River linking: Boon or folly

For it or against it - increasingly, the issue of linking of rivers is dividing people. While the pro-linking camp points to the potential benefits that are supposed to accrue, the anti-links campaigners are making ominous sounds about environmantal disasters.

india Updated: Jul 03, 2003 18:27 IST

For it or against it. Increasingly, the issue of linking of rivers is dividing people. While the pro-linking camp says it will solve the drought and flood problem in India, not to speak of water shortages, the anti-linking camp is of the firm opinion that not only is such a grandiose plan totally non-tenable, it will mess up the delicate environmental balance to level from which it will be difficult to recover.

And the evidence being cited by both camps is impressive - studies, reports, reams of data, even environmental impact assessments, which incidentally come out with diametrically opposite answers.

Are you in the loop? So where does that leave the common person on the street? As usual confused. Though a fair amount is being written about it, it is also as true that most of the information is shrouded in secrecy and officialese, say those opposing the project. What is getting voiced largely are just opinions, increasingly getting shriller as the stakes in the pie go up.

The idea of linking up the water -surplus parts of India with those less generously water endowed is not a new one. The Romans built aqueducts to get clean water to Rome (though it must be admitted that they dirtied the local Tiber waters first). Nearer home there have been at least two major plans earlier, which envisioned large-scale linkage between river basins. We shall be looking at why these plans were found to be unacceptable and how the current one is different.

NDWA's role: The National Water Development Agency (NWDA), which was set up in 1982 to carry out studies for the optimum utilization of peninsular rivers, has been working on the project for more than two decades now. In 1990, its scope was increased and it was asked to look into the Himalayan component as well.

Proponents of river linking point to the numerous potential benefits of the project - flood control, reduction of drought, huge amounts of hydro-electricity generation, creation of a long stretches of navigable water ways among the major benefits.

Critics point to the fact that playing with nature on such a grand scale can only amount to suicidal folly. Given the adverse effects that much smaller projects have already resulted in, they point to the urgent need to carry out impact assessment studies including those of loss of biodiversity, reduction in downstream flows, reduction of freshwater inflows into the sea and the consequent impacts on aquatic life, etc.

It's political too: Political opportunism has also reared its ugly head and parties have rushed to claim credit for the populist measure. However these are not issues that should, or can, be dealt by a majority vote. Even the President has had to voice his opinion on the matter, though he is by no means a hydrologist, and theproject is still ata nascent stage.

What perhaps needs to be prioritised is the taking up of transparent, systematic studies which would be able to deal with the various aspects of this project objectively, as once implemented, it might change the face of India. Whether positively or negatively, of course, remains to be seen.

Over the next few days, we shall be examining the various aspects of river interlinking in India.

First Published: Jun 27, 2003 14:47 IST