Most environmentalists around India heaved a sigh of relief on Friday when Pranab Mukherjee, the country’s Finance Minister, did not say a word about the plan to interlink India’s rivers, nor allocate any money for that purpose. There had been fears that the ill-conceived, potentially catastrophic and long-buried scheme may get a new lease of life, thanks to a recent Supreme Court judgement asking the government to interlink India’s rivers.

The mega plan to interlink 30 rivers around India has been on the drawing board at least since 1980, and was a particular favourite of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a former Prime Minister who is from the Bharatiya Janata Party. So it was expected that the Congress Party, now in power, would not support the scheme. But still, the judgement by a three-judge bench presided over by Chief Justice of India S.H. Kapadia had created apprehension. Now the environmentalists think they can rest easy for at least a year.

The highly ambitious but controversial plan seeks to transfer water from surplus to deficit areas in the country, and irrigate 35 million hectares, as well as generate 34,000 megawatts of hydropower and improve flood control. In the 27 February judgement, the judges said they hoped for “speedy implementation” of the project.

Environmentalists have been opposing the project for decades because it plans to tamper with the natural drainage and water flow pattern of large parts of India, and the country’s experience with similar but far smaller schemes has been largely catastrophic in the long run. The floodwaters that devastate one of the most fertile parts of the country year after year, in the northern part of the state of Bihar, take months to drain out because the natural slope of the region has been altered by ill-planned construction of irrigation canals. Today, in most of the region, canals and rivers actually flow above the level of the surrounding land, so that the water has nowhere to go when the canals and rivers overflow. Many environmentalists fear a similar situation if the river interlinking project is implemented anywhere.

Proponents of the project, who went to the court to force the government into implementing it, say that the project cost is negligible when compared to the potential benefits. But many environmentalists have pointed out that there is no true estimate of the project cost. A decade ago, the direct cost was estimated at 5600 billion Indian rupees ($ 112 billion). Of the 30 projects proposed under the plan, only one has a detailed project report – the plan to interlink Ken and Betwa rivers, both near the centre of the country. Environmentalists point out that there has been no valuation of the many ecosystem services provided by these rivers today – providing irrigation water, fisheries, supporting aquatic life, providing drinking water during the dry months and so on – in the project report. Nor is there any plan to do so for any of the other 29 projects. Environmental economists assert that all the projects would prove unviable if the services provided by the rivers to the ecosystems today were taken into account, as they should be. So far, India’s environment ministry has refused to clear the Ken-Betwa proposal. The plan will lead to submergence of 8,650 hectares of forests, parts of which are in the Panna National Park, a protected area. Despite this, the Supreme Court in its judgement said the Ken-Betwa project should be taken up on priority.

The idea to interlink India’s rivers dates back to the nineteenth century, but it gathered steam in 1980, with what was called a “national perspective plan for optimum utilisation of the country’s water resources”. In 1982, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) was formed and was tasked with the interlinking project, dividing it into two main components, one for peninsular India in the south with 16 schemes, and the second for the Indo-Gangetic plains, with most of its big rivers flowing down from the Himalayas.

In its judgement, the Supreme Court did say that the scheme must finally be decided upon by experts. The judges pointed out that the court could not make a policy decision, because “such an attempt may amount to the court sitting in judgement over the opinions of the experts, without any tools and expertise at its disposal.” And they also referred to the fact that many state government are opposed to the scheme, though they wrote in their judgement, “We see no reason why any state should lag behind in contributing its bit to bring the interlinking river programme 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.” But that is exactly the assumption that the environmentalists question.

Criticizing the judgement, Himanshu Thakkar, convener of the NGO South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People, said, “It is not the mandate of the Supreme Court to tell the government which project to take up or expedite.” Thakkar is the civil society representative in a court-appointed committee to look into the project.India’s Supreme Court is known for its ‘green’ activism, so environmentalists cannot understand why it chose to take up this case in the first place. During arguments for another case, a lawyer made a reference to this scheme and said India’s former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam had called for a network of rivers to deal with floods and droughts. Hearing this, the Supreme Court directed that this be taken up as an independent writ petition, and in 2002 a notice was issued to all state governments. Only one of the 30 state governments in India responded, and this was taken as assent. The one state government that did respond, that from Tamil Nadu in southern India, favoured the project. No major river originates in the state, and it is in perpetual battle with neighbouring states over water sharing. Though other states did not file any affidavit in the Supreme Court, three of them – Assam, Sikkim and Kerala – have opposed it in public. Given the situation, the central government has not been able to even carry out surveys for the project, especially since water is a state subject under the Indian constitution.

India’s downstream neighbour Bangladesh is also strongly against the project as it fears reduced water flows in its rivers, especially in the dry season that extends from October to May in South Asia. When India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka last September, the NGO Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon gave a memorandum to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. It expressed concern that if the river interlinking plan was implemented, the flows of the Brahmaputra and the Ganges would be redirected towards the southern and western parts of India, depriving Bangladesh of water.

Experts in Bangladesh carried out a study five years ago to understand the impact of the Indian project and said around 30,000 square kilometres in Khulna and Barisal divisions and parts of Rajshahi and Dhaka divisions would be severely affected by reduced water flows and consequent salinity in the rivers. “A large population in the country will be devastated due to lack of sweet water,” said M Inamul Haque, chairman of the NGO Water and Environment.

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