Making a subcontinental fiasco

The dream of linking the rivers of India is an old one. However, while the proposals of the past were discarded as being impractical, the Government of India's latest proposal has been feted in many quarters as the answer to the country's water problems. An assessment of the river linking project and its possible consequences.

Editors' note

Toying with rivers

A frighteningly grandiose plan that proposes to modify nature has suddenly gathered steam in India. The misapplied vision is to transfer water on a subcontinental scale from wet areas to dry. The people who will suffer under this extravagantly stupid idea will be, before anyone else, the people of India, which in any case makes up most of South Asia by population and size. Under the existing political preoccupations in the Indian capital, an idea that has not even been thought through, and which even government scientists secretly pooh pooh, is being allowed to dazzle the masses under the guidance of a Bharatiya Janata Party ideologue who earlier led its youth wing, Suresh Prabhu. Confronted by his bluster, the entire phalanx of proud and self-confident professionals in India's bureaucracy, diplomacy and scientific academia have decided to fall silent, if not in line. Their hope is that someone will call the bluff. In [March 2003], Himal published an investigation on how interventions with the rivers' flow may be contributing to the winter fog over the Indus-Ganga, affecting millions of South Asia's poorest. The fact is scientists have yet to study the impact of the run of canals and embankments built over the last half century. And yet, here we are, silent spectators while political cheerleaders sell cart-before-the-horse visions of the Ganga waters reaching the wastes of Rajasthan and beyond. This is not about the debate between small versus large, or being pro- or anti-development (and by extension, being nationalist or anti-national). The three articles in this issue of Himal by Ramaswamy Iyer, Himanshu Thakkar and Sudhindar Sharma – all of them written from inside the Ring Road in New Delhi – seek to burst the bubble of the river-linking scheme. Unlike less populated regions of the world, where too engineers have been allowed to tinker with nature, South Asia with its 1.4 billion population just cannot afford to toy with a plan that can go horribly, annihilatingly wrong.

There is a project to link the rivers of the Indian peninsula as well as the rivers that have their origins in the Himalayas.  The plan is to transfer water from 'surplus' areas to 'deficit' areas on a Subcontinent-wide scale, something that would be of interest not only within India but to the world at large because of the sheer magnitude and the issues that it gives rise to.

The project has been presented as a major initiative, and as the definitive answer to India's future problems and needs. Accepting that claim, many have welcomed the idea. On the other hand, many others have expressed serious doubts about it. The public opinion in the country is probably in favour of the project, but there is a fairly significant body of opinion which is unconvinced that the project is a good idea. A letter and memorandum urging a reconsideration of the project was submitted to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee two months ago, signed by nearly sixty persons of diverse disciplines and backgrounds.

Superficially, given the variability in the endowment of water in the country, the proposition that there should be transfers from areas where it is abundant to those where it is scarce seems convincing. Why then are so many fairly knowledgeable persons so worried about this project? Why are they opposing what seems prima facie to be a good idea? There are many reasons, to be set forth briefly in this article, drawing to a significant extent upon the memorandum to the prime minister, to which this writer is also a signatory.

Outline of project

The notion of the linking of the rivers in the Subcontinent is an old one. In the 19th Century, Sir Arthur Cotton had thought of a plan to link rivers in southern India for inland navigation. Though partially implemented, the idea was later abandoned because inland navigation lost ground to the railways. In more recent times, the 'Ganga-Cauvery Link' proposal mooted by former Irrigation Minister Dr. K.L.Rao was examined and found impracticable because of the very large financial and energy costs involved, and the 'Garland Canal' idea put forward by airline pilot Captain Dinshaw Dastur was rejected as technically unsound. The proposal now being taken up is based on the work that India's National Water Development Agency has been doing over the last two decades after its establishment in 1982 in pursuance of the 'National Water Perspectives' brought out by the Ministry of Irrigation in 1980.

The account of the river-linking project that follows is based on information provided in the Report of the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan (1999), as well as the official presentations that are currently being made. However, one awaits a definitive account of the project from the Government.

