A few weeks after the NDA came into power, the environment minister announced that the interlinking of rivers project — which had been more or less stalled under UPA 2 — will get an impetus under the new government.
The Centre has now started groundwork in the Ken-Betwa project, involving Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, while a detailed project report to link the Damanganga and Pinjal rivers to provide drinking water from Mumbai has been submitted to the Maharashtra and Gujarat governments.
This is not the first river-linking project in the world: There is the Colorado River Aqueduct in the US, the National Water Carrier in Israel, the Cutzamala System in Mexico, and the as yet incomplete South-North Water Transfer Project in China.
All these projects, like the Indian one, aim at improving agriculture, tackling floods, and providing drinking water to parched areas.
But India’s National River Linking Project (NRLP) has huge ambitions: After completion, the NRLP will have 30 river links, 3,000 storage structures, a canal network of almost 15,000 km, generate 34 GW of hydroelectric power, create some 87 million acres of irrigated land, and would transfer a mind-boggling 174 trillion litres of water per annum at a total cost Rs 5.6 lakh crore.
While the construction lobby and the water bureaucracy are happy with the restarting of the project, the green lobby has pointed to a disastrous Soviet precedent. In the 1930s, engineers planned “to reverse the flow of northern rivers flowing wastefully into the sea” to travel southwards to the arid Central Asian region.
But the scheme was given up in 1986 because of environmental reasons.
However, what is surprising is that instead of re-starting such a mega project — which many have called ‘hydro hubris’ — the government did not go for the changes that could have been done at the micro-level: Water harvesting at a national scale, improving the existing irrigation systems, setting up desalination plants, introduction of crops that need less water, flood control and reduction of river pollution.
These micro-level solutions are probably a better way to tackle the water crises that India faces. A mega problem does not always need mega capital-intensive, people- and environment-unfriendly solutions, does it?