River Grid Project Becomes Sangh Parivar Agenda

THE ambitious programme launched by the BJP-led government for inter-linking of rivers in different parts of the country is rapidly gathering momentum under the aegis of the Task Force headed by former union minister Suresh Prabhu despite mounting criticism of the project from ever-widening sections. It was recently revealed that feasibility studies for 6 of the 30 envisaged links have been completed and that work on the remaining links is in full swing towards preparation of Detailed Project Reports (DPR). The Project is clearly being pushed forward determinedly and with considerable speed, and a meeting with chief ministers is scheduled in the coming weeks to deliberate over the programme and to “promote a consensus”.

However, many state governments, water resources experts, retired government officials and non-governmental organisations have raised serious objections to the project on technical, environmental and politico-legal grounds, but these have been completely ignored. However none of these documents and related information have been made public. Nor has such information been shared with concerned state governments and elected representatives in parliament or in state assemblies thus allowing people to be misled by spurious claims and seriously hampering informed public debate on such a major national issue. Indeed there appears to be a concerted effort to ensure that no information leaks out, so much so that apparently even high-ranking officials and even members of the Task Force have not been given these documents!

Intriguingly, in the last fortnight, various Sangh Parivar outfits who otherwise disagree with each other on many issues have come together in an orchestrated chorus in support of the grandiose scheme. The BJP youth wing, the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, held a national convention addressed by the BJP president Venkaiah Naidu and no less a persona than deputy prime minister L K Advani recently flagged off a parivar yatra which is touring the country drumming up support for the project. The BJP, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, the RSS-BJP student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), are all loudly singing the same song.

The Sangh Parivar forces are touting the project as one which by joining rivers together will also unite the nation as never before, national integration imbued with their own special ingredient “cultural nationalism.” The Hindutva agenda is also being advanced by an emphasis on “reviving the Sarasvati” through river links in western India and on bringing holy Ganga waters to hitherto deprived people all over the country. In Tamil Nadu, whose state government is among the few supporting the project since it promises more water to the Kaveri from the Himalayan rivers, a campaign is being waged for “mass purchase” of vessels in anticipation of Ganga waters!

The rapid pace of developments makes it imperative that a proper and informed debate takes place not only at the national level but, perhaps more importantly, in the different States whose constitutional riparian rights are being so brazenly threatened by this project. An earlier article in these columns (Peoples Democracy, March 16) had discussed some of the salient issues which call into question the very feasibility of the project so these are not repeated in this article which examines some other relevant issues.


The river grid Project has suddenly emerged, virtually out of nowhere, and gained acceptance of the BJP-led government. Neither the 9th plan nor the 10th plan, which claimed to have a special focus on water to the extent it was considered to be a “water plan,” even mention the inter-linking proposal! Even the annual report of the water resources ministry dated March 2003 makes no mention of the project which thus remains completely outside the process of planned development. Experts have expressed grave apprehensions that, when an estimated Rs 70,000 crore in the 10th plan and Rs 110,000 crore in the 11th plan would be required to complete much-needed on-going, spill-over and already planned water-resource projects, competitive demands on resources would lead to existing planned and priority needs being sacrificed in favour of the more “glamorous” project

The government had introduced the project under the guise of following a Supreme Court “directive” of September 2002 to implement the programme within 10 years. In response to a PIL before the SC, the government had informed the court that a plan for inter-linking rivers had been on the anvil for two decades and that it may take another 3-4 decades for the idea to fructify, and the court had opined that this was too long! Retired CJ Kripal has since stated that the SC had merely suggested but not “directed” that the government expedite such an important programme. For its own reasons, the government jumped on the idea and constituted the task force taking shelter behind the SC which clearly has no jurisdiction to “order” such an executive action whereas it could direct the government to ensure adequate supply of water as an integral part of citizens’ right to life.

Fact still remains that the very notion that the problems of floods and drought, i e surpluses and deficits in different parts of the country can or should be met by inter-basin transfers of river waters, has been fundamentally questioned. The National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development Plan (NCIWRDP) set up in 1996 and described by the government as a “blue-ribbon” body stated in its 1999 report that further studies were needed on the Himalayan component (data pertaining to which had not been made available on grounds of national security and are still unavailable) and that, in the peninsular component, massive inter-basin transfers were not needed. The commission noted that “the assessed needs of the basins could be met from full development and efficient utilisation of intra-basin resources except in the case of Cauvery and Vaigai basins” (emphasis added) for which specific suggestions were made. The National Water Development Agency (NWDA), now acting as the secretariat for the task force, has conducted studies of surpluses and deficits in different river systems over 20 years and many of the pre-feasibility studies which are now said to have been done had actually been undertaken much earlier in 1994, all of which had been taken into account by the NCIWRDP in arriving at its above assessment.


Various tall and unfounded claims have been made about the potential benefits from the project apparently without any supporting basis or evidence. Experts feel these claims are prima facie unrealistic and appear to be based on crude back-of-envelope projections, representing wishful thinking rather than sound planning. Additional irrigation potential of 35 MHa (million hectares), 22 MHa in the Himalayan and 13 MHa in the peninsular components has been projected whereas, as already noted, assessments of available “surpluses” leading to such a projection have been seriously challenged by NCIWRDP, concerned states and independent experts. Generation of 34,000 MW of net hydroelectric power generation has also been projected. Experts feel this is grossly exaggerated given the huge quantity of energy likely to be required for lifting and conveyance both for Brahmaputra waters and for crossing the Vindhyas, variously estimated at over 90,000 MW. It is further claimed that about 40,000 km of inland waterways would be created through the project with the potential to save over Rs 3,000 crore a year in foreign exchange: anyone even slightly familiar with the pitiful condition of river transportation systems even in supposedly “surplus” rivers such as the Ganga will attest to the absurdity of this claim. No data supporting any of these claims have been placed in the public domain so as to enable the concerned states, independent experts and organisations to make their own assessment and take informed decisions.

