The contentious inter-linking of rivers (ILR) project looks set to be revived after the linking of the Ken and Betwa rivers has reportedly made its way back into the Union Cabinet’s agenda. The ILR project was launched with much fanfare by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 but pushed to the back-burner by a wary UPA following ecological and feasibility concerns. In 2011, then environment minister Jairam Ramesh shot down the Rs9,000 crore Ken-Betwa project as “disastrous” as it would submerge nearly 8,000 acres of forest land including a part of the Panna National Park. But the ILR project received an unexpected boost when the Supreme Court in February 2012 concluded it was in national interest and directed the Centre to set up an executive committee to “implement” 30 ILR projects in a time-bound manner. The court relied on a National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) report on the economic impact of the ILR project which predicted an increase in irrigated area and consequent increase in foodgrains production, drought mitigation, flood control, and direct and indirect employment generation.
The judiciary’s technical expertise in concluding that the ILR project was feasible came into question but the court rejected a review petition filed by eminent citizens and environmentalists who criticised the judgment. In May 2013, the water resources ministry set up the Special Committee for Interlinking of Rivers as directed by the SC but till date not one state has responded with comments on the NCAER report. The absence of debate in government circles before undertaking such gargantuan projects is worrying. Till date, detailed project reports of only three out of the 30 ILRs have been drawn up and an initial estimate pegs the total cost at Rs5.6 lakh crore. The Supreme Court did not study the engineering challenges of the ILR project, the massive displacement of people, submergence and destruction of forests, or implications on riverine flows.
The full ILR project — involving the connection of the Himalayan and Peninsular river systems — to divert water from the eastern part of the country to the water-starved peninsular southern and western parts, however well-intentioned, is laden with spectacular challenges. Peninsular India is at a higher altitude compared to the Indo-Gangetic plain. Big dams have displaced an estimated 50 million people in post-Independent India. Most river-basins are located in ecologically fragile forest lands and inter-basin water transfer would require digging canals and drilling tunnels through ecological hotspots. Water availability in rivers varies from year to year and the drying up of rivers in their downstream courses has been attributed more to upstream dams than consumption by people located along its banks.
One of the country’s few river diversion projects, the Parambikulam Aliyar Project (PAP) agreement, caused the once-perennial Bharathapuzha river in Kerala to dry up after waters of its tributaries, Aliyar and Palar rivers, were diverted to feed rain-starved Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu and agricultural areas in both states. But the Ravi-Beas-Sutlej link has benefitted Punjab’s agrarian boom and the desertified areas of Rajasthan through irrigation and canal systems like the Indira Gandhi canal. But unless the overall and project-wise ecological costs can be evaluated, the government must hold off on inter-linking rivers. Better sense would be to focus more attention on localised, safer, cheaper and non-disruptive methods to conserve rain and ground water.