The Himalayan Rivers component and the Peninsular Rivers component constitute the two parts of the river-linking project. The Himalayan segment envisages a number of links, including some within the Ganga system (Kosi-Ghagra (Karnali), Gandak-Ganga, Ghagra-Yamuna, Sarda-Yamuna, and so on); some links between neighbouring rivers in the Brahmaputra system (Manas-Sankosh-Teesta); a couple between those two systems (Teesta-Ganga or an alternative Brahmaputra-Ganga link); one long link from Sarda to Sabarmati through the Yamuna and Rajasthan; one from the Ganga to Subernarekha via Damodar and then on to the Mahanadi; and a few others. The general idea is to transfer waters from 'surplus' eastern rivers to 'deficit' central, western and southern regions.

The peninsular segment again involves a number of links, of which the most important would be those connecting Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Pennar and Cauvery. The idea is to transfer the surpluses estimated to exist in the Mahanadi and the Godavari to the deficit southern basins (of the Cauvery, Vaigai). Other links in the Peninsula would include Ken-Betwa, Parbati-Kalisindh-Chambal, Par-Tapi-Narmada, Damanganga-Pinjal, and so on. Another plan is the partial diversion of certain rivers flowing into the Arabian Sea eastwards to connect with rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal (Bedti-Varda, Netravati-Hemavati, Pamba-Achankovil-Vaippar)

Sudden emergence

The project has emerged in a strange manner. The National Water Development Agency had been working on the subject for the last two decades, but its proposals were non-starters for various reasons. That the Government of India was not seriously thinking of any river-linking project would be clear from the absence of any reference to it in the Ninth Plan (1997-2002); Prime Minister Vajpayee's failure to mention any such initiative in his address to the National Water Resources Council on 1 April 2002; and the silence of the Tenth Plan (2002-2007).

It is significant that the National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development Plan in its September 1999 report urged caution with regard to the NWDA's studies. The terms of reference of this high-level commission had specifically included the matter of 'inter-basin transfers'. The report did not discuss the proposed Himalayan links in detail because the data are classified as confidential, but did observe that the costs involved and the environmental problems would be enormous; that the further expansion of irrigation in the desert areas of Rajasthan would need examination from all angles; that the NWDA's Himalayan component would require more detailed study; and that the actual implementation was unlikely to be undertaken in the immediate coming decades. On the Peninsular Component, after a careful examination of the water balances of the various basins, the Commission observed: "Thus there seems to be no imperative necessity for massive water transfers. The assessed needs of the basins could be met from full development and efficient utilization of intra-basin resources except in the case of Cauvery and Vaigai basins…" The Commission then takes note of some uncertainties that may affect the above judgment and says that further studies are required as to the future possibilities of inter-basin transfers.

That 'non-project' has suddenly become the most important undertaking of the Government of India, as a result of the Supreme Court's direction (if its observations can be so regarded) on a writ petition, and the Government's enthusiastic response to it. This intriguing development has not been satisfactorily explained by anyone in government.

Three questions arise:

Was the Supreme Court right in doing what it did?

Why did the Government of India at the political level respond so enthusiastically?

Why is the Central bureaucracy (that includes the technocracy) so excited about this project?

The present writer has discussed these matters elsewhere (see Economic and Political Weekly, 16 November 2002; Frontline, Chennai, 20 December 2002; and his book Water: Perspectives, Issues, Concerns, Sage, 2003), and in this article the focus will be the project itself.

The provided rationale

Flood control, power generation. The principal justification put forward for the linking of rivers is that it answers the problem of recurring flood and drought, and that it will generate large quantities of electricity. While the idea of flood control or the need for hydroelectric power may result in the formulation of particular projects in specific locations, they would not by themselves lead to the idea of linking rivers. There is a difference of opinion on the efficacy of large dams and storage projects as flood-control measures, but leaving that aside, it is not quite clear how the linking of rivers will contribute to the objective of flood control. Even if all the river-linking proposals are implemented, the contribution that this will make to the mitigation of the flood problem will not be substantial. Dr. Bharat Singh, a distinguished engineer and member of the National Commission mentioned above, has observed categorically in an article in The Hindustan Times (9 March 2003) that "any water resources engineer will immediately discard the idea of the inter-linking of rivers as a flood control measure".

