India File

Can interlinking rivers make this history?

M Ramesh | Updated on January 23, 2018 Published on October 26, 2015

Happier days: A farmer in Sakhi village of Gharsana district in Rajasthan, which became water surplus because of the Indira Gandhi Canal. - Photo: RAJEEV BHATT

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The gargantuan project, which will add 3,000 dams, promises to make India drought-free and water secure. But questions are many, writes M Ramesh

Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton would have been happy. The British irrigation engineer had mooted the idea of interlinking rivers across India in 1858. Now more than 150 years later, that idea is taking shape.

On September 22, the State Wildlife Board of Madhya Pradesh, gave the thumbs-up to the project that will link the Ken and the Betwa rivers in the state, the first of India’s interlinking of rivers (ILR) programme. Now the project awaits a formal wave of hand by Prakash Javadekar, Union Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change. Few expect any delay there. After all, Javadekar’s boss, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wants the project. Within a year, the first spades and shovels will hit the ground.

 The BJP-led NDA taking over the reins at New Delhi in May 2014, has been epochal for the programme. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ phases are palpably distinct. In February 2012, the Supreme Court, disposed of a Public Interest Litigation on the ILR, effervescently backing the programme. The three judges – one of them the Chief Justice of India – expressed “pious hope of speedy implementation” and told the central and state governments to “comply with the directions contained in this judgment effectively and expeditiously and without default.”

The Apex Court directed the Government of India to constitute a Special Committee on interlinking of rivers to oversee implementation. But even after two years, no committee was set up.

 Then came the Modi Government in May 2014. Just a month later, on July 16, a note was put up before the Cabinet for the constitution of the Special Committee. It was approved within a week. The committee, chaired by Uma Bharti, Minister for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, came into being on September 23. It has since met five times.

Four sub committees have been set up—on evaluation of various studies, alternative plans for various links, consensus building with states and strengthening of National Water Development Authority (NWDA) - the government body tasked with preparing technical reports on water project.

A task force has been set up under the Chairmanship of BN Navaliwala to suggest ways to fast-track projects, coming up with Plan Bs and means to convince states that are still not on board.

Meanwhile, in December 2014, two public hearings with respect to the ₹10,000-crore Ken-Betwa link—which involves building two dams and a 231-km-canal—were completed. The recently in news Godavari-Krishna link is an interim arrangement, where pumps are used to lift water. The project is complete only when a dam is built and the water flows by gravity.

The 150-year-old idea is now closer to reality.

Big numbers

 The ILR is a gargantuan programme. Today, India has 5,100 large dams (of 15 metres and above); the ILR wants to build 3,000 more. China, by the way, has 22,000 dams. The capacity of the country’s hydro power (excluding the small ones) adds up to 42,300 MW; the ILR intends to add 35,000 MW. About 15,000 km of new canals will be built.

 The programme has been envisaged in two components—the Himalayan rivers with 14 links and the Peninsular rivers with 16. The idea is to cut canals between two rivers and let water flow from one to the other. Water doesn’t always flow as one wishes, so a dam is built at the ‘from’ end to raise the level and then let gravity take over. Thus, a system of dams and canals will create water grids in the northern and southern parts of India.

Of the 30 links, only nine are independent, and the rest depend upon the others. For instance, linking the Krishna with the Pennar in Andhra Pradesh depends on the Godavari waters flowing to the Krishna; which in turn leans on Godavari getting some from the Mahanadi in Odisha.

Masood Husain, Director-General of the NWDA, cautions that the ILR ought to be viewed as 30 individual projects, each different from the rest in terms of profile and complexity. If all the 30 links are built, the ILR would be the biggest water infrastructure project in the world. The Himalayan component will move 33 cubic kilometres of water every year, the peninsular component 141, which will be enough to meet water requirement of 100 Mumbais in a year.

An obvious choice?

 For many of its backers, the ILR is an idea whose time has come. By 2050, there will be 600 million more Indians who will demand their share of water and food. But by then, the per capita availability of water is projected to fall to dangerous levels, from the present 1,545 cubic meters. Even now, about 220 million Indians have access to less than the minimum level of 1,000 cubic metres, indicating severe stress.

Apart from solving this problem, the ILR promises to irrigate an area more than twice the size of Andhra Pradesh. It can even out floods and droughts in a country where a third of the area is drought-prone and another eighth is flood-prone, observes the Water Ministry’s National Perspective Plan.

And, India needs to add hydro power. At the forthcoming Paris conference on climate, the Indian Government plans to commit that by 2030, non-fossil fuel based power will form 40 per cent of the total capacity.

But the ILR's detractors are not convinced. The most vociferous of them was Ramasamy Iyer, a former Secretary in the Ministry of Water Resources.

He once said that a river was not a bundle of pipes that could be cut, turned and welded at will and that the ILR represented “technological hubris, promethean madness.” Iyer campaigned against the programme till his death, a few months ago.

But ILR’s backers point out that water transfer projects have been done for centuries. India has about 5,000 km of canals. NWDA's Husain points out that there are ten inter-basin water transfer systems operating successfully in India. The oft-quoted example is the Indira Gandhi Canal, which transports water from the Beas and the Sutlej, to the deserts of Rajasthan, 650 km south. The Canal has turned Rajasthan into a water-surplus state. Or, the 796-km Buckingham Canal along the eastern coast, built by the British in the 19{+t}{+h} century—a part of it runs in the city of Chennai, unfortunately, as a sewer.

