River Linking Won't Hold Water if the Displaced are not Resettled

It was fulfilment of a long-cherished dream that many in India believed could never translate into reality.

Published: 20th September 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th September 2015 10:33 AM   |  A+A-


As the water from the Godavari River flowed into the Krishna at the Prakasam Barrage in Vijayawada last week, it marked a historic landmark for Indian irrigation. It was fulfilment of a long-cherished dream that many in India believed could never translate into reality.

The Godavari-Krishna link is actually part of a much larger and more ambitious long-term plan to put in place a nationwide water grid by creating 30 major river links and 37 relatively minor intrastate river links.

This is a part of the NDA government’s plan to revive the river-linking project, which was first actively taken up by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee regime in 2002, but was consigned to the dustbin during the UPA government. The Vajpayee government had given the go ahead to the Godavari-Krishna inter-linking in 2003. During 2004-2014, however, little progress was noted. It was only when the Modi government gave it a push that things changed.  

The credit for implementing this project must go to Andhra Pradesh CM Chandrababu Naidu and his predecessors in the united Andhra Pradesh, who steadfastly supported it despite resistance from activists.

The two major southern rivers are now interconnected through a canal starting from the Tadipudi lift irrigation project on the Godavari. When the under-construction Polavaram dam is commissioned, water will be carried from there for discharging into the Prakasam Barrage. The joining of these two rivers is aimed broadly at harnessing part of the floodwaters of the Godavari, which now flows wastefully into the Bay of Bengal. About 10 per cent of this water will be used to irrigate paddy fields in the water-scarce Krishna delta; this might help make perpetually water-starved Rayalaseema drought-proof.

While Andhra Pradesh has taken the lead, the work on the Ken-Betwa river link projects in UP and Madhya Pradesh has already been stepped up. The project reports for construction of the second phase of the Ken-Betwa link, as well as the Damanganga-Pinjal and Par-Tapi-Narmada links in Gujarat and Maharashtra are ready and work on them has started and the project is likely to take off in December this year.

The proposal to interlink Indian rivers has a long history. The idea was first mooted by British engineer Arthur Cotton in 19th century during the colonial rule. The aim was to hasten transportation of goods from its colony in South Asia, as well as to address water shortages and droughts in southeastern India, now Andhra and Odisha.

After Independence, Irrigation minister K L Rao revived it and proposed a ‘National Water Grid’ in the 1970s. When he made the proposal, several inter-basin transfer projects had already been successfully implemented in India, and Rao suggested that the success be scaled up. There was, however, little governmental support till Vajpayee decided to push it. The project went into limbo again during the Congress-led UPA rule and has been resurrected by the Modi government.

It is estimated that after the completion of the project, the resultant national water grid could increase the country’s ultimate irrigation potential, reckoned now at around 139 million hectares to over 175 million hectares. This would drought-proof the entire country.

Coping with annual floods and droughts, both occurring at the same time in different parts, has been a major concern for India over the millennia. These concerns are more acute today as the growing population and the resultant water demand place a heavy burden on the unevenly distributed water resources, and also cause huge economic losses to the vulnerable population. Additionally, there is a huge demand for water to enhance and diversify food production to meet the supply needs of a vast population with changed consumption patterns and higher disposable incomes. On the face of it, the  National River Linking Project (NRLP), which transfers water from the potentially water-surplus rivers to water-scarce western and peninsular river basins, is an ideal solution.

There are, however, many contentious issues that must be addressed. These range from dubious project design, negative environmental impacts, huge social and financial cost, and available less costly demand management options.

Given this backdrop, the manner in which the Godavari and Krishna are interlinked will be keenly watched by the proponents of river-water sharing as well as its opponents.

Like any other river water development projects, it must surmount challenges. The most formidable of these would be the rehabilitation of displaced persons following the submergence of vast tracts of land, including agricultural area. As most of the displaced persons are likely to be tribals in areas affected by Maoist violence, their generous rehabilitation will ensure the opposition to the project by a section of environmentalists and activists does not result in deteriorating the law and order problem.

The Centre cannot expect the states to undertake the entire burden of rehabilitation. It must help them ensure livelihood security of those affected by NRLP. This should be an essential component of all development projects, the execution of which result in displacement of large populations. In the case of NRLP, the sheer volume of its potential advantages and disadvantages is huge. On the plus side, it is expected to create some 87 million acres of irrigated land and transfer 174 trillion litres of water a year. But as estimates by researchers at the International Water Management Institute show, the project will also lead to displacement of over half a million people.

Unlike the environment vs development debate—which seems unending—the human impact of development projects is a real issue and the Centre must work out a transparent and humane policy for rehabilitation of displaced persons in consultation with states.

Vajpeyi is a freelance journalist and media consultant

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