09 Jun 14

A Bend in the River

Is the inter-linking of rivers the solution to India’s water problems?

In the long run, quipped Keynes, we’re all dead. Nations, though, have to think of the long run. The hunt for oil, water, land, food, energy – for many it is a question of survival of their people. But not for India this long run bunkum. Best left to posterity, we say – let them think about their problems when the time comes. As Marx said: “Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”

By 2050, there will be 1.6 billion of us. That was the population of the whole world at the turn of the last century. What have we planned for these 1.6 billion Indians? Take the example of Bihar, India’s third most populous state with a rural population of 88% according to the 2011 Census. “By the year 2050”, says one government report, “all the river basins except the Kosi, Gandak, and the Sone-Kao-Gangi basin will fall in the category of severe water scarce basins. This means 55% of the population will face the situation in which water availability becomes a primary constraint to health. About 35% of the state population will have to survive in water scarcity condition. Only 10% of the state population will be in ease situation.”

This is one Indian state, one government report. What of the rest of India and her people? What lies in store for them in their long run?

One word: Disaster. By 2050, India would have become a middle-income economy but her people would still die of hunger and her land would still be ravaged by floods and famines. Why? Because here and now, in the comfort of 2014, we think 2050 lies decades into the future, and the future has always been difficult to envision for a people who are at heart reactive not proactive. This is a country where thinking big is considered small, where lifetimes are spent in keeping millions the way they are – impoverished in their medieval idylls with no access to modernity. Modernity – that Goddess of evil whose curse may blight the hypocritical lifestyles of those who think, work and act on behalf of the impoverished. And so, building dams is evil, raising their height on Supreme Court orders even more so; possessing an atom bomb when all the hard bargainers have one is evil; switching to safe, pesticide-free, high-yielding genetically modified food is evil, and so is harvesting nuclear energy, mining rare-earths, or testing new drugs on animals. But the most evil of the lot is linking rivers, and it is presently this evil that we shall focus on.

It is important to realise that river linking as a project trumps most, if not all, engineering feats man has ever accomplished from the Great Wall to placing Armstrong on the moon. Not even the splitting of a continent in two – the Panama Canal – comes close to the sheer scale of this idea. At its heart, the river-linking project entails connecting rivers that criss-cross India, rivers that are the lifeblood of a people who revere and fear them in equal measure.The International Water Management Institute (IWMI) shows the river-linking proposal through two maps – the links have been divided into Himalayan and Peninsular. A better description is available at the Water Resources Hydrology and Information System for India website. The sheer scale of the project is astounding. Just one of the 30 odd links – The Yamuna-Rajasthan link – is 1835 kms in length, spanning from east to west with an ability to divert 17,906 million cubic metres (mcm) of river water. With such ground-breaking, geography-changing propositions, it was but inevitable that the Interlinking of Rivers Programme, or ILR, would not only become a political hot potato, it would also sap the energies of our environmentalists, intellectuals and opinion-makers.

The divide is clear. The government wants the ILR; over our dead bodies, say the Eco Warriors. But what are the facts? In April 2008, the National Council of Applied Economic Research brought out a comprehensive report titled: Economic Impact of Interlinking of Rivers Programme. It is by all accounts the most thorough and objective report yet prepared on the economics of the project, proving yet again that we as Indians are genetically programmed to commission – and then obtain in due course – the most painstakingly detailed and wide-ranging executive and judicial reports ever to be tabled by man or beast. What happens to them is another matter.

The ILR, begins the report, is aimed at linking different surplus rivers of country with the deficient rivers to increase irrigation intensity, to make water available for drinking and industrial purposes, to produce hydroelectricity, and to mitigate the effect of drought and floods. The report goes on to add that, “With an increase in population, the requirement for food is also growing. Faster growth in agriculture production cannot be achieved without increasing irrigation intensity. ILR is expected to provide additional irrigation to about 30 million hectares (mha) and net power generation capacity of about 20 to 25 GW. The envisaged additional area to be irrigated by the ILR is nearly 40 per cent of the current irrigated area.”