It should also be mentioned that proper socio-economic surveys examining the inevitable displacement, social impact of changes in irrigation and cropping patterns etc are incomplete in most cases and no Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been done for any of these 30 links: even if the idea is that EIAs would be done during DPR preparation, surely at least a preliminary EIA is required even to establish prima facie feasibility. Many links are already facing severe problems in this regard: the official survey team studying the Manas-Sankosh link was even denied permission to conduct the survey by the ministry for environment and forests because the survey area fell within the Buxa tiger reserve and Goburbasra reserve forest!

Much detailed studies and exercises undertaken by expert bodies are involved in a process of planned development leaving much to be desired in the unplanned inter-linking project for which full and transparent justification clearly needs to be provided.


Experts have also correctly pointed to the fact that, in conceptualising such a plan, notions of “surplus” and “deficit” as well as the existing patterns of agriculture have been taken for granted. It is well known that, if scientific management of water resources and optimal agricultural practices are adopted in areas such as Punjab and the Kaveri delta, which are increasingly suffering from water-logging and salinity, the assumed deficits may need to be re-examined. Similarly, many irrigation projects have automatically assumed canal irrigation with high-yielding crop varieties, have tended to ignore the irrigability or otherwise of the soil, and have consequently led to water-logging, salinity and other environmental problems in many erstwhile un-irrigated areas. Unfortunately insufficient attention has been paid to scientific selection of cropping patters and input regimes suited to local soil and agro-climatic conditions. Given that a substantial proportion of Indian agriculture takes place in arid or semi-arid areas, a more sustainable agricultural strategy would cast a completely different light on water requirements obviating the very need for such massive inter-basin transfers.

Experts have also pointed to the fact that many chronically drought-prone areas appear, at least at present, not to be covered under the inter-linking project and have raised doubts as to how much water may actually be available for such areas especially in circumstances when even delta areas are seen as deficit. Further, drought-proofing through more localised means appears to offer greater potential with quicker results than such grandiose canal-based projects.


Far from promoting national integration, given the explosive potential of inter-state river disputes witnessed daily in different parts of India, the inter-linking project is likely only to add further fuel to the fire. Punjab has not yet released even a single drop of water to Haryana in the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal and is still aggrieved over water sharing with other states such as in the Indira Gandhi canal. The Kaveri issue continues to wreak havoc in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka dangerously raising sectarian emotions and communitarian violence, and disputes between Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh over Krishna waters periodically flare up. Against this background, the position of different states regarding rivers flowing through them is of crucial importance for the proposed project.

Almost all riparian states (except Assam and Arunachal Pradesh) have rejected the notion that river waters flowing through their states are surplus. Punjab has outright rejected any prospect of transfer of its waters and experiences during the height of the militancy there stand as stark reminders of the emotive potential of this issue in Punjab. West Bengal has rejected the notion that surplus waters are available from the Ganga: quite apart from the Bangladesh issue and its own irrigation needs, the needs of Bengal’s ports which are badly affected by over-siltation due to low river flows are acute. Kerala has also officially stated that the Pamban and Achankovil rivers to be linked with the Vaippar do not have surplus waters: the Kerala government even commissioned its own detailed study whose findings went against those of the NDWA!

Bihar has long felt that it is being denied its due share of Ganga waters by upper-riparian UP and officially considers itself a deficit state, although recently some ruling party spokespersons have expressed the state’s willingness to transfer some Ganga waters in exchange for much needed money! Orissa and Andhra Pradesh have denied that the Mahanadi and Godavari have any surplus. The proposed eastward diversion of west-flowing rivers have also been rejected by the concerned riparian states. We are thus confronted with a situation where, with the exception of the Brahmaputra, no river is actually surplus, and no riparian state is willing to transfer river waters to another state. (The international ramifications of transfers from the Brahmaputra and Ganga, involving Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan have already been discussed in the earlier article.)

Yet many states are willing to accept river waters from other basins and some have thus expressed “support” for the Project on this basis! Tamil Nadu has been the most positive regarding the programme because it welcomes any inflows of river waters given the present impasse over Kaveri and Krishna waters and the constant demands within the state for more irrigation water. Andhra Pradesh too, while declaring itself deficit and refusing to allow any outward transfers, has welcomed the possibility of additional in-flows! It therefore appears that a climate of artificial support for the project is being created by the centre and some state governments on the basis of false promises which simply cannot be met.

The leader of the opposition, Sonia Gandhi, stood up in parliament and casually declared her support to this project although it is not certain if this is the official and considered view of the Congress or whether Congress chief ministers have been consulted. As seen above, many Congress-ruled states have either opposed the proposed links or have declared “their” rivers to be deficit. The same is true for the states governed by the Left.

The weeks and months to come will reveal how these political dynamics play out and what will be the fate of this gigantic.

 8th June 2003