Dubious history, doubtful benefits

Interlinking Rivers
Last Updated 23 February 2022, 19:15 IST

Union Budget 2022 revived interest in interlinking rivers (ILR). However, before agreeing to ILR, Karnataka insists on allocation of water “to each beneficiary state”, Telangana demands 50% of water from the Godavari-Krishna link, lower riparian Andhra Pradesh demands “sufficient quantity of water”, and Tamil Nadu demands 200-tmcft water.

Clearly, ILR will not solve water problems but rather exacerbate water disputes that are already before the various River Water Dispute Tribunals. Indeed, the Statement of Objects and Reasons in the River Water Disputes (Amendment) Bill, 2019, reads: “On account of increase in demand for water by the states, inter-state river water disputes are on the rise”. It further admits: “Though the Ravi and Beas Water Disputes Tribunal has been in existence for over 33 years, yet it has not been able to make any successful award till date”. ILR surely deserves an honest review.

Flawed system

The Ganga and the Brahmaputra flood every year, causing huge social and economic disruption, leading to the concept of “surplus” flood water. In turn, this led to the grandiose idea of interlinking river basins to simultaneously mitigate both flood and drought by linked canals transporting water from “water-surplus” Brahmaputra and Ganga basins to “water-deficit” areas in Peninsular India.

The National Water Development Agency conceived ILR in the 1980s, to connect 14 Himalayan and 16 Peninsular major rivers by 14,900-km total length of linking canals.

The system functions on the basis of the “exchange concept”, with the Brahmaputra and Ganga as “donor” basins, primary sources of “surplus” water. With the exception of the Brahmaputra and Ganga, every river basin is a “recipient” basin before donating its “surplus” water to another river basin, in exchange for the water it receives. If a recipient basin does not receive water from another (donor) basin for any reason, it cannot be a donor into the next link-canal in the system, since linking canals function together as a system.

However, ILR is conceptually flawed because:

# In UP, Bihar and Assam, while large areas are devastated by floods, there are large areas, merely 5-10 kilometres away, suffering severe water shortage. Thus, the concept of “water-surplus” regions supplying water by canals to “water-deficit” regions thousands of kilometres away, is simplistic.

# States’ perceptions of what is “surplus” water, and its quantification, is a subject of inter-state disputes and litigation, because every state wants to be a beneficiary.

# The Ganga’s average flood and lean-flow discharge are 50,000-cumecs and 5,280-cumecs, respectively. During a flood, a large 100m-wide, 10m-deep canal, carrying a maximum of 1,500-cumecs, relieves flood by merely 3%, and only downstream of the canal headworks. In the dry season, it unacceptably deprives communities on the Ganga’s banks of 28.4% of water. Investment in a canal which cannot relieve flood, and starves “donor” communities during summer, is social-economic-political folly.

# The highly publicised part of ILR is the emotive Ganga-Cauvery link. The canal headworks on Ganga (in Bihar) is 65-m above mean sea-level (MSL). Canal water flows by gravity only to lower areas. The Ganga-Cauvery link promises Ganga water crossing the basins of Subarnarekha, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Pennar, and Palar. However, water cannot reach the 800-plus metres above MSL, chronically water-deficit Peninsular areas. And water reaching the Cauvery basin at around 50-m above MSL will provide Karnataka no water.

# The Ganga water reaching Cauvery depends on reliable, uninterrupted flow in the system of linked canals. Interruption of flow in links because of agitations, local politics, structural/operational/power failures, natural disasters, etc., will cause system disruption and water disputes.

Birth of ILR

On August 14, 2002, then President A P J Abdul Kalam stated that ILR was essential to solve India's flood and drought problems. In September, a motivated amicus curiae’s simple application prayed Supreme Court to direct government to take up this project, and the then Chief Justice of India B N Kirpal issued notices to the states and the Centre. When the matter was heard in November, although only one state had responded, the CJI presumed that there were no objections to ILR. He ordered the government to take up and complete the ILR project “in the shortest possible time”.

The A B Vajpayee government bypassed established social, economic/financial and technical planning processes and checks for major projects and constituted an ILR Task Force on December 13, 2002. Miraculously, within four months, the government had approved plans to spend an estimated Rs 5.6 lakh crore for a questionable project, the system-project design and cost estimate of which remain secret even today.

Ill-conceived in the 1980s, ILR was born in 2002, without application of judicial mind, discussion in Parliament, scrutiny by the Planning Commission, and public consultation.

Egregious promotion

In November 2008, the Supreme Court asked the government, why not even a single link out of the 30 planned had gotten underway. The government informed the court that consensus between states had not been worked out.

In December 2009, the water minister in the Manmohan Singh government, P K Bansal, told Lok Sabha that interlinking Himalayan with Peninsular rivers was unaffordable but Himalayan and Peninsular rivers would be linked separately. Notably, the then Environment and Forest Minister Jairam Ramesh declared that ILR would be a “human, ecological and economic disaster for the country”.

In October 2011, the Supreme Court called for a report on the financial viability of the project. In January 2012, it directed the government to constitute a special empowered committee to implement ILR. In 2014, the Narendra Modi government’s water minister Uma Bharti vigorously revived the Vajpayee-era ILR proposal.

Over 20 years, the apex judiciary and successive governments have bypassed established planning practices to egregiously promote a national mega-project of unproven utility at unjustifiable social, environmental/ecological and financial/economic cost. Successive parliaments and state Assemblies have unquestioningly accepted ill-informed assurances, without understanding the increasing, unresolvable water disputes.

The government needs to immediately scrap the ILR concept and project, and instead invest in dispute-free, intra-state, intra-basin watershed management. State and central governments need to enforce water conservation using time-tested, region-specific methods, and review agricultural and industrial water-use policy. Governments need to focus on mitigating the effects of increased water-stress due to global warming and climate change. Continuing with ILR will result in unmanageable social unrest, irrecoverable economic loss, and catastrophe.

(Published 23 February 2022, 18:33 IST)

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