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River linking project runs off course, objections from atleast 4 states

Through ambitious but highly controversial initiative the Modi government hopes to create a river network by linking rivers across India to tackle the twin problems of drought and flooding.

environment Updated: Sep 14, 2017 17:49 IST
Malavika Vyawahare
Malavika Vyawahare
River linking,Ken Betwa,Gadkari
(HT Photo)

New water resources minister Nitin Gadkari has put river linking projects on fast track but atleast four states have raised objections claiming they do not have surplus water to divert, or that they would rather decide themselves what to do with the water.

Implementing the river linking project might be the singles biggest test of Narendra Modi’s ability to govern a fractured federal democracy. Since water is a state subject, and also the source of various interstate disputes, resolving the objections will be essential to the government’s plans to plough through the ambitious and controversial project.

Critics say that the initiative is also marred by shoddy environmental assessments and poor science.The National Water Development Agency, the nodal body for the project, has identified 16 linking projects in the peninsular region and 14 in the Himalayan region. Of the 30 proposed projects only one has obtained all the necessary clearances from the central government: the Ken Betwa link.

“Nothing of this sort has been tried at such a scale anywhere in the world,” Himanshu Thakkar, the founder at South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a Delhi-based policy think tank. said. It is based on the simple, and some would say simplistic, principle that river water can be transferred from water surplus basins to water deficit basins and thus prevent both flooding and droughts.

Though the idea originated in the mid-1980s, it was under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s reign that it found backers inside the government.Former president APJ Abdul Kalam was also a vociferous supporter. It was put on the backburner by the UPA government but revived with vigour under the Modi government.

The cost of the project is estimated to be R 5,60,000 crores (at 2002 prices), will take atleast two decades to be completed, and require construction of 52 dams. These will come up not only in India but in neighbouring Bhutan and Nepal.

The 4 priority links are the Ken-Betwa Link, Damanganga-Pinjal Link, Par-Tapi-Narmada link and Mahanadi-Godavari link. For these four projects detailed project reports (DPRs) have been prepared, that are a crucial step towards getting clearances. For all the rest, the NWDA is still in the process of conducting pre- feasibility or feasibility studies.

If implemented the nationwide project will drastically alter the face of the country; t millions of people will be displaced and it might have potentially irreversible ecological impacts. Flooding is a natural process for river systems and serves the purpose of depositing nutrient-rich sediments on the floodplains. Areas that experience droughts are adapted for that kind of moisture conditions.

Heavy dependence on the monsoons to meet water needs has increasingly seen as unviable. Experts agree that India is headed for an acute water crisis, but disagree on the root causes of the problem and the solutions to it.

Consensus building among the states has been a major hurdle with states that are supposed to supply the excess water resisting the move especially those that are not ruled by the BJP. Since water is a state subject, those affected will have to give their final approval to the DPRs even after the required clearances are granted by the centre.

The Modi government is hoping to launch the Ken Betwa project by the end of the year, but it still snared in controversy with neither Uttar Pradesh nor Madhya Pradesh giving their approval to the Detailed Project Report for Phase I of the project.

The link will divert excess water from the Ken that flows through Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to the water-deficit Betwa which also traverses the two states with the hopes of improving water access in the Bundelkhand region. This region has witnessed 13 droughts in past 15 years (2002-16), according to a Centre for Science and Environment report. India has spent close to Rs. 15000 crore on drought proofing in the Bundelkhand region alone in the past decade and another Rs. 21,000 crore on drought relief in the past 4 years, the report noted.

A recent report from the World Resources Institute found that India loses close to $15,000 million every year in flood damages.

Though Gadkari claims that all environmental clearances have been obtained for Ken Betwa,Thakkar said that the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Ken-Betwa project is not valid as the project configuration had changed, so a new EIA is required.

There are larger environmental concerns linked with the project. “Rivers are carriers of soil, they transfer soil from one region to another and support whole ecosystems, riverwaters cannot be treated as just water,” Arun Kansal, who heads the regional water studies at TERI University, said.

The River Links:

The Weakest Links:

Kerala Assembly passed a resolution against taking up of the Pamba - Achankovil - Vaippar link Project

Odisha government objected to the Mahanadi (Manibhadra) – Godavari link due to large submergence of Manibhadra dam/reservoir, impact on water balance and quantum of water to be diverted.

Telangana has opposed the Godavari (Inchampalli) - Krishna link because of concerns about water balance at Inchampalli dam site in Godavari basin.

Karnataka government does not favour the Netravati – Hemavati link because it has its own plans for utilising the water of Netravati.

There are plans to build dams in Nepal and Bhutan, neither country has fully consented to it, yet. Bangladesh has voiced concerns about the impact of diverting water from the Ganga and Brahmaputra.

First Published: Sep 14, 2017 12:08 IST