Mission Impossible

Print edition : April 20, 2012

Experts agree that the economic and environmental costs of interlinking India's rivers far outweigh its projected benefits.

in New Delhi

At Amora village in Barpeta district of Assam, when the Brahmaputra flooded in 2009. Proponents of the river-linking project believe it can prevent floods.-RITU RAJ KONWAR

Some people believe it is the one-stop solution to prevent floods and droughts, reduce water scarcity, raise irrigation potential and increase foodgrain production in the country. But others say it is just another grandiose scheme involving huge costs and leading to long-term ecological consequences. The contentious idea of interlinking India's rivers has come to the fore again with the Supreme Court's directive on February 27 to the Central government to set up a special committee for its implementation. The National Water Development Agency (NWDA), the nodal agency responsible for inter-basin transfer of river waters, has identified 14 river links in a northern Himalayan river development component and 16 in a southern peninsular river development component even as a lot of experts have raised doubts about the feasibility of the projects.

According to the NWDA, the population of India, which is around 1,200 million at present, is expected to increase to 1,500 to 1,800 million in the year 2050, and that means the requirement of foodgrains will go up to about 450 million tonnes. To meet this requirement, the agency estimates that it will be necessary to raise the irrigation potential in the country to 160 million hectares for all crops by 2050. India's maximum irrigation potential through conventional sources is about 140 million hectares.

Besides, floods are a recurring feature, particularly in the Brahmaputra and the Ganga, affecting the States of Assam, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. Almost 60 per cent of the river flows of the country occur in these rivers. On the other extreme are large areas in the States of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu that face recurring droughts. As much as 85 per cent of the drought-prone area in the country falls in these States. Inter-basin water transfer aims to transfer water from the surplus rivers to the deficit areas. The Brahmaputra and the Ganga, particularly their northern tributaries, and the Mahanadi, the Godavari and the west-flowing rivers originating in the Western Ghats are said to be surplus in water resources. The NWDA's ambitious plan is to build storage reservoirs on these rivers and connect them to other parts of the country. This, it believes, will reduce regional imbalances. Other benefits of the project spoken about are additional irrigation, domestic and industrial water supply, hydropower generation and navigational facilities.

It is in this context that the Supreme Court's judgment delivered by a three-judge Bench in the case In Re: Networking of Rivers in favour of interlinking rivers as a priority has to be seen. It has raised the hopes of people living in drought- and flood-prone areas. However, critics of the project warn that there is no consensus among the States to link rivers and that it will be a huge waste to spend precious resources on a project whose feasibility and benefits have not been studied thoroughly.

The judgment

Delivered by Justice Swatanter Kumar, on behalf of himself, Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia and Justice A.K. Patnaik, the judgment is unusual by all standards. It has directed the Central government, particularly the Ministry of Water Resources (MWR), to constitute forthwith a committee to be called Special Committee for Inter-linking of Rivers, comprising Ministers for Water Resources or Irrigation at the Centre and in the concurring States, bureaucrats, experts drawn from relevant Ministries and the Planning Commission, social activists, and the amicus curiae in the case, Ranjit Kumar.

The Bench has also laid down the nitty-gritty of how this committee should function: that it should meet once in two months, maintain records of its meetings, not adjourn the meetings because of the absence of any member, constitute subcommittees, and submit bi-annual reports to the Cabinet of the Central government. The Cabinet shall take all final and appropriate decisions in the interest of the countries (emphasis added, throughout) as expeditiously as possible, preferably within 30 days, the Bench has said. To many, this sounded like a clear case of judicial overreach, one setting a wrong precedent of the judiciary entering the executive domain. But to the court, these directions had a single purpose: going ahead with the interlinking of rivers (ILR) programme (ILR).

Lastly, the court has granted liberty to the amicus curiae to file a contempt petition in the Supreme Court in the event of default or non-compliance of the directions contained in the order. The Bench has also issued a mandamus to the Central and State governments concerned to comply with the directions contained in the judgment effectively and expeditiously and without default.

The judgment left many stakeholders bewildered and worried. The noble intentions of the Bench and the amicus curiae were never in question, though.

