Linking rivers: vision or mirage?

Print edition : December 20, 2002

An expert's opinion on the grand idea of linking major rivers in India.

THE idea of the `linking of rivers', dormant for a while, has acquired new prominence now, particularly in the context of the Cauvery dispute. A recent public interest litigation (PIL) has led to directions from the Supreme Court for an acceleration of the `linking'. The propriety of judicial directions on such a subject is debatable, but leaving that aside, this article will examine the idea itself.

The notion of the linking of the rivers in the subcontinent is an old one. In the 19th Century, Sir Arthur Cotton had thought of a plan to link rivers in southern India for inland navigation. The idea was partially implemented but was later abandoned because inland navigation lost ground to the railways. Even the canal that was constructed went into decline.

A phrase that caught the imagination of the people and passed into popular parlance was `Garland Canal'. This idea (which was not quite the same as the linking of rivers) was mooted by Capt. Dinshaw J. Dastur, an air pilot. It was merely a fanciful notion that never commanded respect among knowledgeable people. The catchy phrase refuses to die and keeps surfacing from time to time, but does not merit serious discussion here.

The `inter-linking of rivers' is also often referred to as `inter-basin transfers'. Essentially, the thinking is that the disparities in the different river basins of India call for water transfers from the `surplus' basins to the `deficit' basins. This has exercised the minds of the Indian water-resource planners for a long time.

One such idea was (and continues to be) that of tapping the surplus resources of the mighty Brahmaputra. A significant part of the water resources of India, estimated in terms of the flows near the terminal points of the river systems, lies in the Brahmaputra, which, unfortunately, is in a remote corner of the country, far from the areas where the demand for water is high. There has therefore been a preoccupation with the idea of a transfer of water from that river to places where it is needed.

In the talks with Bangladesh over river waters in the seventies, India proposed a gigantic (100,000 cusecs) Brahmaputra-Ganga gravity link canal taking off from Jogighopa in India, passing through Bangladesh, and joining the Ganga just above Farakka. The proposal was rejected by Bangladesh for many reasons, at least some of which were, and continue to be, valid; that scheme is virtually dead. An alternative link canal passing entirely through Indian territory (the Siliguri chicken-neck) will involve large lifts and seems likely to be both unviable and questionable from other points of view, even if it is physically feasible and the money can be found. The idea has not been seriously pursued, and for good reason. We must disabuse ourselves of the notion that the vast waters of the Brahmaputra can be diverted westwards or southwards. At best we can think in terms of some minor transfers within the eastern region.

Dr. K.L. Rao's proposal of a Ganga-Cauvery Link was another idea that (like Captain Dastur's `Garland Canal') appealed to the general public and acquired an enduring life. As envisaged by Dr. Rao, the link was to take off near Patna, pass through the basins of the Sone, Narmada, Tapi, Godavari, Krishna and Pennar rivers, and join the Cauvery upstream of the Grand Anicut. It was to have been 2,640 km long, withdrawn 60,000 cusecs from the flood flows of the Ganga for about 150 days in the year, and involved a lift of a substantial part of that water over 450 metres. The scheme was examined and found impractical because of the huge financial costs and the very large energy requirements. However, the idea survives in the popular mind and comes up whenever water scarcity is felt and conflicts (such as the Cauvery dispute) become acute in the southern parts.

Apart from considerations of techno-economic viability, on which the proposition was abandoned, the diversion of waters from the Ganga will have international implications. Bangladesh is likely to view this with apprehensions and raise objections. This needs to be gone into briefly.

Under the India-Bangladesh Treaty of December 1996 on the sharing of Ganga waters, India has undertaken to protect the flows arriving at Farakka, which is the sharing point. Bangladesh may contend (rightly or wrongly) that a diversion of waters from the Ganga to the southern rivers will not be consistent with that undertaking. Besides, it is a proposition accepted by both India and Bangladesh that the Ganga is water-short in the lean season and needs to be `augmented', though the two sides have different notions on the means of augmentation: that is a debatable proposition, but if that is in fact true, where is the scope for diversion from the Ganga? India may argue that only the flood flows of the Ganga will be stored and diverted, and that the lean season flows (which are what Bangladesh is concerned with under the Treaty) will not be affected; but Bangladesh would say that if the flood flows can be stored, the stored waters should be used for the augmentation of the lean season flows of the Ganga itself for being shared at Farakka, and not diverted to other basins. (India for its part had earlier taken the position that Farakka was too far away to receive any significant augmentation from storages in the Ganga system in the Himalayan region, which is where storages are considered feasible; it may be difficult to reconcile that argument with proposals for large diversions to the southern rivers.) Within India, Bihar already has a strong sense of grievance that its interests in respect of the waters of the Ganga system have not been given due consideration; and West Bengal has only reluctantly agreed to the large allocations to Bangladesh under the Ganga Treaty and has been pressing the needs of Calcutta Port. Neither State will look kindly upon any diversion of Ganga waters southwards.

HAVING ruled out the idea of a Ganga-Cauvery link as unworkable, the Ministry of Water Resources (or whatever it was called then) brought out a booklet, National Perspective for Water Development, in August 1980. In pursuance of the perspectives set forth in that booklet, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) was established in 1982 to work out basin-wise surpluses and deficits and study the possibilities of storage, links and transfers. During the last two decades the NWDA has done a great deal of work and produced an impressive amount of documentation. It undertook the studies in two main components, namely the Himalayan Rivers component and the Peninsular Rivers component.

The Himalayan component envisages a number of links that need not be detailed here. The general idea is to transfer water from the Brahmaputra and the Ganga systems westwards to southern Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, and Rajasthan, and perhaps eventually southwards to the peninsular component. As data relating to the Himalayan rivers are classified as confidential, even the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development Plan (NCIWRDP) found it difficult to study these proposals. The Commission merely observed that the costs involved and the environmental problems would be enormous; that the further expansion of irrigation in the desert areas of Rajasthan would need examination from all angles; that the NWDA's Himalayan component would require more detailed study; and that the actual implementation was unlikely to be undertaken in the immediate coming decades (Report, September 1999). To those cautionary remarks of the NCIWRDP it may be added that insofar as transfers from the Manas, the Sankosh, the Karnali and so on are involved, Bhutan and Nepal would need to be consulted, and, as already mentioned, Bangladesh would have something to say insofar as the waters of the Brahmaputra and the Ganga are concerned.

The Peninsular Rivers component involves a number of links, of which the most important would be those connecting the Mahanadi, the Godavari, the Krishna, the Pennar and the Cauvery.

Other links would be Ken-Betwa, Parbati-Kalisindh-Chambal, Par-Tapi-Narmada, Damanganga-Pinjal, etc. Another idea is the partial diversion of certain rivers flowing into the Arabian Sea eastwards to link with rivers flowing into the Bay of Bengal (Bedti-Varda, Netravati-Hemavati, Pamba-Achan-kovil-Vaippar).

All these proposals were studied by the NCIWRDP. After a careful examination of the water balances of the various basins, the Commission observed: "Thus there seems to be no imperative necessity for massive water transfers. 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. Therefore, it is felt that limited water transfer from Godavari at Ichampalli and Polavaram towards the south would take care of the deficit in Cauvery and Vaigai basins... Though surplus is available in Mahanadi also, the transfer from that river would require much longer link and is in any case not required for the immediate future..." (The Commission then takes note of some uncertainties that may affect the above judgment and says that further studies as to the future possibilities of inter-basin transfers need to be continued.)

Three points need to be noted here. First, the assessment that surpluses are available in the Mahanadi and the Godavari is not shared by the Orissa and Andhra Pradesh governments. Secondly, there is considerable opposition to the idea of the eastward diversion of west-flowing rivers. Thirdly, there is irony in the proposition that the answer to the difficulty of persuading Karnataka to release Cauvery waters for Tamil Nadu (a co-riparian State) lies in the even more difficult course of persuading Orissa to spare Mahanadi waters for non-riparian States! We are ready to project a shortage in a basin and draw the conclusion that water must be brought from another basin. In reality, the answer to the sharing problem in the Cauvery lies in both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka learning to reduce their excessive demands on the waters of the river through a combination of measures: the `shortage' will then disappear.

Let us turn from those specifics to theoretical considerations. We cannot simultaneously urge (i) that planning must be on the basis of a basin as a natural hydrological unit, and (ii) that we must cut across the basins and link them. Quite apart from the technical challenges involved, this implies the redrawing of the geography of the country. One's misgivings about that kind of technological hubris or Prometheanism ("the conquest of nature" philosophy) may be dismissed by some as romantic, but the practical difficulties involved cannot be so dismissed.

