Narendra Modi’s government is struggling to implement a potentially environmentally disastrous project to link 30 rivers in India, first proposed almost five decades ago. In a bid to expedite the project, the Ministry of Water Resources has constituted a Task Force chaired by former secretary B.N. Navalawala.
The main mandate of the task force is to build consensus among the various states that remain opposed to the project, claiming they don’t have enough water to divert. It will also propose “a suitable organisational structure for implementing the Interlinking of Rivers,” according to a ministry press release.
The engineering project will involve the construction of a vast network of dams and over 14,000 kilometres of canals to divert water from the water-rich basins of the Ganga and Brahmaputra in eastern India to water scarce basins in western and peninsular India.
Water is an emotive issue in India, a country that depends heavily on the monsoon rains, often giving rise to conflicts between states that share the same rivers.
And with experts predicting that India will face a water deficit of as much as 50% by 2030, states will only grow more reluctant to share their precious water.
Minister for Water Resources Uma Bharti is optimistic she can win their support: “An overwhelming majority of people are in favour of inter-linking of rivers (ILR) in the country,” she wrote in a recent press statement. She also said that the project will help to develop inland waterways in the country.
Gopal Krishna, Convener of the Toxics Watch Alliance, disagrees. “Despite two task forces and thirteen years, the government has not succeeded in getting the states to agree to the project.”
In 2002, India’s Supreme Court formed a task force to ensure detailed project reports were completed by 2006 so construction could start by 2016. The court ruled in favour of the project assuming that there was consensus even though only one state – Tamil Nadu – had filed an affidavit supporting the project.
In February 2012, the Supreme Court directed the government to implement the project in a time-bound manner and asked the centre to appoint a special committee to oversee the project. In its order, the apex court said “by and large, there is unanimity in accepting interlinking of rivers”, while noting the reservation of a few states.
Krishna, who has been tracking the progress of the river interlinking scheme and its grave implications, argues that “the court has been misled”.
He says that seven out of India’s 29 states submitted affidavits in the Supreme Court rejecting the proposal. States like Assam and Sikkim in the north-east and Kerala in the south have raised protests, claiming they have exclusive rights over the use of their water resources.
Only Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu – states that have already exhausted their own water supplies – desperately want the project.
Legal confusion over water rights
According to the Indian Constitution, water resources within a state fall under the purview of the state government, while rivers that flow across various states fall within the purview of the central government. This creates confusion in practice, and various inter-state water disputes have been dragging on in the Supreme Court for decades. Legal experts say it is not very clear if the centre has the right to interlink rivers across different states. Earlier judgements by the Supreme Court indicate that it does have the right to do so, as long as the state governments agree. Since there is no agreement in this case, it is not at all clear what the state governments will do if the apex court does order the project to go ahead. There are indications that at least some state governments may file review petitions.
While the legal situation remains complicated, the independence of a task force made up of officials and bureaucrats has been questioned, said Himanshu Thakkar of the NGO South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). “For a project of this scale, that will have huge environmental implications, they should have experts from across various disciplines like geologists, water experts, environmentalists, sociologists etc.”
Manoj Misra from the NGO Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan added, “All the members are pro- river inter-linking. It is an agenda-driven task force. What kind of fairness can you expect from them?”
Thakkar does not believe the task force will be able to take the project forward. “They have already missed the deadline of ten years. Just forming a task force doesn’t lead to a project. They cannot achieve it by simply convincing the state. They need to convince the people first to give their water.”
Maharashtra and Gujarat have not agreed to share water for the Par-Tapi-Narmada link due to public opposition, even though both states are ruled by the same Bharatiya Janata Party government that holds power at the centre. The link will divert water from Western Ghats in Maharashtra to the arid region of Gujarat along 400 km of canals and seven reservoirs. While both states signed a MoU in 2010, Maharashtra is not willing to move ahead with the project.
Punjab and Haryana have sparred over the Yamuna-Sutlej link, a 214 kilometre long canal. While Haryana has finished its portion of canal, Punjab has taken the issue to the Supreme Court. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal recently ruled out any possibility of moving forward, saying: “Punjab does not have even a single drop of surplus water.”
Punjab, an important agricultural state, has already exhausted its surface water and 80% of the state’s ground water tables are dropping by a metre a year.
Sixteen of the 30 interlinking projects are in the peninsular region, while 14 will be constructed in the Himalayan region, transferring about 170 billion cubic metres of water every year. Apart from this, several other intrastate river linking projects are also in the pipeline.
Environmentalists say the project will alter the natural flow of rivers, cause water-logging, displace millions of people, hamper transportation of silt, affect fisheries and submerge forests and fields.
Activists say the diversion of the Himalayan rivers will reduce water flow downstream in Pakistan and Bangladesh. “How can the government go ahead without getting other countries on board? They will definitely need their permission,” said Thakkar.
What’s more, most of the information and feasibility reports are not in the public domain because trans-boundary rivers of the Himalayas are considered a national security issue.
There is only one link – the Ken-Betwa link – for which the Environment Impact Assessment has been done. The link will transfer surplus water from the Ken river through a canal to the Betwa basin in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
“The project will submerge 4,000 hectares of Panna Tiger reserve. They have not even obtained forest clearance or approval from the National Board of Wildlife,” said Thakkar.
River-linking will worsen Ganga pollution
On the same day Bharti talked about river links, she also called for close coordination with local urban bodies to achieve the goal of the Clean Ganga mission. Experts have pointed out that these two policies are contradictory.
The Ganga, one of the most polluted rivers in the world, desperately needs a regular adequate flow of water to dilute pollutants, if the river is to be cleaned. Experts say that currently 90% of the river water gets diverted for agriculture even before it reaches Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, before it has completed even one-third of its course.
On top of that, if the water from the Ganga is diverted to other rivers basins, Modi’s dream of a clean Ganga will never be realised, environmentalists say.
“This is the worst paradox of the government. On one hand they talk about rejuvenating Ganga and on the other hand they talk about linking the river. The rivers are not pipelines that can be connected,” said Misra.