The reports in the press indicate that the government is all set to begin the project on interlinking of the Indian rivers, starting with the Ken river, considered as water surplus, linking it with the Betwa river in drought-stricken Bundelkhand. The interlinking, when completed, would end up changing the natural drainage and river morphology of India forever, on a scale the world has never seen.
Admittedly, the project has emanated from good intentions, as river linking is considered a sure-shot panacea for the perennial water shortages in drought-stricken regions, and hugely beneficial to the farmers, a vulnerable section exposed to the weather’s vagaries. The project’s Himalayan component envisages channelising Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers through dams and canals facilitating connectivity to the water-starved regions in the west. The peninsular component plans to connect the Godavari, Krishna and Mahanadi rivers to transfer their water to drier areas in the south, besides the intra-state links. It will be the largest man-made scheme for river diversions, obfuscating a geologically-evolved drainage system. Man has indeed become a geological agent.
The idea may have originated from the pre-Independence thoughts of M Visvesvaraya, an icon among Indian engineers, and subsequently expanded by another visionary engineer, later to become the Union Irrigation Minister, K L Rao, who euphemistically called it the ‘National Water Grid’. By the start of the 1980s, it re-emerged from the Ministry of Water Resources as ‘River Interlinking Project’. An order issued by the Supreme Court on 31 October 2002 to expedite the project work so as to complete it within a mind-boggling deadline of 12 years, in response to a Public Interest Litigation, came as manna from the sky for its votaries.
In response, the government with rarely-seen alacrity appointed a task force to conduct detailed technical studies. It is claimed the land under irrigation will expand from 140 million hectares to 175 million hectares and the project will generate 34,000 megawatt of power, apart from the incidental benefits like flood control, navigation, water supply, salinity and pollution control. It seems an honourable proposition, but is fundamentally flawed primarily because it will generate huge uncontrolled human-induced disequilibrium in the natural hydrographic systems and destroy associated ecological niches forever with incalculable repercussions for the long-term well-being of the society as a whole—an unpardonable disservice to future generations.
The world is becoming water-stressed and India, with its huge population, will witness great suffering. We may also have to factor in the consequences of climate change that will complicate the issue further. Would river linking bring a permanent solution to drought conditions and per capita water availability? The answer is negative, contrary to the assumptions of a section of engineers or the ambitious politicians (or the wily contractors out to make a killing). From the perspective of economics, the available numbers suggest the construction cost alone is `5.5 lakh crore, probably not including the social, environmental and operational costs.
We may have to agree with the critics when they question the efficacy of implementing such a mammoth project without a strict peer-reviewed open assessment of its techno-economic feasibility. There is no substantial technical data put out to verify the official claims on water surplus in any river. The fact is there is no “free” surplus water in any river; simple arithmetic rationalisations like tapping the ‘water lost to the sea’ do not take the eco-hydrological perspectives into consideration. The proponents fail to see the eco-service dimensions attached to such questions.
Flood water is not to be rationalised as ‘surplus’, but needs to be seen as carriers of minerals for land fertility, recharge for the groundwater and a promoter of biological diversity, thus supporting the livelihood of millions of marginalised people. Other eco-services of ‘surplus water’ include flushing of the silt from the riverbeds to the coastal waters to form deltas (e.g. Sunderbans in Bengal) and hindering the saline incursions. It is not clear how the nation’s declared commitment to the mitigation of human-induced climate change and river manipulation go hand in hand.
Rather than rely on questionable methodologies, alternate cost effective and ecologically sensible ways of water conservation need to be explored. For example, in the Ken-Betwa region we still find vestiges of traditional ponds for water harvest; why not reinvigorate them? Such methods have met with reasonable success in many parts of Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Previous projects on river channelisation elsewhere, particularly in the US, are proven failures.
The canalisation of Kissimmee river, authorised by the US Congress to mitigate flooding in Florida in 1954, turned out to be an environmental disaster. It has now been realised that this damaged the river and also resulted in the loss of wetlands. Massive resources are being spent to bring the river back to its original configuration. What happened to the Aral Sea located in Central Asia is a telling example of how the region became a howling desert because of the diversion of the rivers that fed it.
Why repeat projects of river engineering that have proved to be monumental failures even in developed countries? Before initiating such massive water-transfer projects it is imperative to prepare a comprehensive report based on an interdisciplinary study of the river basins, as expressed in a memorandum submitted by a group of eminent citizens to the PM on 22 April 2003. Despite our spiritual reverence for rivers, we do nothing to protect them. The Indian rivers have become open sewers. The river interlinking project will be the final nail in the coffin for the dying rivers.
C P Rajendran
Professor of geodynamics at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru