Interlinking of rivers

A pipe dream

Print edition : February 15, 2019

At Nunna village on the outskirts of Vijayawada where the Godavari enters Krishna district as part of the project linking the Krishna and the Godavari, a 2015 picture. Photo: V. Raju

The Bramaputra in spate breaching the embankment in the Puthimari area in Kamrup district of Assam, a September 2008 photograph. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The interlinking of rivers is an ill-conceived, ruinously expensive, technically questionable, ecologically devastating and socially disruptive national mega project.

Sharing something, especially limited or valued things, is part of childhood education in every home. It is the basis of early learning of the values of empathy, justice, love and cooperation which gets translated into social life. This makes for peace and harmony in society.

In present times, water is treated as a commodity (although it is a part of the right to life) that is both scarce and valued. Far from people sharing water willingly, we see daily quarrels for it in queues in urban areas or it being denied to persons of certain castes in some places.

Then there is the politically motivated public violence in connection with decades-long acrimonious water litigation between States, engaging the Supreme Court. All this when Indian tradition has it that water should not be denied even to an enemy.

Water is an important component of intra- and inter-State politics because of its inescapable necessity for domestic, agricultural and industrial use and because of the harm and loss it causes from flooding. Water also affords opportunities to politicians, administrators, planners, bankers, engineers, contractors and corporates by means of large and expensive engineering infrastructure projects to supply water and/or prevent or mitigate flood loss and damage, and rehabilitate flood victims year after year.

Annual monsoon floods in rivers cause human suffering, loss and devastation in some places even as other regions suffer from water shortage. The idea of sharing water by linking flooded river basins with water-deficit river basins using canals on a grand scale was visualised in 1972 by Dr K.L. Rao, who proposed the “Ganga-Cauvery link canal”. In 1977, Captain Dinshaw J. Dastur proposed a “national garland canal” scheme. The government examined both schemes and rejected them for economic and technical reasons.

However, in 1982, technocrats of the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) came up with the idea of simultaneous mitigation of flood and drought by canal-based mass-transport of water from “water-surplus” areas of the Brahmaputra and Ganga basins to the “water-deficit” areas in peninsular India. The NWDA conceived Rs.5,60,000 crore “interlinking of rivers” (ILR) project—which was revised to Rs.10,00,000 crore and again back to Rs.5,60,000 crore—involving dozens of major dams and 14,900 kilometres of major canals to link 30 major rivers.

In January 2002, in the context of water conservation and water availability, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee recommended for no-conflict, low-cost, time-tested and practical water conservation: “Catch every raindrop where it falls.”

Vajpayee’s idea was pushed aside when President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, in his 2002 pre-Independence Day speech, stated that interlinking of rivers was inescapable to solve India’s flood and drought problems simultaneously. The basis of this pronouncement has never been revealed.

Taking his cue from this, in September 2002, Advocate Ranjit Kumar, who was amicus curiae in a case, filed a short application before the Supreme Court praying that it direct the government to take up the ILR project. Chief Justice of India B.N. Kirpal accordingly issued notice to the States and the Centre. The matter came up for hearing on the day before Justice Kirpal was to retire. In the absence of response from any State except one, Justice Kirpal presumed that the States had no objection to the ILR and passed an order that the government take up and complete the ILR project in the shortest possible time.

The ILR project conceived in the 1980s was thus born in 2002, without socio-economic feasibility studies, proper application of mind by the learned judge, a study of alternatives, discussion in Parliament or scrutiny by the Planning Commission. The technical and systemic bases of the NWDA’s ILR proposal have not been established to date.

Unseemly haste

The President of India’s pronouncement and the Chief Justice’s decision a day before his retirement were matched by the uncharacteristic, unseemly haste displayed by the government to kick-start the project. Bypassing all planning procedures and checks for major projects, the government constituted a Task Force for ILR on December 13, 2002, and appointed Suresh Prabhu as its Chairman.

From an idea in August 2002 to a judicial decision in September 2002, the Rs.5,60,000 crore ILR project became an approved project in December 2002, with the completion target date set at December 31, 2016. Thus, funds were to be spent at the mind-boggling average rate of Rs.110 crore a day over 14 years.

This was a huge boost for the heavy engineering, construction and banking industries and an attractive opportunity to the wielders of political and economic power at the Centre and in the States. There was no response to written questions regarding whether or not the dozens of ongoing, incomplete dam-canal projects would be integrated into the ILR project.

The ILR project is not simply a scheme to connect rivers into a “network” (the word was erroneously used by the ILR Task Force Chairman) of canals. It is a system of large dams and high-capacity canals linked to sequentially and unidirectionally transfer very large volumes of water from one river basin to another in order to connect the high-discharge, perennial Himalayan rivers with the seasonal rivers of peninsular India. The system is on the basis of the NWDA’s concept that, with the exception of the Brahmaputra and the Ganga which are donor rivers and the Cauvery which is a recipient basin, every river basin would donate its “surplus” water to another river basin in exchange for the water it received.