The report also states that “additional benefits come in the form of prevention of floods and droughts. There are also other benefits that are of both short-term and long-term nature, like the investment taking place in the construction of ILR network. The total cost of ILR is estimated to be Rs 5,60,000 crore at 2002-03 prices.”

With our annual rainfall – 4000 billion cubic metres (bcm) – distributed unevenly across the country, proponents of ILR say linking of rivers would help distribute the water and prevent flooding in one state and drought in another. To be sure, this inter-basin transfer of water is not an altogether new concept. The United States of America, for example, transfers 45 bcm in this manner, with plans to increase capacity to 376 bcm, while China is implementing a scheme that would transfer around 48 bcm. Another IWMI report highlights two specific examples, the Colorado-Big Thomson water transfer that, although minor compared to the ILR proposal, “diverts approximately 0.284 cubic km per annum of water from the upper reaches of the Colorado river eastward into the South Platte River Basin, part of the Mississippi-Missouri basin”. The second is the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, managed by Lesotho and South Africa, Phase 1 of which diverts 750 million cm of water per annum. There are also examples from Canada, Sri Lanka, Mexico and many other countries.

There is precedence, yes, but what good is precedence when faced with an almost psychological disregard for the long run? We are adept at repeating only failed experiments not successful ones, and it is of little concern to us that by 2050, our per capita water availability is expected to fall from the present 1170 cm to a terrifying 300 cm or even lower. The water scarcity threshold defined as “necessary for civilised living” is 1700 cm per person. So we are officially uncivilised at present; by 2050 we may turn barbaric. To add to our woes, the Ganga – Brahmaputra – Meghna basins, home to 44% of our population, drain more than 60% of the country’s water resources. Contrast this with the Krishna, Cauvery and Penner basins along with the easterly flowing rivers between Penner and Kanyakumari that drain only 6 % of India’s water. It is already being predicted that by 2050, with things the way they are, India will once again become a net-importer of wheat.

Interlinking of rivers was given a serious look only in 1980, by the Indira Gandhi government when water development authorities were set up and the various links proposed. The Vajpayee-led NDA government, wanting to “free India from the curse of floods and droughts” decided to fast-track the proposal, helped in no small measure by the landmark 2002 Independence Day address by the scientist-turned-president APJ Abdul Kalam. At the time even the BBC jumped in, decrying that “Water for laundering clothes is a perennial problem” in India. But this being a country where Presidents and Prime Ministers routinely go unheeded, nothing happened for a good decade. Then, a giant awakened to the malaise.

Networking Of Rivers Vs Unknown

Court: The Supreme Court of India

Date of Judgment: February 27, 2012 (http://www.indiankanoon.org/doc/41857247/)

Citation: Writ Petition (civil) no. 512 of 2002

Bench: Justices S.H. Kapadia, A.K. Patnaik, Swatanter Kumar

The Supreme Court stated that even though “there had been a change in the Government…a decision had been taken, in principle, to continue with interlinking of rivers”. If the UPA also agreed with the NDA on ILR, what then was causing the inexplicable delay in implementing the project?

“A high level Task Force was set up. Feasibility Reports were prepared for the intended links. Subsequently, this Court made it absolutely clear that the 2005 order of the Court in these respects have to be complied with in letter and spirit. The Committee constituted under this order shall be responsible for carrying out the inter-linking program. Its decisions shall take precedence over all administrative bodies created under the orders of this Court or otherwise.”

The Supreme Court, in venting out its frustration at the earlier non-compliance of its orders, wasn’t quite done with the scolding.

“We grant liberty to the learned Amicus Curiae”, it said, “to file contempt petition in this Court in the event of default or non-compliance of the directions contained in this order. We not only express a pious hope of speedy implementation but also do hereby issue a mandamus to the Central and the State Governments concerned to comply with the directions contained in this judgment effectively and expeditiously and without default. This is a matter of national benefit and progress. We see no reason why any State should lag behind in contributing its bit to bring the Inter-linking River Program to a success, thus saving the people living in drought-prone zones from hunger and people living in flood-prone areas from the destruction caused by floods.”