The case

The case has its genesis in an Independence Day speech delivered by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2002. It went thus:

It is paradoxical to see floods in one part of the country while some other parts face drought. This drought-flood phenomenon is a recurring feature. The need of the hour is to have a water mission which will enable availability of water to the fields, villages, towns and industries throughout the year even while maintaining environmental purity. One major part of the water mission would be networking of our rivers. Technological and project management capabilities of our country can rise to the occasion and make this river networking a reality with long-term planning and proper investment.

Incidentally, Kalam was not the first person to propose such a project. A few experts had done so earlier and given up for various reasons. But the fact that the President referred to this in his speech was a good enough reason for the court to intervene in the matter when Ranjit Kumar brought this to the court's notice in the form of an application in an ongoing case.

In his application, Ranjit Kumar made a few additional claims about the benefits of ILR. He claimed that it would solve inter-State water disputes, ensure cheaper and safer form of transportation of goods, stop soil erosion, recharge groundwater, improve the quality of water and the environment, help promote tourism and earn foreign exchange, and improve employment potential.

Ranjit Kumar's application so convinced the court that it decided to convert his application into a separate writ petition. Somewhere down the line, however, it was clear that the court was not looking at findings that would suggest that the networking of rivers was not a feasible concept.

A few instances amply bear this out. In his application, Ranjit Kumar referred to a K.L. Rao Committee report submitted in the early 1960s (the correct year of the report is 1972), which had made references to the networking of rivers and which was subsequently spoken of by the Central Ground Water Board and agriculture economists.

After the court issued notices to the Centre and the governments of all the 28 States and the National Capital Territory of Delhi, the Central government claimed in its affidavit filed before the Supreme Court that the networking of rivers had been considered with great seriousness even after the 1972 K.L. Rao Committee report. But both Ranjit Kumar's application and the Centre's affidavit were silent on why the committee report has been buried quietly.

The NWDA's website itself shows why this and a later proposal, by Captain D.J. Dastur, were not feasible. About the Earlier Proposals, the NWDA's website says as follows:

K.L. Rao's proposal (1972), which had 2,640 km-long Ganga-Cauvery link as its main component, involved large-scale pumping over a head of 550 metres. The power requirement for lifting the water was huge, estimated to be 5,000 to 7,000 MW, for irrigating an additional area of 4 million hectares only. The scheme was also not having any flood control benefit. Dr Rao had estimated this proposal to cost about Rs.12,500 crore, which at 2002 price level comes to about Rs.1,50,000 crore. The Central Water Commission, which examined the proposal, found it to be grossly underestimated and economically prohibitive.

Capt. Dastur Proposal (1977) envisaged construction of two canals the first, 4,200 km-Himalayan Canal at the foot of Himalayan slopes running from the Ravi in the west to the Brahmaputra and beyond in the east, and the second, 9,300 km-Garland Canal covering the central and southern parts, with both the canals integrated with numerous lakes and interconnected with pipelines at two points, Delhi and Patna. The cost estimated by Capt. Dastur was Rs.24,095 crore. The proposal was examined by two committees of experts comprising Senior Engineers from CWC [the Central Water Commission] , State governments, Professors from the IIT Delhi, and Roorkee University, and Scientists from Geological Survey of India and India Meteorological Department who opined that the proposal was technically infeasible. The cost estimated by the experts in 1979 was about Rs.12 million crore. The realistic cost at 2002 price level comes to about Rs.70 million crore.

Omission of facts

The omission of any reference to these two historical facts from the court's record and the judgment may well be inadvertent, and their possible consideration by the court might not have significantly altered the judgment itself. But the point is that the court did not find it necessary to examine the question why successive governments at the Centre had not been serious about the networking of rivers. The fact that the history of earlier proposals was not considered by the court led to it reaching the conclusion that it saw no reason as to why the governments should not take appropriate and timely interest in the execution of the project.

Another instance of omission is the absence, in the judgment and also in the proceedings of the parties before the court, of any reference to a report of the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development (NCIWRD), which was submitted to the government in September 1999. The 14-member commission, headed by S.R. Hashim, then Member of the Planning Commission, was asked to suggest modalities for the transfer of surplus water to water-deficit basins by interlinking rivers.