As for electric power, one would normally expect projects for inter-basin transfers to require large quantities of energy (for lifting, tunnelling, pumping to long distances, and so on). How a project of this kind will be a net generator of upwards of 30,000 megawatt of electric power is not very clear. (There is the related claim that the inter-linking be largely be done through use of gravity, with a few modest lifts; we shall return to this.) If 30,000 MW is the net generation, there will presumably be a higher gross generation in certain locations, and some of that energy will be consumed by the river-linking process itself. If so, the generation of power is attributable to the large dams and storage projects and not to the linking of rivers. Or is it the claim that some of the generation will actually arise from river-linking? This needs careful examination.

Answer to drought

That leaves drought, and it is primarily here that the project might appear to be warranted. However, two points must be noted. In the first place, river-linking is no answer at all to the needs of areas unserved by rivers. The transfer of water from river 'A' to river 'B' may at best provide some additional water to areas already served to some extent by river 'B'. If the intention is to take water from 'surplus' to water-starved areas, then the project should really transfer water from rivers to riverless areas i.e. to the uplands and dry lands of India. That is not the nature of the project envisaged. The second and complementary point is that, fortunately, no such transfer is necessary because enough alternatives have been tried.

Rajendra Singh (the well-known 'Waterman' of Rajasthan and Magsaysay Award winner) has shown in Alwar District in Rajasthan that rainwater-harvesting can be practised successfully even in low rainfall areas. Earlier, Anna Hazare had brought about a transformation through water-harvesting (along with other measures) in Ralegan Siddhi in Maharashtra, which also receives low rainfall. The Madhya Pradesh Government has initiated large statewide programmes of water-harvesting and conservation. In the water-scarce parts of Gujarat, some non-governmental initiatives have registered remarkable achievements in this regard to their credit. The Dhan Foundation has been doing good work in the southern States in promoting water-harvesting and tank-rehabilitation. The large numbers of tanks in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh were part of remarkable water-management systems that have gone into decline, but efforts are on to restore and rehabilitate them. Similar efforts are also in progress, or are needed, in respect of other traditional systems such as ahars and pynes in Bihar, johads in Rajasthan, and so on.

In brief, the primary answer to drought has to be local; it is only thereafter, and in some very unpromising places where rainwater-harvesting are not feasible or may yield meagre results, that the bringing in of some external water may need to be considered. Besides, the river-linking project, if implemented, will take water only to a small part of the arid or drought-prone areas; large parts of such areas will remain unserved (as already explained) and will have to meet their needs through the local augmentation of water availability. It was in recognition of the importance of such local, community-led initiatives of rainwater-harvesting and watershed-development that Prime Minister Vajpayee strongly urged the promotion of such initiatives on a nationwide basis in his address to the National Water Resources Council on 1 April 2002.

The question of irrigation.

It is not primarily drinking water needs but the large demands of irrigation that lead to proposals for long-distance water transfers through canals, though the water so transferred may also be used to meet drinking water requirements. Water transfers for irrigation may be proposed either for providing additional water to areas already under irrigation or for extending irrigation to arid or 'rainfed' areas. In both cases, difficult questions arise.

In irrigated areas (for instance, the Cauvery basin), the question is whether large demands for additional irrigation water should be unquestioningly accepted and met through 'supply-side' solutions such as large dams or inter-basin transfers. Rather, the focus should be on improving water-use efficiency in irrigated agriculture, getting more value out of a given quantum of water, reducing water-demand, and minimizing the need for supply-side projects. In the context of the prevailing low efficiency of water-conveyance in canal systems and water-use in irrigated agriculture, bringing in more water from another basin would really amount to providing more water to be wasted. It would also mean that there would be no motivation at all for changing cropping patterns and shifting from water-intensive crops to crops that need less water; on the contrary, the tendency to grow water-consuming crops would be strongly encouraged.

In arid or drought-prone areas, the introduction of irrigated agriculture of a kind appropriate to wet areas may be unwise. 'Development' in arid areas should surely take other, less water-intensive forms. The slogan of 'making the desert bloom' is not necessarily a sound one. It can be (and has been) argued that the Rajasthan Canal project was not a good idea but a misconceived one. The National Commission cited above had observed that, "the further expansion of irrigation in the desert areas of Rajasthan would need examination from all angles", which seems to indicate some such doubts.

