The plan to interlink India’s rivers is not a new one. It was first mooted in 1858 by British irrigation engineer Arthur Cotton, who is known as the ‘Delta Architect’ of the Godavari districts because of his work in irrigation engineering through his construction of the anicut system. Now more than 150 years later as that idea of interlinking of rivers (ILR) takes shape, there is strong opposition to it.
The big idea is to connect the country’s 37 Himalayan and peninsular rivers. Water-surplus rivers will be dammed, and the flow will be diverted to water-deficient rivers. According to government documents, some 30 canals and 3,000 small and large reservoirs will be constructed with potential to generate 34 gigawatt of hydroelectric power. The canals, planned between 50 and 100 meters in width, will stretch some 15,000 kilometres.
“If we can build storage reservoirs on these rivers and connect them to other parts of the country, regional imbalances could be reduced significantly and lot of benefits by way of additional irrigation, domestic and industrial water supply, hydropower generation, navigational facilities etc. would accrue,” India’s National Water Development Authority describes the project on its website.
A 2009 study by the by Upali Amarasinghe, a senior researcher at the International Water Management Institute, said that the project is expected to create some 87 million acres of irrigated land, and transfer 174 trillion litres of water a year.
Importantly, half a million people are likely to be displaced in the process, and knowing India’s record of tackling displacement, it is definitely not a happy thought.
There are several other serious challenges:
Cost of the project: “The comprehensive proposal to link Himalayan rivers with peninsular rivers for inters basin transfer of water was estimated to cost around Rs 5,60,000 crore in 2001. Land submergence and R&R (relief and rehabilitation) packages would be additional to the cost. There are no firm estimates available for the scheme, such as the cost of power required to lift water,” a seven member committee on water reforms, headed by Mihir Shah, former member of erstwhile Planning Commission, said recently.
Rainfall is getting uniform: A study by IIT Madras and IIT Bombay presented evidence to show that rainfall in ‘surplus’ basins was declining while it was increasing in ‘deficient’ basins. It means, the report added, that rainfall was getting uniform, thus negating transfer of the water.
Natural supply of nutrient will be affected: The Shah committee also pointed out that the linking of rivers will affect natural supply of nutrients for agricultural lands through curtailing flooding of downstream areas.
No scientific basis of the project: In an interview to Quartz last year, Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said: There have been no scientific basis to say that. All you have is an incomplete study that says this is good for the country. One has to exhaust all options and potentials before concluding that river-linking is the best alternative. Exhaust options such as watershed development, rainwater harvesting, ground water recharge, optimising existing infrastructure and cropping methods and then we can conclude that water-linking might be good. But there has been no assessments done.
‘Govt data no reliable’: In an interview to a national daily, S Janakarajan, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, have said that the government’s data on ‘surplus rivers’ is not reliable. “Who has done the surplus calculation and where in the river have they measured the surplus?” he asked.
The interlinking of river project has also been questioned for its irrigation benefits.
These are serious questions. Will the government clear the air by answering these critical questions?