The ILR Task Force website claimed that the project would provide water to irrigate 35 million hectares of farmland and supply 34 million kilowatts of hydroelectricity but never substantiated its claims with data. With the NWDA's unsubstantiated assurances of irrigation advantages, there was concern only with time and cost issues. How much land was required and how many families would be displaced was never a consideration.

The mega project of multiple dams and canals involves land acquisition and the displacement of millions of people, huge forest submergence and related wildlife issues, and crafting of new inter-State water-sharing agreements. The travails of project-affected families are well documented, confirming inevitable social unrest as they lose land and livelihood and move to rural or urban areas whose people themselves are already economically stressed. But the Task Force restricted itself to technical matters.

Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) officials and engineers appeared to view the mega project as a problem in hydrology and hydraulics to the exclusion of its social, environmental, economic and geopolitical consequences. It is disturbing that some government officials criticised democratic and peaceful dissent and opposition to the ILR as anti-development, even anti-national. Dr Kalam criticised the opposition to the project as “being negative”. The propriety of the then President taking sides in a controversy remained questionable.

There are several ongoing, decades-old, river-water disputes among States, which periodically cause political turmoil and public violence. The opportunities presented by the Rs.5,60,000-crore ILR project appear to have blinded the government to the possibility that the ILR will not only not resolve these disputes but create fresh ones.

The government assumed a priori that the ILR was a solution and went ahead with the modalities of its implementation without considering other alternatives as any sensible planning process should have done. Scientists, engineers, social scientists and grass-roots and civil society activists, among others, raised cogent objections and arguments against the ILR. Besides the issue of displacement of huge populations, the most fundamental opposition to the ILR was that the mega project was ill-conceived. Since the inception of the ILR project, questions have been raised concerning its legal, procedural, socio-economic and technical aspects, and many well-argued and authoritative articles have been published in this regard. There have been people’s meetings and agitations in opposition to the ILR.

But ILR Task Force fought these by stonewalling, calculated obfuscation, and delaying tactics such as directing dissenters to the inadequate ILR Task Force website. On the other hand, it aggressively promoted the ILR project through expensive newspaper advertisements and meetings organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Indian Industry in a semblance of transparency.

Eventually, country-wide resistance from thousands of people who would be affected by various components of the ILR project, combined with the strong arguments and objections against the project, resulted in the closing down of the Task Force on December 29, 2004, it having “completed its role” as the government chose to put it. However, planning work continued in a low-profile special cell in the MoWR. With a new government coming to power in May 2014, the ILR proposal was vigorously revived without reference to outstanding substantive issues.

Egregious combination

Neglecting inter-State political water-sharing dissonance and enormous social, environmental/ecological and financial/economic costs, the ILR project continues to be promoted without considering the alternative of river basin watershed management. The hand of the politician-bureaucrat-corporate nexus in furthering its agenda across successive governments is plain as daylight.

Initiated by the judiciary, different parties and politicians of successive governments over the years have bypassed established planning practices to promote the ill-conceived, ruinously expensive, technically questionable, ecologically devastating and socially disruptive national mega project. Parliament, for its part, has remained blissfully unquestioning.

The ILR project, vigorously endorsed by the head of state, is an egregious combination of motivated executive hubris, inexplicable judicial haste and inexcusable legislative apathy, all possibly under the subtle influence of the deep state. It is an unmitigated mockery of established planning processes and of the checks and balances of constitutional governance by successive governments. It is a precise, unrivalled example of how a national project should not be planned.

It is relevant to note that when the Ganga is in flood in the monsoon and inundates large areas, just a few kilometres away are areas that suffer from water shortage. Thus, declaring the Ganga as a “water-surplus” river basin has little practical meaning.

Notwithstanding its serious conceptual and planning shortcomings, technocrats may still be able to cobble together some justification for the ILR project if it is workable. But unfortunately, a realistic analysis of the ILR project shows that it cannot relieve flood or drought as simplistically hoped and is not even workable as a system.

Flood and drought

Transport of water in a canal is subject to the hydraulic engineering parameter of theoretical maximum water flow velocity of two metres per second. Thus a very large canal which is 100 m wide and 10 m deep, such as the one mentioned by the Task Force, can carry a theoretical maximum of 2,000 cubic m per second (cumecs) of water. That is surely a great deal of water, but compared with the 50,000 cumecs flood flow of the Ganga, it is a minuscule 4 per cent relief, that too only downstream of the canal headworks, making it an economic joke.

Referring to the Ganga-Cauvery links (see map), the canal bearing water southward would originate near Bhagalpur at about 60 m above sea level in the “water-surplus” Ganga basin. Water would flow by gravity in a series of canals—with two pumped lifts (demanding enormous dedicated electric power generation) envisaged by the Task Force between the Mahanadi and the Krishna—in turn feeding Ganga water sequentially into the river basins of the Subarnarekha, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Pennar and Palar rivers and finally into the Cauvery basin just above sea level. These link canals would run more or less parallel to the east coast between the sea and the peninsular high grounds and would be capable of delivering water at levels of about 60 m above sea level.