In both irrigated and rainfed areas, the importation of 'external water' can bring secondary consequences, such as: settling of farmers from elsewhere resulting in social tensions (as in Rajasthan); increased incidence of water-logging and salinity (a development that has followed irrigated agriculture in many places); and repetition of the 'Green Revolution' patterns of agricultural development. These relate to the problems associated with monoculture; loss of biodiversity (disappearance of indigenous varieties of seeds of plants and grains); problems arising from use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides; loss of micro-nutrients from soils; replacement of healthy indigenous varieties of foodcrops by high-yielding, commercially viable, but nutritionally deficient crops; and social inequities of many kinds that have characterised 'major' and 'medium' canal irrigation projects. These are not unavoidable consequences of providing additional water to a region, but they are dangers that have to be kept in mind. Given more water, there would be a natural tendency to slip into familiar and unsustainable agricultural practices.


One of the benefits claimed for the river-linking project is that it will give employment to tens of thousands of people. This seems a strange justification. Any large-scale construction activity is bound to generate some employment, even if the construction itself is completely pointless. The mere fact that an activity will involve the employment of people cannot warrant undertaking it; the purpose of the activity is all-important. Besides, given the magnitude of the project and the accelerated time-frame, it seems likely that advanced, sophisticated technologies (probably from foreign sources) will be used; and these are unlikely to be labour-intensive.

The serious concerns

The various justifications put forward for the project thus seem unpersuasive. Nevertheless, the idea of taking water from 'surplus' to 'deficit' areas may still seem prima facie a good one. That, indeed, is the principal driving force behind the project, and that is also what gives it popular appeal in the water-scarce states of India, particularly those in the south. However, there are many serious difficulties with that plausible-sounding proposition.

Gigantism. To start with, there is the fundamental objection, not to the idea of 'inter-basin transfer' per se (though that aspect does need consideration), but to the grandiose nature of the undertaking – the gigantism behind the idea. The river-linking project will be a massive intervention in the natural process, an ambitious attempt to alter nature. That it is to be compressed into a short span of time (ten to fifteen years) may aggravate the intervention but that is a secondary point, the main one being that it amounts to nothing less than the redrawing of the geography of the country. Can the basic features of the Indian landscape and its geography be manipulated at will by our bureaucrats, technocrats and politicians? Is nothing sacred? The project seems to represent a severe case of technological hubris – Prometheanism – of a kind that one had thought had been roundly discredited.

This kind of criticism elicits two different answers. One response is to say that there is nothing wrong with changing geography, and that other countries have done so; to dismiss any talk of the sacred dimension as romantic nonsense; and to assert that Prometheanism is what we do need. This raises questions of the meaning of 'development' and the right relationship between humanity and nature. In any case, the more usual response is to say that no gigantism is intended; that 'river-linking' is a concept consisting of a number of projects and not a single large project; that it will proceed carefully and slowly, piecemeal, from the minor and relatively less problematic links to the more difficult and ambitious ones.

However, is such a careful, exploratory, step-by-step approach in fact now intended? This explanation seems inconsistent with what we have been seeing and hearing in recent months: the Supreme Court's desire that the project be accelerated and the time-frame compressed; the prime minister's announcement that the project will be taken up on a war-footing; the setting up of a task force; the references to the order of investments involved; the publicity surrounding the project; and so on. There is either a lack of clarity here or a deliberate ambiguity. Is this merely a 'concept' as stated by some, or is it a major undertaking? Are we talking about a big ambitious project or about a series of relatively modest ones? The general impression in the country is certainly that a massive project has been undertaken. If that is not the case, the Government should make the position clear. Obfuscation on this point is indefensible.

Water Grid

There is, in fact, an oddity about the proposition of river-linking that we tend not to notice at first glance. One can understand if the planners start from an identification of the needs of particular areas, proceed through a consideration of options and alternatives, and finally arrive at a decision to link two or more rivers as the only or best option in a given case. Instead, the present project starts with the proposition that the rivers of India must be linked, and then proceeds to consider possibilities of storages, links and transfers. What is the basis for such an a priori proposition – even if it is an old one? How did we arrive at this strange notion that all the rivers of India – or the major ones – must be linked?

