Interlinking Rivers: More Than Meets The Eye

AT various points of time, suggestions have been made for transferring water from flood prone areas to those facing droughts. The first and perhaps the most well known one was Dr K L Rao’s Ganga-Cauvery link and his proposal for a National Water Grid to meet this objective. Captain’s Dastur’s Garland canal though not taken seriously by the professional community, was another such scheme. The recent Supreme Court directive to the government asking it to implement the scheme of interlinking rivers is a revival of these ideas. The NDA government has received enthusiastically this directive and has set up a Task Force headed by Suresh Prabhu, the former minister of power for this purpose. It is being computed that a sum of Rs 5,60,000 crore would be required over the next 15 years to meet the objective of interlinking Indian rivers.

The immediate context for reviving the idea of interlinking of the Indian rivers is the bitter and almost intractable dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for sharing of Cauvery waters. In the absence of a solution that would satisfy both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the demand of transfer of water to Cauvery from some other river is perceived to be the only long-term solution to this dispute. Not surprisingly, Tamil Nadu has seen a large amount of support for such a scheme, including Rajnikant, the film actor donating Rs 1 crore for this project.

The disturbing aspect of the interlinking of river proposals is the unseemly haste with which the government is proceeding, drawing up even a timetable for implementation without any consensus on this from the concerned states. For a government that is unable to solve a water dispute between two states, to proceed with a predetermined timetable for river water sharing scheme not only between all the states in the country, but also involving Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan is either foolhardy or an eyewash. The attempt may be to try and win support from water deficit states for a limited electoral purpose with the full knowledge that such a scheme is unworkable and will only remain on paper. In the process, a host of issues involving water resources such as principles of sharing water, cost benefits of inter basin transfers, ecological impact, etc, are all being swept under the carpet.

Legal And Political Implications

Before we look into the mechanics of linking rivers, let us examine the legal and political implications of such linking. Linking of rivers means transferring water from one river system (or river basin) to another. It presupposes that there is surplus water in this river basin that can therefore be transferred. However, while the principles on the basis of which riparian states can share water have been established over time internationally and in the various agreements between states, the transfer of river water from a surplus basin to a deficit one has no such agreed principles. The states that are not riparian are assumed to have no claims to the water of the rivers. Therefore a transfer of water from one basin to another can be done only by mutual consent and a commercial agreement by which the state (or country) that receives water pays the donor state a certain amount. Any other basis is bound to be unacceptable as no state is likely to transfer water to another foregoing possible future use of such water.

The second politico-legal part of the problem is that water is a state subject and the massive water grid that is being proposed will immediately throw up the question who will control this water. In this context the dangerous proposition that is being floated is that the rivers should be nationalised and the control of the water grid should rest with the centre. Apart from encroaching on power of the states and the consequent centralization of the Indian state, it also has other dangerous implications. It would imply that the rivers do not belong to the communities that live on its shores but belongs to a centralised Indian state to do with it as it deems fit. At one stroke, all the riparian states and other riverside communities would lose all their rights to the rivers. With privatisation of water being advocated around the world, the rights to water could then pass from the communities to water multinationals via the Indian state. This is not far-fetched proposition as rivers and lakes are being privatised around the world: the process is already on.

Brahmaputra Ganga – Link

The interlinking of rivers have two components: the Himalayan component and a Peninsular one. The Himalayan component envisages construction of reservoirs on the principal tributaries of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra in India and Nepal, along with transfer of water from the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the west, apart from linking the Brahmaputra to the Ganga and the Ganga to the Mahanadi. The Peninsular component consists of inter linking of the Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Penna-Cauvery, diversion of the west flowing rivers of Kerala and Karnataka to the east, interlinking the west flowing rivers north of Mumbai and south of Tapi and interlinking river Ken with Chambal. All interlinking schemes obviously are for the purpose of transferring water from one river system to another, aided by either gravity flows (tunnelling through mountains) or by lifting across natural barriers.

The above links are meant to carry water from surplus areas to deficit ones. There are two areas where we have a surplus of water – the Bramhaputra-Meghna system and the Western Ghats where the rivers carry much of the annual precipitation into the Arabian Sea. The proposal to divert west flowing rivers in Kerala and Karnataka is meant to use the water that would otherwise flow into the Arabian Sea.

The Brahmaputra valley is certainly surplus in water and floods annually creating a perennial problem. The proposal is to connect the Brahmaputra to the Ganga upstream of Farakka to meet the needs of Bangladesh and West Bengal. Unless the Ganga flow can be augmented, India is bound by its agreement with Bangladesh not to disturb the flow into Bangladesh of the Ganga.