A school atlas will show that “water-deficit” areas in the peninsular plateau region are at elevations of over 800 m above sea level. One does not need to know rocket science to understand that ILR canals flowing at 60 m elevation cannot provide water in these high areas.

Thus the ILR project, meant to simultaneously relieve flood and drought by transporting water from “water-surplus” areas to “water-deficit” areas, is a non-starter. Yet, some States, Karnataka for example, unaware that not one drop of water from the Ganga-Cauvery links will reach the 600-plus-metre highlands of eastern or southern Karnataka, are pushing for it aggressively. The reason for this ignorance is that the ILR project as a system has never been announced to indicate precisely where and how much water will be delivered.

The canal system

The NWDA has enunciated the concept of a river basin donating water to a (recipient) river basin in exchange of water received from another river basin. Thus, for the Ganga-Cauvery link canal system, with the Ganga being only a donor and the Cauvery being only a recipient river basin, all intermediate river basins (Subarnarekha, Mahanadi, and so on) cannot donate water southwards unless they receive water from a northerly river basin.

Therefore, the success of the ILR project is based on the functioning of a “chain of supply” system of link canals. For Ganga water to reach the Cauvery, all the links have to function together as a system, conveying water from north to south, since supply to the Cauvery is predicated on the reliable and continuous operation of the chain of links to its north. Interruption of flow in one or more links because of farmers’ agitations, structural or operational failure or hitches, political compulsions, natural disaster, sabotage, and so on, will cause local damage and stoppage of flow, with days of lag time for the system to normalise.

The ILR system flow plan, if indeed there is one, indicating the design water flow quantities, has not been made public by the Task Force or the MoWR.

Further, page 9 of Volume I of the Report of the National Commission for Water Resource Development states: “The Himalayan river linking data is not freely available, but on the basis of public information, it appears that the Himalayan river linking component is not feasible for the period of review up to 2050.”

From a system viewpoint, therefore, this statement of a national document raises the important question: If the Himalayan subsystem is not feasible, then what is the source of water to feed the Subarnarekha basin and onward to the river basins to its south (Mahanadi, Godavari, and so on) for each basin to supply water to the next basin?

The unanswered question also raises doubts regarding whether the NWDA had done its homework adequately before it pushed the ILR proposal in 2002 to the attention of Dr Kalam and others.

Thirsty people

Many examples can be quoted to illustrate that every State wants water and that no State will agree that it has “surplus” water and agree to share it, especially in circumstances of scarcity. This is because every State government is duty-bound to look after the water needs of its own population. Thus, Central government orders have been challenged by States, with a rise in animosity among neighbouring States, and judicial decisions on water disputes have nearly precipitated constitutional crises.

Some persons have suggested changing water from a State subject to a Central subject through a constitutional amendment and enacting or amending laws. This will only result in ruling by fiat, which cannot solve on-the-ground people’s dire need for water. Whichever way the Central or State governments or the courts view it, thirsty people will not submit to the impractical decisions of a distant executive or judicial authority. The ILR cannot change that reality; rather it will exacerbate water disputes.

Fundamental question

The accepted planning method in which alternatives (such as river basin watershed management) are considered and evaluated and the best alternative, or the best combination of available alternatives, are evaluated environmentally, technically and economically, has not been followed in the ILR project. Rather, a perverse, inverted planning method has been followed by which the ILR has been assumed as the solution and then a network of canals has been prepared without consideration of the performance of the project as a system. The ILR scheme has been prepared by engineers and uncritically approved by bureaucrats and the judiciary and by politicians who, along with the bureaucrats and engineers, have seen an opportunity in the mega project.

India undoubtedly possesses the technical and management resources necessary to construct all the dams and link canals planned in the ILR project. It is also possible that financial resources may be found. However, the basic question is not whether the ILR project can be executed, but whether it should be executed and whether it can deliver what it is expected to deliver.

The culpability of engineers who have sold the dream of “water from surplus basins to deficit basins to solve flood and drought at the same time”, and also failed to envisage and analyse the ILR project functioning as a system, is beyond doubt. The ILR project is perversely planned, systemically flawed, socially disruptive and potentially financially ruinous.

As the scarce resource of water increasingly becomes cause for conflicts at all levels of society, it passes understanding how, over the years, successive Central and State governments, spurred by a succession of learned Supreme Court judges, are unable to comprehend that pursuing the ILR project will only create fresh conflicts or intensify existing conflicts between people and between governments in courts of law. This can only weaken the Centre and destroy the pedestal of respect upon which the judiciary stands. Pressing on with the ILR will beg the question whether the project is a matter of cupidity or stupidity.

The Government of India, as a stated policy, needs to scrap the ill-conceived ILR project permanently and adopt river basin watershed management for flood management as well as surface and ground water availability. Such measures will make local populations more responsible for and more in control of their water resources, and reduce the magnitude of water disputes. Central and State governments need to enforce river basin rejuvenation and water conservation by a combination of suitable, region-specific, and tried and tested, methods and review agricultural and industrial water-use policy with an eye on mitigating the effects of increased water stress owing to climate change.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired as Additional DG Discipline & Vigilance in Army Headquarters Adjutant General’s Branch. His area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.

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