Other countries have done this too. Apart from the US and China, Pakistan has a few exemplary projects. A 2008 report on Economic Impact of ILR by the National Council for Applied Economic Research, notes that Pakistan built ten river links in 1960-70.

It observes that if Pakistan can manage to complete the interlinking of its rivers in 10 years, it should not be difficult for India. “Much of these criticisms of the ILR projects is based on fears, apprehensions and pre-conceived notions,” says Husain. “Very little criticism is coming up based on scientific study or report,” he adds.

This rang true when BusinessLine spoke to those opposing the ILR, and none of them called for the scrapping of the programme. They either counselled caution, or said 'let's examine the alternatives first.'  Former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, who rejected the Ken-Betwa link project during his tenure, said he was okay with ILR “wherever it makes sense”, only it “cannot be an article of faith”. He considers the Ken-Betwa project tan “environmental disaster”.

Environmental concerns

Sushmita Sengupta of the Centre for Science and Technology, a green think-tank, says, “We are only worried about the environmental impact.”  She raised issues such as protection of flora and fauna and the dumping of the silt dredged out of dams. Sengupta fears that in some areas the rise in ground water itself may affect agriculture.

Biksham Gujja, who has been associated with the World Commission on Dams and World Water Forum, notes that water infrastructure projects “have become money spinners” and many are “being pushed by different lobbies for entirely different end results”. He says it is possible to meet water needs with better management. “If some links are needed, and are the least damaging, certainly they can be taken up,” he says, observing that at present, projects are evaluated like a “ritual”.

Environment expert R Nagendran is concerned about the water surplus assessments—surplus of today may not be there tomorrow if development catches up. Any committed water transfer could put the ‘surplus today’ region under stress. 

Proponents of the ILR say that if there are lapses in implementation, there are forums where complaints could be made. “It is do-able,” says Mukuteswara Gopalakrishnan, a former Member of the Central Water Commission and a member of the Navalawala Task Force. “This is a programme the country needs.”

Convincing states

Government officials say the two big issues are getting states governments on board, and resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R).  “No state government will want to agree it is water surplus,” notes Husain.

Odisha does not want to transfer the Mahanadi’s waters to Godavari. Biksham Gujja, water expert, puts Odisha’s reluctance in a perspective: “(If) Odisha state does not use its water resources to the fullest advantage today, it does not mean it will not require water in the future.” Odisha is also concerned about the submergence of lands due to the proposed Manibhadra dam.

Heeding to the concern, the Navalawala task force is drafting an alternative link. The Mahanadi-Godavari link is a crucial one—eight other links, further south, depend upon it.

“Odisha is being brought on board with adequate studies on feasible alternatives,” says Navalawala. There is also a suggestion to convince states such as Odisha by offering them financial packages, which could help the politicians sell the projects to the people.

The other prickly issue is the R&R. The ILR is likely to displace at least six lakh people. With the poor track record of projects such as Sardar Sarovar Dam and Tehri Dam, the fear is not without a reason. The Tehri project exposed affected people to many unforeseen difficulties. The submergence of the Old Tehri town killed the nerve-centre of economic activity. Consequently, even if the affected people were resettled, their rehabilitation was not complete. Their access to raw materials, markets and services such as education went haywire.

However, officials, who do not wish to be named, say that times have changed. In the last 50 years, when 16.4 million people were displaced due to dam construction, lessons have been learnt. Today, there is a system, a much more vibrant and vigilant civil society, and a new law.

The new Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013, provides more secutiry. Each project will have an Administrator of Rehabilitation to oversee the process. He will report to a Rehabilitation Commissioner that each state would appoint. The Act specifies the manner in which compensations are to be calculated.

And money won’t be a problem. The R&R spend for the Ken-Betwa project is ₹1,258 crore for 1,913 affected families, or ₹66 lakh a family. (For Tehri, it was ₹8.2 lakh, at 2004 prices.) It is not that each family will get ₹66 lakh in cash— it will be spent on compensation, creation of alternative sites and training. Government sources also point out that the river link projects offer enormous scope for employment. The Ken-Betwa project will employ 5,000 people.

Model project

The Ken-Betwa project has been touted as a ‘model project’ by Water Minister Uma Bharati for its extreme attention to detail on environment management. The project’s total spend for environment management plan is ₹5,065 crore, including the R&R expenses. The Environment Impact Assessment and Environment Management Plan (EMP) is a 1,018-page document that looks at every aspect of environment management in granular detail.

Many, including Jairam Ramesh, have voiced concern about the Panna Tiger Reserve’s submergence due to the Daudhan dam , which is part of the project. The EMP says only 7.6 per cent of the park will go under water. Still, some 8,000 hectares of additional space will to be created for the 37 tigers in residence today. A sum of ₹12 crore will be spent for the tigers.

Will the ‘model project’ make it easy for others to follow? The next in line is the Damanganga-Pinjal link project in Maharashtra and Gujarat, which is expected to assure Mumbai of drinking water supply till 2060. Another is the Par-Tapi-Narmada link project.

In 2007, three experts from the International Water Management Institute – Tushaar Shah, Upali Amarasinghe and Peter McCornick – said in a paper that India’s ILR was perhaps a decade too early. They cited seven factors, such as economic growth, demand for drinking water and improved R&R, which in a decade would “make a compelling case” for the ILR. Almost a decade has passed. Amarasinghe now says that even if all the seven tipping factors are in place, the ILR is too “lavish” for an economy of India’s size. But Modi and his team look determined to make it happen.

A lot will depend on the Ken-Betwa project.

Published on October 26, 2015
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