References are often made to a 'national water grid' on the analogy of a power grid or the network of highways. The analogy is inapt and misleading. In a power-grid or a highway-link, the movement can be in both directions, but in the case of a river-link water will flow only one way. Apart from that, highways and power lines are human creations and can be manipulated by humans. Rivers are not human artefacts; they are natural phenomena, integral components of ecological systems. Additionally, they are inextricably part of the cultural, social, economic, spiritual lives of the communities concerned. They are not pipelines to be cut, turned around, rejoined and welded.

Gravity Links. 'Inter-basin transfers', by their very definition, involve the carrying of water across the natural barrier between basins (which is what makes them 'basins') by lifting, or by tunnelling through, or by a long circuitous routing around the highlands if such a possibility exists. Rivers or streams may also have to be crossed in some cases. All this could mean heavy capital investments and continuing energy costs in operation. Such apprehensions have been sought to be set at rest with the explanation that the flows will be largely by gravity with lifts (not exceeding 120 metres) at a few selected points, and that the need for a transfer of water through natural barriers will be obviated.

Two issues arise. First, such an approach (that is, gravity links with minimum lifts) may be possible in some cases, but its feasibility in some thirty projects seems doubtful. This, like the claim that the project will be a net generator of large quantities of electricity, needs to be looked at very carefully, case by case.  Secondly, if indeed the links are to work largely by force of gravity with a few modest lifts, will not such an approach limit the extent of water transfers and the scope of the project? Can large claims be made for the project, in that case? It appears clear that we must either incur the perils and costs of gigantism or settle for limited and modest aims. If we are prepared to do the latter, why should we not go one step further and consider alternatives to river-linking, such as those mentioned earlier?

Impact and consequence

The project is fraught with serious consequences. It will necessarily involve dams, reservoirs, diversion of waters, canal systems, and so on. We know from past experience what such large water projects entail. They bring with them the violent disturbance of pristine areas and of the lives of old (in many instances, tribal) communities; disruption of the habitats and movement routes of wildlife; loss of biodiversity (flora and fauna); changes in river morphology and water quality (arising from the stilling of flowing waters); submergence of forests and agricultural lands; changes in the micro-climate; public health consequences; and displacement of people and their livestock with the related problems of resettlement and rehabilitation.

Such projects also lead to the reduction of downstream flows and the consequent alteration of the river regime, including a lessening of the capacity of the river to cope with pollutants and regenerate itself; a reduction in nutrient content in downstream flows; the diminution of groundwater-recharging; and a reduction in freshwater outflows into the sea. All this has an impact on aquatic life as well as on riparian communities and livelihoods such as agriculture or boat-plying. Further downstream, there are impacts on the estuarine ecology (including estuarine fish populations), and possibly salinity incursion from the sea. These impacts and consequences have been observed in many projects, and will need to be studied carefully in the case of each of the proposed links.

Incidentally, much harm has been done in the past by the tendency to regard only water taken from the stream as 'used' and water flowing in the stream and particularly into the sea as 'wasted'. To minds so conditioned, the fact that floods occur in some areas and drought is experienced elsewhere immediately suggests that water must be transferred from the former to the latter places. Behind this lies an ignorance of the multiple purposes served by flowing water – even floods – and the importance of water flowing into the sea, and a failure to recognise the consequences of a diversion of flows.  Before diverting waters and reducing downstream flows, we must make sure that devastating consequences will not follow.

It has been argued that similar projects have been undertaken elsewhere without catastrophic results, but that is a question-begging statement. Large water-resource projects are part of the kind of 'development' that the world has been pursuing, which has indeed had many catastrophic consequences. The earlier confidence in the conquest of nature with the assistance of science and technology has given way to some doubts. The world has gone too far in the wrong direction, and is now desperately trying to alter course. It was concerns of that kind which lay behind the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and the Johannesburg meeting a decade later.

Leaving aside the larger debate and confining ourselves to projects on rivers, it is well-known that old-style planning in the former Soviet Union led to the diversion of two rivers that were flowing into the Aral Sea, resulting in the virtual death of that body of water. That is now recognised as a great environmental disaster, perhaps the greatest ever, and desperate attempts are being made to reverse it. With the 'linking of rivers' project we may be similarly headed for unforeseen disasters and may discover this too late. A degree of caution seems warranted before the Government of India embarks on this enterprise. (Incidentally, in some countries, there is a move away from the past history of interference with the natural flows of rivers and towards a restoration of the original flows to the extent feasible.)

