One of the biggest announcements made in Budget 2022-23 is the implementation of the Ken-Betwa Link Project with an estimated cost of ₹44,605 crore. This river link is expected to create 9.08 lakh hectares of irrigated area, drinking water for 62 lakh people, 103 MW hydro and 27 MW of solar-power.

Further, the Finance Minister also announced that “Draft DPRs of five river links, namely Damanganga-Pinjal, Par-Tapi-Narmada, Godavari-Krishna, Krishna-Pennar and Pennar-Cauvery have been finalised. Once a consensus is reached among the beneficiary States, the Centre will provide support for implementation”. With this announcement, the river linking projects have now got a fillip after many years.

The Ken-Betwa Link project proposes to transfer water from the Ken river to the Betwa river, — both tributaries of Yamuna. With a 2-km long tunnel, this link project will have a total of 221 km long canals. The water-starved Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh covering a total 13 districts will primarily benefit from this project. Why do these rivers need to be linked? What will be the benefits of RLP?

The benefits

The RLP involves the process of diverting surplus river water through a network of canals to water-starved areas either within or outside a State. The proposal for interlinking of rivers in India has its conceptual root in similar proposals made by Sir Arthur Cotton and K.L. Rao during the nineteenth century. The proposal to interlink rivers gathered momentum when the Ministry of Water Resources formulated a national perspective plan (NPP) for optimum utilisation of the country’s water resources during the 1980s.

This ambitious plan of linking of the rivers received a huge boost when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister. Under the NPP, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) identified 14 river links in northern Himalayan river development component and 16 in southern peninsular river development component for inter-basin transfer of water.

What will be benefits of RLP? Water forms an integral part of human livelihood and survival. Water is also vital in increasing cropping intensity and the yield of crops two-three times more than that of rainfed areas.

India heavily relies on the monsoon for its water needs, so much so that one bad monsoon can ruin the entire year’s agricultural output and the economy. The country receives most of its annual rainfall during the four months from June to September, but the quantum of rain varies widely across States. The RLP will balance the uneven water flow in different river basins, which otherwise flows wastefully into sea.

The diversion of water from surplus to water-starved area will ensure food security, resulting in poverty reduction. As per the projection of the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development (1999), the country will require about 450 million tonnes of foodgrains a year to feed 1.50 billion population in the year 2050. To meet this, the country needs to expand its irrigated area to 160 million hectares by 2050, but the growth of canal irrigated area has not been significant in recent years due to various reasons (see Figure 1).

Besides, floods are a recurring feature particularly in the large parts of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin affecting the States of Assam, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. On the other extreme, a number of Western (Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan) and Peninsular States (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu) face recurring droughts. Particularly, the water situation is severe in Tamil Nadu.

The National River Linking Project (NRLP) proposes to transfer the excess flood water from the States to the water scarce regions. It claims to provide additional irrigation to about 35 million hectares in the water scarce western and peninsular regions. This will further augment employment, crop output and farm income.

With competing demand from agriculture, industry and energy, availability of drinking water is already under severe stress. As per the report on ‘Composite Water Management Index’ published by the NITI Aayog (2018), “600 million Indians face high to extreme water stress and about two lakh people die every year due to inadequate access to safe water”. Besides alleviating the water crisis, the NRLP is expected to generate about 34 giga watt additional hydropower.

The concerns

The notion of interlinking of rivers has generated intense debate. Though it is believed that RLP is the one-stop solution to prevent floods and droughts, reduce water scarcity, increase irrigation coverage and foodgrain production, some argue that it is just another extravagant scheme involving huge costs.

A few environmentalists and hydrologists have said that RLP can do irreversible damage; the large network of dams and canals will alter the natural drainage leading to flooding; vast tracts of lands will submerge leading to displacement of innumerable people.

Some argue that surplus water should not be diverted from a river on a large scale as the excess water is necessary to keep river basins healthy as it percolates down to the soil, recharges groundwater, etc. Though the environment versus development debate continues, environmentalists must understand that no developmental programme can bring 100 per cent Pareto optimality.

Is there any project constructed in the world without damaging the environment? What is necessary is to compare the costs with potential benefits before rejecting it out rightly.

RLP appears to be an effective solution for addressing the problems of water scarcity, poverty and flood. However, before implementing the proposal on a large scale, a sound scientific and technical assessment of the proposal needs to be undertaken in order to make it techno-economically feasible.

There may be a concern over the sharing of a scarce resourc; this could also be one of the main reasons for States not willing to share their surplus water with other States. This should be addressed comprehensively. If the water-surplus region supplies water to the water deficit region, then the former needs to be adequately compensated by monetary incentives and other means so that the States would be willing to share the surplus water with their deficit counterparts.

Be that as it may, since the severe water scarcity is already looming in most parts of the country, swift action is needed to link the rivers wherever possible jointly by the Centre and States to strengthen the water and food security, without creating an ecological disaster.

The writer is Senior Professor and Head Department of Economics and Rural Development, Alagappa University, Karaikudi