In its report, the commission referred to a National Perspective brought out by the Ministry of Water Resources in 1980, which is also the basis for the Supreme Court's February 27 judgment. This Perspective has two main components: (a) Himalayan Rivers Development (HRD) and (b) Peninsular Rivers Development (PRD).

The dry bed of a river that usually irrigates the paddy fields of Raigiri village in Nalgonda district, Andhra Pradesh.-NOAH SEELAM/AFP

The HRD envisages the construction of storage reservoirs on the principal tributaries of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra in India and Nepal along with interlinking canal systems to transfer surplus flows of the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the west, apart from the linking of the main Brahmaputra and its tributaries with the Ganga, and the Ganga with the Mahanadi. The PRD is divided into four major parts: interlinking of the Mahanadi, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Cauvery; interlinking of the west-flowing rivers north of Mumbai and south of Tapi; interlinking of the Ken and the Chambal; and diversion of other west-flowing rivers.

The commission did not study the Himalayan component because of the lack of data, which were classified. About the peninsular component links, the commission said:

These links will involve stupendous engineering activity. They will have large-scale socio-economic, human and environmental impacts and will involve very high financial outlays. There will be opposition from the local people, especially those who consider themselves deprived, and from environmental agencies and activists unless their legitimate concerns are looked into. Above all, there will be the human problem of displacement of people and their rehabilitation. There is [an] urgent need to develop a policy and programme of sustainable water resource development of each river in which inter-basin transfer, if found feasible, would be one possible component.

NCIWRD report

The commission noted that in approaching this complex issue, it would not be possible to persuade a State to spare water until its own demands were met to the maximum possible extent. Contrast this with what the Supreme Court has said in its judgment:

We have no hesitation in observing that the national interest must take precedence over the interest of the individual States. The State governments are expected to view national problems with greater objectivity, rationality and spirit of service to the nation, and ill-founded objections may result in greater harm, not only to the neighbouring States but also to the nation at large.

The Bench saw no reason why any State should lag behind in contributing its bit to bring ILR to a success, thus saving the people living in drought-prone zones from hunger and people living in flood-prone areas from the destruction caused by floods.

The commission was clear that interlinking of rivers must be considered the last option. It said: After meeting all these essential requirements, if there is surplus water available in the basin, its transfer to other basins may be considered. Such basins should first aim at efficient utilisation of all the in-basin resources.

With regard to the Himalayan component, the commission cautioned thus: Generally speaking, the idea is to transfer water from water-rich Brahmaputra and lower Ganga basins towards the west, finally conveying it to water-short southern U.P. [Uttar Pradesh], Haryana, Punjab, and to arid Rajasthan desert, as also perhaps to the peninsular component. The storages and links involved are of very large sizes and lengths; and the costs of construction and environmental problems would be enormous. These links should only be taken up if and when they are considered unavoidable in national interest. For Thar desert area, it would perhaps be desirable to promote arid zone low density tree cover as far as possible. The Indira Gandhi Nahar on the west and the Narmada canal on the south-east, together with practices of desert moisture conservation can perhaps achieve this limited objective. The need for further expansion of irrigation facilities in this area will have to be examined from all angles, including ecological and environmental considerations.

On the basis of published information, the commission was of the view that the Himalayan component would require more detailed study using system analysis techniques. It felt that the actual implementation of the Himalayan component was unlikely to be undertaken in the decades in the immediate future. Therefore, it is incredible how both the Ministry of Water Resources and the Supreme Court found the implementation of the Himalayan component feasible within three years of the publication of the commission's report.

The commission added: Studies of important east-flowing peninsular river basins, namely, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Pennar, Cauvery and Vaigai, indicate that there is no imperative need for large-scale transfer of water. Reasonable projected water demands of these basins can be met from within the resources of the basins except for marginal shortages in Krishna, Cauvery and Vaigai, with the proposed enhanced irrigation intensities. However, limited transfer from Godavari towards Krishna, Cauvery and Vaigai would be desirable.

It is also surprising how the February 27 judgment repeatedly claims a consensus among the States and the Centre over the merits of going ahead with ILR. Of the 28 States and Delhi, to whom it sent notices, only 10 had responded. They are Rajasthan, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Bihar, Punjab, Assam, Sikkim and Kerala.