Those who thus advocate caution are likely to be accused of timidity and exhorted to look at China. However, the fact that the Beijing government has been able to push through the massive Three Gorges project on the Yangtze river does not prove that it is a good project. Only the future can tell us whether Three Gorges will be a boon or a man-made disaster. The opposition to the project is muted because dissent is not easy in China. Those who are envious of Beijing's ability to 'get things done' must reflect on how far they are prepared to go in emulating the Chinese system.


This writer and others who are worried over the India's own `mega' project are merely urging that the river-linking plan and the various elements that comprise its parts, should be very carefully studied. They also urge: that there should be a readiness to accept the findings, even if adverse; that all options and alternatives should be examined and the best chosen in each case; and that there should be no advance commitment to an unexamined project, as if it were an ideological cause.

Unfortunately, that is precisely what is happening. This is a 'concept' that consists of some twenty or thirty projects. For each project, some small and some big, a proper feasibility study will have to be prepared as an inter-disciplinary exercise, fully internalising economic, social, sociological, human, environmental and other aspects from the very beginning. Thereafter, the projects will have to be examined and evaluated, again in an inter-disciplinary manner, and cleared by the appropriate agencies. Thorough environmental impact assessments will need to be undertaken, followed by comprehensive cost-benefit analyses covering direct and indirect financial, economic, environmental, ecological, social and human costs and benefits (quantifying these wherever possible), and qualitative assessments of non-quantifiable considerations. Based on these, there must be rigorous investment appraisals.

We do not know what the outcome of that process will be: all projects may pass the test; all may fail; or some may survive a stringent scrutiny while others may not. What has happened, however, is that in advance of that process, the entire scheme has been announced and the public's expectations raised. The presumption seems to be that the project or projects will be found acceptable and cleared. This reduces the whole process of examination, evaluation and clearance to a mere formality, a mockery. With the conclusions already presumed and announced at the highest level, it seems difficult to believe that the government agencies concerned will be able to undertake a serious and objective examination. These include the Central Water Commission, the Technical Advisory Committee, the Ministry of Environment and Forests and its committees, the Planning Commission and the Task Force that has now been set up. The pressure on these agencies to be 'positive' will be great.

We are told that these are needless worries, that everything will be properly studied, and that it is presumptuous to suppose otherwise. Such reassurances may be noted, but past experience does not warrant much confidence. Incidentally, we are repeatedly told that NWDA has prepared feasibility studies for eight links, and that these have been "ratified by engineers, sociologists and economists". But the fact is that these studies have not been made available to the public. If indeed there are feasibility studies of some of the proposed links, they should be put into the public domain for engineers, geographers, environmentalists, economists, agronomists, soil scientists, sociologists, social anthropologists, financial analysts, and others outside the government to examine. This is too important a matter to be left entirely to the internal official procedures.

New conflicts

The Constitution of India talks about inter-state rivers but makes no reference to inter-basin transfers. It neither permits nor prohibits them. Leaving that question aside, it is evident that such transfers can be made only with the consent of the states concerned. Here again there are two points to consider. The first is that we have not so far been able to persuade states within a basin to share river waters, the Cauvery dispute being a clear example of this. Why would we want to bring water from another and more distant basin, in the place of resolving such intra-basin disputes through the better, more economical and more cooperative management of the resources within the basin? Secondly, even if we assume that the conflict within a 'water-short' river-basin will be eased by the importing external water, such an effort may initiate new conflicts between basins. The 'donor' states cannot be expected to be enthusiastic about sparing their 'surpluses' or even to agree that there are any surpluses.

The project has already led to strong objections from several States. The NWDA's assessment that surpluses are available in the Mahanadi and Godavari basins (and accepted by the National Commission referred to above) is not shared by the Orissa and Andhra Pradesh governments. There is irony in the proposition that the answer to the difficulty of persuading co-riparians Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to share the Cauvery waters equitably lies in the even more difficult course of persuading Orissa to spare Mahanadi waters for non-riparians! Several other state governments are also opposed to, or lukewarm about, the river-linking project. Bihar, West Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra are examples. There is also some opposition on the part of Kerala (and perhaps Karnataka) to the idea of the eastward diversion of west-flowing rivers. It may be argued that the Government of India should not allow itself to be deterred by such political difficulties, but is it really necessary to strain the federal structure by generating several new inter-state conflicts?

