar has clarified that the government will proceed circumspectly, first taking up inter-basin transfers of rivers close to each other.
The Madhya Pradesh government has wrongly taken credit recently for initiating the first such scheme when it pumped 5,000 litres per second of Narmada water through a 47-km long pipeline into the dry Kshipra River. However, Indore and Bhopal, both also outside the Narmada basin, have been piped this water for years.
It was under Atal Bihari Vajpayee that the NDA espoused the gargantuan national scheme. Suresh Prabhu, the former environment, power and water resources minister in the NDA government who headed a task force to carry the project forward, has recently argued that water management is vital to unleash “a new era of agriculture growth” and has cited the Supreme Court’s mandate for the project.
The concept, which was first thought of by British irrigation expert Sir Arthur Cotton during the Raj and then propounded by KL Rao, power and irrigation minister in Indira Gandhi’s government in 1972, envisages carrying the surplus water from northern rivers, which are in spate during the monsoon to the water-deficit rivers of peninsular India. The National Water Development Agency, set up in 1982, identified 30 river links on 37 rivers.
This would constitute the largest water development project in the world. In 2002, it was estimated to cost a staggering Rs. 5,60,000 crore. It would provide 173 billion cubic metres of water through 12,500 km of canals and irrigate 34 million hectares. Whether the apex court should be treading on such technical territory, encompassing engineering, hydrological and environmental factors, is a moot point.
What is more, any agency that is in favour of launching the linking of rivers ought to be aware of the disastrous Soviet precedent. In the megalomania of the 1930s, engineers conjured up the proposal to reverse the flow of northern rivers flowing “wastefully into the sea” — a phrase that echoes in the Indian context — to travel southwards to the arid areas of the USSR’s Central Asian region. In 1986, the scheme was given up, mainly due to environmental reasons, without much construction.
There are several reasons for abandoning what critics have termed ‘hydro hubris’ in attempting to link rivers. One is political. When Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have stopped just short of violence over sharing Cauvery waters, is it likely that so many states will agree to share this most precious of all resources? There are issues too with our neighbours: When the Farakka barrage has proved such a contentious issue with Bangladesh, how will it countenance any diversion of the Ganga and Brahmaputra in summer? And precisely at a time when external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj is making her first visit to Dhaka to discuss the Teesta water issue?
The second is engineering. There are tremendous difficulties not only in creating barrages across rivers and canals to carry water but also to lift water from the supposedly surplus Indo-Gangetic plain to the deficient Deccan peninsula — up to 116 metres, requiring some 3,700 MW of power, also a resource which is severely short. When there has not been a single dam or irrigation project that has met deadlines or kept within its budget, is it realistic to expect a slew of such mega projects to do so?
The third is environmental. The inter-linking of rivers takes a technocratic view of rivers as entities that can be “cabined, cribbed and confined”. But rivers have a life of their own and any constriction of their flow can have disastrous consequences downstream. Thus, to imagine that westward-flowing rivers, which originate in the Western Ghats, can be dammed to redirect their flow to stop flowing “wastefully to the sea” and join the eastward-flowing Godavari, is to negate their distinct ecological role. As it is, these ghats, a Unesco World Heritage Site, are threatened as one of the eight ‘hottest hotspots’ in the world for their enormous plant and animal species.
The BJP is more prone than the Congress to go in for mega construction projects, as witnessed in the Golden Quadrilateral highway scheme to link the four metros and many other cities, the fifth longest such network in the world, launched by Vajpayee in 2001. This would stretch over 5,846 km and cost Rs. 60,000 crore, unmindful of the fact that is environmentally unwise to promote motorised transport as the main goods transport vehicle in the country.
For that matter, Modi himself has presided over the Sabarmati Riverfront Development Project, aping the Thames’ South Bank in creating a 10-km-long embankment in Ahmedabad. Apart from entrapping the river, slums along the bank have been demolished, the largest eviction in the city. The Narmada dam is now to be raised by 17 metres, which will displace thousands more. In the half-century ending in 2000, some 50 million people have been displaced by dams and other infrastructure projects in the country.
The first major attempt to link rivers may be with the Ganga in Bihar, also by building embankments. Critics point to the adverse impacts when the Kosi was similarly engineered in the 1950s, stopping the low-level flooding in this region, which brought fertile silt with it. Similarly, barrages for hydel projects in Uttarakhand have accentuated the havoc caused by earthquakes.
(Darryl D’Monte is Chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI). The views expressed by the author are personal.)