The Modi government has started work on the first project to artificially connect two rivers, to be followed by two more, as it moves swiftly on a controversial programme first mooted during the Atal Behari Vajpayee-era, which the previous UPA regime had sidestepped.
Groundwork in the Ken-Betwa project, involving Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, has begun after a nod from both states, while a detailed project report to link the Damanganga and Pinjal rivers to provide drinking water for Mumbai has been submitted to the Maharashtra and Gujarat governments.
The Ken-Betwa project involves building a dam on river Ken, a major river of the Bundelkhand region, with a 221-km canal to transfer "surplus" water to the Betwa basin. Its cited benefits include irrigation facilities in over 6 lakh hectares of farmland, water supply for over 13 lakh people in Bundelkhand and generation of 78 MW of power.
The Madhya Pradesh government has approved mandatory alternative land to compensate habitat loss in swathes of the Panna Tiger Reserve. Designs for a third link to connect Par, Tai and Narmada rivers for irrigation benefits in drought-prone Saurashtra and Kutch are likely to be finished by March 2015.
"We will not take up any project if states don't agree and we won't touch rivers with international borders," water resources minister Uma Bharti said. The government has identified 30 such links, which will take 10 years, if states agree.
The previous government had talked of first undertaking a "comprehensive review" before any decision. A legal hurdle got cleared in 2012 when the Supreme Court, disposing of two petitions, asked the government to go ahead.
The benefits of linking rivers are mitigating floods in some areas and drought in others. It is based on a principle that some river basins are "surplus" in nature, while others are "deficit". Critics argue the concept to manage water flow, just like in an electricity grid, could be potentially disastrous, since rivers aren't a man-made resource and the flow in such artificially networked rivers isn't two-way, i.e. the direction cannot be reversed.