Efforts are now being made to bring about a political consensus on the river-linking project. This is one of the prime tasks of the Task Force. One hopes that this is not being looked at as a matter of compromises to be brought about through political bargaining, or quid pro quo, or the use of inducements. Any short-term 'political consensus' brought about through such means may not be sustainable in the long run. What is needed is a genuine harmonisation of long-term interests, needs and concerns.

Incidentally, the determination of what is and is not a water 'surplus' has to be gone into carefully. Each of the so-called water-surplus states have distress-prone areas: for instance, Orissa has Kalahandi, and Andhra Pradesh has Rayalaseema and Telengana. If indeed the flood-waters of the rivers of those states can be stored, should the stored waters not be used first to mitigate the people's distress in such areas? In that case, will there still be a surplus for transfer outside the State? Secondly, will diversions from a river cause difficulties downstream of the diversion-points? Will the attempt to solve the difficulties of a distant state result in the creation of difficulties in the `donor' state?

This is not a hypothetical question. In the April 2003 issue of the Journal of the Indian Water Resources Society, in an article, "Physical Choices for Integrated Water Management in Sabarmati Basin", M. Dinesh Kumar and Om Prakash Singh write, "As regards surface water, indiscriminate building of reservoirs and diversion structures (13 large and medium sized structures) in the basin has led re-allocation of available water from one area to another, making previously 'wet' areas 'dry' and previously 'dry' areas 'wet'. This is leading to widespread conflicts over water use."

North-south waters

The NWDA proposals include a Brahmaputra–Teesta (or alternatively, a Brahmaputra-Ganga) link, but major diversions from the Brahmaputra seem unlikely because of the physical difficulties and costs involved. We need not discuss the Brahmaputra further, except to say that the sensitivities of India's northeastern states must be kept in mind. It seems hardly necessary to add one more element of discord in an already difficult situation in that region.

A link between the Himalayan and Peninsular components seems to be planned (Ganga-Damodar-Subarnarekha-Mahanadi). Bangladesh is likely to view this with apprehensions, whether well-founded or not. Within India, Bihar has a strong sense of grievance that its interests in respect of the waters of the Ganga system have not been given due consideration; and West Bengal has only reluctantly agreed to the large allocations to Bangladesh under the Ganga Treaty and has been pressing the needs of Calcutta Port. Neither Bihar nor West Bengal will look kindly upon any diversion of the Ganga waters.

Perhaps this is a non-issue, as it was recently stated by a senior official of the Ministry of Water Resources that "at no point would waters of the Ganga be transferred to any of the Himalayan or Peninsular rivers." If no transfers are envisaged, there is nothing more to be said. However, as we saw earlier, the proposals of the NWDA did include some transfers from the Himalayan rivers westwards and southwards. It is that kind of expectation that gives the project its popular appeal, particularly in the south.

Here again there is some (perhaps inadvertent) ambiguity. Does the river-linking project include any diversion from the Ganga, and if so, how are the apprehensions of Bangladesh, Bihar and West Bengal going to be set at rest? If no such diversions are intended, how is the Government of India going to disabuse the southern states of the wrong impression that waters from the north will flow to the south in large quantities under this project?

Plans and plans

As stated earlier, it is not proper to announce a project in advance of the usual decision-making processes. Among other things, this would preempt resources and distract attention from the things that need to be done. The outlays in the Five-Year Plans are barely adequate even for the completion of projects already undertaken. One estimate – that of the National Commission in 1999 – of amounts needed for completing 'spillover projects' was INR 70,000 crore in the Tenth Plan (2002-2007) and INR 110,000 crore in the Eleventh Plan (2007-2012). This already necessitates a severe selectivity with regard to what are called `on-going projects', and leaves no scope for new major projects.