The court, in fact, interpreted the silence of the States as consent to ILR.

On October 31, 2002, no State except Tamil Nadu had filed affidavits opposing the prayers in the petition, after notice had been issued to them on September 16, 2002, and response sought again on September 30, 2002.

The Central government, through the then Attorney General, stated that it had accepted the concept of interlinking of rivers and a high-powered task force would be formed. The court then recorded that there was a consensus among all the States to go ahead with the project of interlinking.

The NWDA has identified 30 links 16 under the peninsular component and 14 under the Himalayan river development component for the preparation of feasibility reports. It has so far completed the feasibility reports of 14 links under the peninsular component and two links under the Himalayan component.

In its counter-affidavit, the Centre had opposed the plea to form a high-powered committee on the grounds that the consent of all the States needed to be obtained. Reportedly, the Centre is disappointed with the February 27 judgment because the court has directed the constitution of an unwieldy committee comprising nearly 70 members. It is said to be planning to seek a review of the judgment.

Some reservations

Most States have expressed some reservation or the other about the project. According to the judgment, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have supported the concept of ILR. But by the judgment's own admission, Rajasthan had refused to consider the memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the priority link, Parbati-Kalisindh-Chambal, until the updation of its hydrology project.

Gujarat had underlined the fact that water was a State subject and that the opinion of the respective States must be sought. It had deplored the fact that the NWDA had prepared the plan for interconnecting rivers without consulting the States.

Bihar had questioned whether the increase in agricultural production effected by the networking of the rivers would justify the cost of the project. It had also asked whether the supposedly scarcity-affected States had adequately used water-saving irrigation methods and whether their cropping patterns were indicative of the fact that water was a scarce commodity in the region. The State also insisted that the transfer of water must involve a quid pro quo.

Bihar had observed that floods were a temporal phenomenon and that it did not essentially mean that a particular place suffering from floods at a particular time was surplus in water resources on an annual basis. The overall scene on the national level could be ascertained only after detailed studies were made in this regard, it said. Madhya Pradesh left it to be decided by the Centre, as in its view, the interlinking of rivers was a Central subject.

Kerala stated that the consent of the State should be obtained in utilising the river waters within its territory for purposes elsewhere, in view of the constitutional provision bestowing control of State rivers on the States. Therefore, it opposed the writ petition.

The judgment itself admits that Karnataka, Bihar, Punjab, Assam and Sikkim have given a kind of qualified approval with definite reservations with regard to environmental and financial implications, and socio-economic and international aspects. However, in the same paragraph, the Bench reveals that Assam, Sikkim and Kerala have raised their protests on the grounds that they should have the exclusive right to use their water resources and that such transfer should not affect any rights of these States.

The judgment also refers to the fact that all the rivers in Bihar originate from Nepal and it may be necessary or desirable to take the consent of neighbouring countries. It is not clear whether the consent would be easy to obtain.

Studies required

Reliable water balance studies are important to determine whether a State or a basin has surplus water. Himanshu Thakkar, an expert member of the NWDA-constituted committee of environmentalists, social scientists and other experts on interlinking of rivers, points out that these studies are not available in the public domain, and even if available, they are not reliable.

The judgment observes that the National Water Policy, which seeks to make available water to those areas that face shortages, could be effective only if the rivers in the country are linked and nationalised. Thakkar, however, says that no participatory process was involved in the preparation of both the National Water Policy of 2002 and the draft policy of 2012. Both are basically children of the pro-large project mindset of our water resources establishment, including the Ministry of Water Resources, the Central Water Commission and related organisations. They are also non-serious collection of statements of intent that are not backed by any credible plans or legal institutional set-ups, he observes.

The amicus curiae, in his report to the court, estimated the new aggregated cost of the entire project at anything between Rs.4,44,331.20 crore and Rs.4,34,657 crore at 2003-04 prices. Is this expenditure justified, especially when there are divergent views about the benefits of ILR? The court entertains pious hopes to justify such a huge expenditure. It has relied mainly on a report of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) to conclude that expert opinion convincingly dispels all other impressions. But the NCAER report makes no claim to having considered the social or environmental impact of the project or examined whether ILR is the least-cost option.

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