Two years have passed and there has only been one development: a clear violation of the Court’s orders. The Ministry of Water Resources doesn’t even mention ILR on its website. The much-vaunted Committee, composed of ministers, scientists, environmentalists, social scientists, geologists, engineers, and the Amicus Curiae last met on September 12, 2011. There is no mention of whether they have reconvened after the 2012 Supreme Court judgment.

While those handed down the task of implementing the ILR dilly-dally, the anti-ILR lobby has gained not only voice but also momentum, describing the project as “frighteningly grandiose”, “extravagantly stupid”, “annihilatingly wrong”, a “subcontinental fiasco”, “a flood of nonsense”, a “dangerous delusion”, and a case of “hydro-hubris”.


Ramaswamy R Iyer, a former Secretary, Water Resources, and the person who recently counselled us about “Developmental fundamentalism” thinks the ILR is “Prometheanism of the crassest kind” and that India “needs to be saved from this madness.”. At the forefront of this battle is “India’s best known environmentalist”, Dr Vandana Shiva – founder of the NGO Navdanya. She says the ILR project “is based on the false assumptions that water from surplus rivers can be diverted to deficit rivers. The truth is there are no surplus or deficit rivers. There are only living and dead rivers”.

This is plain wrong. The Government of India has carried out a detailed hydro-geological, agro-economic, socioeconomic and environmental assessment of basin water transfers and in particular the Ken-Betwa link. It found “the Ken river basin, till Greater Gangau dam, to be water surplus” and proposed 1074 mcm of Ken water be delivered to Betwa through the ILR link, enabling irrigation of around 0.1 mha of land.

Dr Shiva, however, thinks this is “violent” irrigation; the “non-violent” variety would entail construction of village tanks to be “replenished by women who carried water from the river” just like as in the ancient times. There we have it: a fitting riposte to a 5000 km long canal network: an endless Indian file of village women ferrying water on their heads.

But what of the disaster facing India as far as food security is concerned – if not the ILR, what other alternate strategy? “There are many alternatives”, says Dr Shiva. “The first is to conserve water in the soil through organic farming.”

Organic farming to feed 1.6 billion Indians by 2050? Granted, organic farming – despite it requiring 40% more land than conventional farming – has its benefits but to feed a billion hungry mouths one cannot go by rhetoric, one needs indisputable scientific facts and the facts prove otherwise. In a landmark paper in the journal Nature, a team of scientists showed conclusively that organic farming provides up to 34% lower yields than conventional farming. Sunita Narain, another environmentalist, has entered the ring, too. Her argument is that “when one river is in spate so is the next river”.

Meanwhile Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have taken up ILR projects with gusto, with the former having already completed Phase I, the Narmada-Kshipra link.

True: an assessment must be thorough and take heed of every possible grievance. Bihar has a thing or two to teach us in this regard. Its ILR report, detailed and compassionate, should stand as a beacon for protestors and advocates of ILR alike. Moreover, it is the only state that is providing timely updates on the ILR progress, the last being as recent as April 23, 2014.

There is no denying that a project as gigantic as the ILR must, repeat must, take into account environmental and rehabilitation issues – after all, this is a nation whose father once said: Earth provides enough for our need, but not for our greed. But criticism of bipartisan government agencies, of a Supreme Court decision, of global precedence, of committees comprising noted geologists, scientists, environmentalists and engineers, must in the end be based on sound scientific and technical logic, not absolutist scare-mongering or conspiracy theory slugfests. A billion lives are at stake, a billion mouths are to be fed.

There is a time for listening. But to think big, to think clearly and caringly, to think of 2050 and the long run, that time is gone. It is now a time to lead.




Author’s note: Many of the reports and judgments quoted have been abridged for want of space.



This article first appeared in newslaundry on Jun. 09, 2014.

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