The Brahmaputra-Ganga link has two possible alignments, one of which is through Bangladesh and the other passing entirely through Indian territory (the Siliguri chicken neck). Bangladesh has already rejected the proposal for linking Brahmaputra through Bangladesh. The other alignment through Siliguri involves large-scale lifting of water and does not appear to be economically viable. Thus both the proposed links have serious problems without addressing which the interlinking of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra is not possible.

Let us then look at the picture of inter river basin transfers without the Brahmaputra-Ganga link. There is little doubt that states in the Gangetic basin are unlikely to agree that they have surplus water. Bihar has always argued that its water needs have not been met from the Ganga system. Punjab has already objected to the interlinking of rivers and had earlier objected to Rajasthan as a non-riparian state being given water from the Indus river system. Thus the entire north Indian component of the river interlinking, which envisages transfer of water from the eastern rivers to the western ones would fall through unless we are able to transfer water from the Brahmaputra. This is not surprising as the only basin that is really surplus of water is the Brahmaputra.

Penninsular River Interlinking

The peninsular river interlinking has two components – one of interlinking the peninsular rivers themselves and the other is linking the Ganga to the peninsular rivers. The National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan (NCIWRDP) had examined this issue and had suggested that of all the peninsular basins, only the Cauvery and the Vaigai basins had a shortage of water. They had suggested transferring “surplus” water from Mahanadi and Godavari to meet the deficit of Cauvery and Vaigai basins.

The issue here is that both Orissa and Andhra are united in their opinion that Mahanadi and Godavari have no surplus water for such transfers. If we cannot convince Karnataka of the need of a riparian state Tamil Nadu for water, we can well imagine the problem of persuading Orissa of the same for a non-riparian state. Here also, the crucial question – to persuade Orissa and Andhra — would then rest on the ability to transfer water from the Ganga to the Mahanadi and from the Mahanadi to the Godavari. We are again back to the question of surplus water in the Ganga system, without which the grand scheme of interlinking Indian rivers would be a mirage.

In addition to negotiating between Indian states and also with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan would also need to be involved. A large part of the Himalayan component consists of transferring water from the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the western part of the country and storage of water in Nepal and Bhutan.

The Real Motive

Why is the NDA government tom-toming the interlinking of rivers when the pitfalls of this are so well known? Apart from the physical need of meeting drought, there is an ongoing campaign of reviving the “Sacred” Swaraswati and bringing holy Ganga water to the south. A visit to Hindutava sites would show the kind of campaign that is going on with regard to the river interlinking project. In addition, the huge investment of Rs 5,60,000 crore that would be needed is an obvious inducement to those who are interested in putting their hands in the till. Such an infusion of money would have many beneficiaries; already NRI’s close to Agnihotri, from the Friends-of-BJP to roving ambassador in the US, are mobilising “support” for helping the interlinking of rivers scheme. At the end of the day, the only beneficiaries of such a scheme would be the contractors and consultants, with precious little water reaching the target population.

Of course meeting water needs of arid areas in the country is extremely important. The question here is how such needs can be met. Already, the money required to complete ongoing and spill over projects is Rs 70,000 crore in the Tenth Plan and another Rs 110,000 crore in the Eleventh Plan. When we are unable to allocate these amounts for schemes that have been fully examined and accepted, why are we thinking of investing another Rs 5,60,000 Crore for schemes that have yet to be fully understood and for which the necessary agreements are yet to be put in place? River valley agreements take a long time, and one similar agreement between Canada and US took more than 20 years! The government claims that not only can agreements for which the negotiations have yet to start can be completed within a short period but also even the projects can be completed in the next 15 years. If this is not a delusion we do not know what it is.

Need For Cost-Benefit Analysis

We have not dealt with ecological and other implications of such large-scale transfer of waters between different river basins. However, there can be no universal position against or in favour of such transfer. Every hydrological system is unique and so are all transfers between them. Unless details are available of the nature and amount of transfers and its costs, a blanket opposition (or support) would neither be scientific nor rational. As natural barriers separate basins, transfers involve either tunnelling through mountains or high lifts, both of which are expensive. However, there are cases where this has been done with beneficial results. The key question here would be the costs of such a scheme against the projected benefits as also the long-term impact on the environment.

Before we surrender to the grand vision of interlinking all the rivers in the country, we need therefore a detailed examination of such schemes. Only after a detailed examination identifies potential benefits to be large enough for such investments, should we move forward. Any such move would need agreements between India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan for water sharing, as also between various states in the country. Unless these steps are taken, we will open the country to many more disputes on river water sharing. The best way to “solve” the Cauvery water dispute is not to bring all states into this dispute. The interlinking of rivers without addressing such issues has the potential to create precisely such a situation: the cure will then become worse than the disease.

16 March 2003