Barring a few cases where short gravity links may be feasible, inter-basin transfers generally involve the carrying of water across the natural barrier between basins (which is what makes them basins) by lifting, or by tunnelling through, or by a long circuitous routing around the mountains if such a possibility exists in a given case. Exceptionally heavy capital investments and continuing energy costs (in operation) are almost always likely to be involved. In addition, big dams, reservoirs and conveyance systems will need to be built, involving substantial environmental impacts and displacement/rehabilitation problems. All this will need to be looked at very closely in every case. Thorough Environmental Impact Assessments, Cost-Benefit (multi-criteria) analyses, qualitative assessments of non-quantifiable considerations, and based on these, rigorous investment appraisals, will need to be undertaken. Not too many projects are likely to survive such a scrutiny.

Even more serious is the funding problem. Plan outlays are barely adequate even for the completion of projects already undertaken. One estimate - that of the NCIWRDP - of amounts needed to complete spill-over projects is Rs.70,000 crores in the Tenth Plan and Rs.110,000 crores in the Eleventh Plan.

That leaves no scope for new major projects, and necessitates a severe selectivity even in regard to the continuance of what are called `on-going projects'. Against that background, there seems to be little likelihood of finding the massive resources needed for a major river-linking undertaking. The rough figure mentioned in the Supreme Court in this context was Rs.560,000 crores! The popular expression, "One does not know whether to laugh or to cry," comes to mind. One is reminded of the Tamil saying, "Asking for directions to a place to which one is not going." We may be wasting a good deal of time in pursuing such grandiose and unpromising propositions, and distracting ourselves from finding time and money for more modest, worthwhile and urgent activities, such as extensive water-harvesting (wherever feasible) all over the country and the massive task of rehabilitation of tanks in the South and other similar traditional systems (`dying wisdom') elsewhere. Even more important is effective demand management through improved efficiency and economy in water use, whether in agriculture or in industry or in domestic and municipal uses, so as to minimise the need for supply-side solutions.

We must hope that the task force that is to be set up as directed by the Supreme Court will consider not merely the `modalities' of the `linking of rivers' but also the soundness and wisdom of the idea. Any headlong rush in the pursuit of this chimera will be disastrous.


The Prime Minister has announced the setting up of a task force on the linking of rivers, and has declared that this task will be taken up on a war-footing. The Leader of the Opposition has welcomed this undertaking. The Government of India was bound to act on a direction of the Supreme Court, but it is interesting that it has done so with uncharacteristic promptitude and enthusiasm. The reasons for this are not far to seek. The Supreme Court has presented the ruling party with a politically attractive proposition, and that party has been quick to adopt it and make fervent declarations: it evidently hopes to extract considerable political advantage out of this dramatic project (or clutch of projects). The Opposition, for its part, cannot afford to be seen as opposing an idea that seems to be in the national interest, and has been obliged to welcome it. That is the political dimension; there is also a bureaucratic angle.

The Ministry of Water Resources at the Centre has for long been trying to enlarge its role, but has been finding this difficult because of resistance by the State bureaucracies. Against that background, the Supreme Court's direction on the linking of rivers must have been very welcome to it, because any such large national undertaking on inter-State rivers is bound to enlarge its role substantially. Not only is its `clout' vis-a-vis the State bureaucracies likely to increase, but its relative importance among the Ministries at the Centre may also go up. Its position will be further strengthened if there is new legislation to underpin the river-linking idea.

Further, it is interesting to note that the Prime Minister, who gave a resounding call at the last meeting of the National Water Resources Council for a national campaign on rainwater-harvesting and for the recognition of the community as the custodian of water resources, has not set up any task force to promote those ideas, but has done so promptly on the linking of rivers, and that there is considerable excitement in governmental circles over this idea. Gigantism always casts an irresistible spell on our bureaucracy and technocracy as well as on our politicians. One is dismayed at the thought of the enormous `opportunities' that public expenditures of the magnitude involved will present to certain elements in the bureaucracy/technocracy and the political class; but that is another story.

Ramaswamy R. Iyer, former Secretary, Water Resources, in the Government of India, is Honorary Research Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He has been a consultant to the World Bank in a review of water sector strategy, a consultant to the World Commission on Dams for a study of India's experience with large dams, a member of India's National Commission on Integrated Water Resource Planning, and a member of the `Vision 2020 Committee' of the Planning Commission.

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