“The government will not proceed with interlinking of rivers if environmental consequences are adverse,” Uma Bharti, Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, said at the conclusion of the 2014 India Rivers Week in New Delhi on Thursday.
As water activists from around the country wound up their four-day conference, the minister said, “If we want to save our rivers, the first step is to ensure that no untreated effluent or sewage is mixed with treated water and finds its way into our rivers.”
Independent experts have repeatedly slammed the river interlinking project, which has been a dream project of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party for many years now. Speaking on the issue, Bharti assured that strict environmental regulations would be enforced while taking up the project. “River based projects may be a painful choice, but we cannot close our doors to it as it yields rich dividends for the people,” she held.
The minister assured delegates that minimum environmental flows would be maintained in all rivers. A task force has been set up to “understand the ecological and environmental consequences of interlinking rivers,” she added.
Manoj Misra, of the NGO Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan and member of the India Rivers Week organising committee, cautioned the minister not to proceed with the project in a hurry, “given its adverse social and ecological consequences.”
The inaugural India Rivers Week saw a confluence of water activists discussing sustainable use of rivers. Anupam Mishra of the Gandhi Peace Foundation spoke of his decades-long efforts to revitalise traditional water harvesting systems while he protested “gigantic and destructive schemes like interlinking of rivers.”
One of the activists honoured at the conference was Akhil Gogoi of the Assam-based Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, an organisation that has been protesting hydroelectricity projects in the Brahmaputra basin, specifically the Subansiri II project that has been stalled for the last three years. The Subansiri River is one of the principal tributaries of the Brahmaputra.
Speaking on behalf of Campaigns for protection or rejuvenation of rivers, K.K. Chatradhara said, “River rejuvenation should be looked at from a holistic perspective – from source to sea. A cumulative impact assessment including downstream impact assessment should be done before taking up any new project. That should require consultations with and consent of Gram Sabha (village council) and local panchayat raj institutions. Local community people should be involved in discussions and decision making processes at all levels.”
Prita Dhar of the group Good Legal Interventions and Secured Rivers also stressed the need to involve local communities and local government institutions in all aspects of river use planning. Activists should go to court if government agencies failed to do this, she suggested.
Delegates at the conference saw this event as the first step towards devising a national charter for rivers and promoting a national forum for the restoration of rivers.