“Atalji's dream of linking rivers is our dream as well. This can strengthen the efforts of our hardworking farmers,” tweeted Narendra Modi soon after an election campaign speech in Bihar in April.

The river linking project, which the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) calls inter-basin transfer of water, is designed to ease water shortages in western and southern India, while mitigating the impact of recurrent floods in the eastern parts of the Ganga basin.

“One of the most effective ways to increase the irrigation potential to improve foodgrain production, mitigate floods and droughts and reduce regional imbalances in the availability of water is the Inter Basin Water Transfer from surplus rivers to deficit areas. The Brahmaputra and the Ganga, particularly their northern tributaries; the Mahanadi, the Godavari, and the west-flowing rivers originating from the Western Ghats are found to be surplus in water resources,” NWDA says on its Website.

At its completion, the country will have 30 river links, 3,000 storage structures, a canal network stretching almost 15,000 km and can generate 34 GW of hydroelectric power, create some 87 million acres of irrigated land, and transfer 174 trillion litres of water a year. The initial cost of the project is estimated to be at ₹5.6 lakh crore, while around 580,000 people face the threat of displacement.

The plan

Under the National Perspective Plan (NPP) prepared by the Ministry of Water Resources, the NWDA has identified 14 links under the Himalayan Component and 16 links under the Peninsular Rivers Component. Out of these, feasibility reports for 14 links under the Peninsular Component and two links under the Himalayan Component have been prepared.

According to the NPP, the Himalayan Rivers Development Project envisages construction of storage reservoirs on the main Ganga and the Brahmaputra and their principal tributaries in India and Nepal, along with an inter-linking canal system to transfer surplus flow of the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the West. It will also link the main Brahmaputra with the Ganga.

The Peninsular Rivers Development Component is divided into four major parts: interlinking of Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Cauvery rivers and building storages at potential sites in these basins, interlinking West-flowing rivers north of Mumbai and south of the Tapi, interlinking of Ken-Chambal, and diversion of other West-flowing rivers.

Bringing States on board

To implement the project successfully, the Government will have to convince States to come on board, as water is a State subject.

Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Puducherry, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh are the major States to benefit from the project. Several States have supported the plan, while some others have raised concerns. Chief Ministers of both Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have been urging the Centre to take up the 14 links under the peninsular component. Kerala, however, is worried about the proposed Pamba-Achankovil-Vaippar link.

The first steps

One of the initial tasks before the Government is to address the Supreme Court verdict of February 2014 on the interlinking of rivers. The court had directed the Government to create an appropriate body to plan, construct, and implement the massive project, starting with the Ken-Betwa link.

The two phases of the Ken-Betwa link project, involving Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, are estimated to cost ₹11,676 crore. A detailed project report for both the phases has been submitted to the two State Governments. According to this report, a total of 11,723 ha of land could be submerged if this project is executed. This includes more than 5,000 ha of forest land belonging to the Panna Tiger Reserve. It will also affect 10,163 people belonging to 2,529 families in 22 villages.

“Together, both the phases of the Ken-Betwa Link project envisage 7.35 lakh ha of irrigation, 78 MW of hydropower and would provide drinking water to 15.07 lakh people,” said S Masood Husain, Director-General, NWDA. Other priority links are Parbati-Kalisindh-Chambal, Damanganga-Pinjal, Par-Tapi-Narmada, and Godavari (Polavaram)-Krishna (Vijayawada).

Of these, the detailed report for the Damanganga-Pinjal link is ready with the Centre. The report has already been submitted to the Governments of Maharashtra and Gujarat. “If implemented, this project can address Mumbai’s water problem to a great extent at least till 2040,” Husain added.

The downside to linking

However, the projects have already invited criticism from various political parties. In fact, those who were evicted for the construction of the Bhakra and the Pong dams, two of the oldest in India, have still not been fully rehabilitated.

“Environmentalists, hydrologists and economists around the world have expressed deep concerns at the irreversible damage that this sort of a mega project can do to the country’s environment and our water resources. Massive civil works will be involved, lakhs of people will be uprooted and vast sums of money will be required,” Congress leader and MP Karan Singh said.

The CPI (M) has also questioned the move. The party’s MP KN Balagopal said the Central Government’s plan is politically-motivated, giving the example of theParambikkulam-Aliayar project (in Kerala).” Farmers of Palakkad district have to hold protests during the crop season to get water from the project released. The proposed Pamba-Achankovil-Vaippar link will be a disaster for a riparian zone like Kerala, he says.

Failed attempts

The Government defends the project, saying the idea of river-linking is not new in India. In 1972, then Union Irrigation Minister KL Rao mooted the first major proposal to interlink the water basins. The 2,640-km-long Ganga-Cauvery link was the main component in the proposal. But Rao’s estimate of ₹12,500 crore was considered “grossly under-estimated and economically prohibitive.” In 1977, during the Moraji Desai Government, Captain Dinshaw J Dastur, an engineer, proposed the construction of two canals – the first for the Himalayan rivers and the second to cover the central and southern parts. A host of experts opined that his project was infeasible.

However, both the Government and the NWDA are now confident of implementing the project at the national level. The NWDA lists a number of initiatives such as the Periyar Project, the Parambikulam-Aliyar, Kurnool-Cudappah Canal, the Telugu Ganga Project, and the Ravi-Beas-Sutlej-Indira Gandhi Nahar Project as examples of successful execution of river linking.

“If we can build storage reservoirs on these (surplus) 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, and navigational facilities would accrue,” it adds.