From the Sixth Plan (1981-1985) onwards, the stress has been on consolidation rather than on new starts. Against that background, it seems extraordinary to embark on a major river-linking undertaking. The rough figure mentioned in the Supreme Court in this context was INR 560,000 crore. That figure is likely to go up in two ways. First, a thorough and comprehensive investment appraisal would require the addition of all costs, direct and indirect, including the environmental remedial and compensatory measures and the costs of resettlement and rehabilitation of project-affected people. That may take the cost of the project far beyond the figure now mentioned. (What this would do to the viability of the project, one does not know.) Secondly, if past experience is any guide, time and cost over-runs may make the final project cost on completion substantially higher than the initial estimate. However, even if we ignore such increases and keep to the figure of INR 560,000 crores, the pre-empting of resources of that magnitude for this project will render the whole planning process meaningless.

We may be wasting a good deal of time in pursuing this chimera of a river-linking project, and distracting ourselves from finding time and money for more modest, worthwhile and urgent activities, such as extensive water-harvesting all over the country (wherever feasible) and the onerous but important task of rehabilitation of tanks in South India and other similar traditional systems elsewhere. Even more important is effective demand management through improved efficiency and economy in water use, whether in agriculture or in industry or in domestic and municipal uses, so as to minimise the need for supply-side solutions. These ought to be our priorities, but none of this is likely to receive much attention, given the preoccupation with the gigantic river-linking project.

Incidentally, apart from the pre-empting of resources, the huge costs involved in the linking of rivers and long-distance water transfers will make the water at the receiving end very expensive indeed. There is hardly any possibility of recovering even a fraction of the costs from the users, who will doubtless argue that this is infrastructure development whose cost must be borne by the state. However, the possibility of private sector investment is also being explored, and the question arises whether the investors will be able (or should be allowed) to charge full commercial prices. The Enron case comes to mind. Moreover, the question of private sector investment also raises the issue of entrustment of control over natural resources to private (and perhaps even foreign or multinational) corporate hands. These aspects and dangers can only be flagged at this stage. There is not enough information at the moment for a proper discussion of these matters.

Nepal and Bangladesh

India's river-linking project has generated interest as well as concern in Nepal and Bangladesh. If the project envisages any storage reservoirs or diversion structures in the upstream countries such as Nepal or Bhutan, it is obvious that such activities can only be undertaken with the involvement, consent and participation of those countries. If the structures are to be in India but have the potential of causing certain consequences (inundation, backwater effects, and so on) in an upstream country, then again prior information to and consultation will be called for.

At the other end, if any part of the river-linking scheme is likely to have implications for the downstream country, such as a reduction of flows or environmental consequences, then prior intimation to and consultation with Bangladesh will be necessary.

However, if a link is far away from the India-Nepal border, and if it is unlikely to have any impact on Bangladesh, then the project would be a purely an internal matter for India. All this is self-evident, and when attention is drawn to these aspects, the Government of India's response is that they are well aware of these international dimensions. Nothing more needs to be said on this aspect at this stage. While not forgetting these possible regional and international dimensions, the accompanying article deals with the river-linking project essentially as a national project.


Among other things, the memorandum presented to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in its concluding section makes the following suggestions* to the Government of India:

take people into confidence as to what the Government plans to do; publish a White Paper;

make the various studies and pre-feasibility and feasibility reports of the NWDA widely and easily available to the public;

hold hearings, invite comments; make the declared commitment to the principles of `people's participation' and `stakeholder consultation' real;

hold discussions with knowledgeable people and institutions outside the Government and pay serious attention to their questions and apprehensions;

instead of starting from an a priori  proposition about the linking of rivers, proceed from the water needs of each area, consider all the available options, and choose the best;

focus on efficient, harmonious, sustainable intra-basin water management first before thinking of importing external water;

where a river-linking or long-distance water-transfer proposal seems  prima facie worth considering, get a thorough, professional feasibility report prepared in a fully inter-disciplinary manner, internalizing not merely techno-economic but also environmental, human, social, equity, `gender' and other relevant aspects and concerns, and put it through a comprehensive, inter-disciplinary, rigorous and stringent process of detailed examination, appraisal and approval; and

take up "on a war-footing" (in the Prime Minister's words) a national project of extensive, community-led rainwater-harvesting (wherever feasible) and watershed development, as also of the revival and re-activation of traditional systems of water harvesting, conservation and management (tanks, ahars and pynes, johads, etc), in pursuance of the Prime Minister's clarion call at the meeting of the NWRC on 1 April 2002.

* this a selective reproduction.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian