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Interlinking Rivers -The Millennial Folly

By Shailendra Nath Ghosh

15 May, 2003

The Vajpayee government’s resolve to link up all major rivers of the country, if acted upon, will go down in history as the millennial folly. This is because it defies all ecological, politico-economic and human cost considerations and its dimensions are unprecedentedly massive. Nowhere in the world has there ever been a project of this magnitude and complexity.

The prime minister and the parliamentarians who greeted his announcement with eclat probably think that if there can be a network of roadways, why not a network of rivers as well. This reflects lack of thinking about the characteristics of the country’s basic resources – soils, rivers, estuaries, mountains and forests and the peculiarities of the climatic conditions as also their interactions.

No doubt, Sir Arthur Cotton, who had originally conceived the idea of networking the rivers for inland navigation and K.L. Rao, who revived the idea in the eighties for purposes of irrigation and power, were both world-class engineers. But engineers often fail to perceive the wider issues involved.

Before coming to a decision, the government ought to have addressed itself to a few crucial questions: Which are the water-surplus areas of the country? Except for the Brahmaputra basin in North East India, is there any area which is really water surplus? Do not the Ganga water-fed states, which get flooded during the rainy season, suffer from water scarcity during the dry season? What are the basic reasons for the alternating phenomena of flooding and scarcity?

How correct is the prevailing concept of irrigation? Except paddy and sugarcane, is any other crop high in water demand? Do not the other crops require just moisture, as distinct from flow irrigation? Is not irrigation, beyond the very frugal, ruinous to soil? Is the practice of cultivating rice after rice in the same year not an invitation to long term salinity and barrenness?

Neither Karnataka, nor Tamil Nadu, nor Andhra Pradesh are so deficient in rainfall as Rajasthan or Gujarat. Nevertheless, why is the demand for importing water from another region more vociferous there? Is it not due to the cropping patterns of their large landholders whose only concern is money profits at the cost of the health of their soils? Since the drought affected state of Rajasthan will not be a beneficiary of the link-up, will it have to be treated as a hopeless case? Have we cared to assess the impact of flow irrigation from the Indira Gandhi Canal on the soils of Rajasthan? Although we take pride in the green it has produced, are we not simultaneously experiencing an increase in salinity in this arid region’s soils which will hurt us for centuries to come?

While we talk of linking up all major rivers, how will we link up the Brahmaputra with the Ganga in the face of Bangladesh’s refusal to allow the digging of a link canal through its territory? If we want to achieve the link-up of these two mighty rivers only through India’s territorial space, what are the formidable technological challenges involved and their cost implications? Have not East Bihar and West Bengal been complaining about insufficient water supply from the Ganga? Will not this project aggravate their sense of grievance and accentuate inter-state conflicts? Will not Bangladesh, a riparian state, take the issue of attenuated supply to the international fora? Can we unilaterally abrogate the India-Bangladesh Treaty of December 1996 on the sharing of Ganga waters, under which India had undertaken to protect the flows at Farakka, which is the sharing point?

Will not the networking mean a flow of pollutants from higher gradients to cause distress to lower levels?

Have there been such spells of successive four or five years of drought in peninsular India that the problem cannot be faced without importing the glacial waters of the Himalaya? And, if this is indeed the case, how will they and the rest of India face the situation in future, in the context of the now receding snowlines of the Himalaya?

The government has for long been talking about basin-wise development programmes. Does not this scheme conflict with that approach? While the country is now tending to accept the concept of local jal swaraj – the concept that decentralised methods of water harvesting can meet all legitimate water demands – does not this grandiose scheme directly militate against the new awareness?

There are yet deeper questions. Sadly, neither the Union government nor any state government provides any indication of having addressed even the above obvious questions. And our populist politicos in the different states have developed a peculiar mindset. They think their job is to get more and more water from wherever they can to enable its use by the locals for immediate gain whatever the longterm consequences. That over-irrigation condemned Mesopotamia in West Asia, once the cradle of civilization, to barrenness for the last three thousand years, does not deter them. Few care to remember that the districts of Layalpur, Montgomery and Sargoda (now in Pakistan), which were, half a century back, the showpieces of irrigation-induced prosperity, are now suffering from low productivity and having to fight the scourge of salinity.

In our own country, the water-logging and soil salinity that we have been experiencing in the Bhakra canal command area in Punjab and in the Sardar Sahayak canal command area in U.P. tell the same story. (These are the sad facts which Justice B.N. Kirpal missed in the judgment in the Sardar Sarovar Dam height case, where he waxed eloquent on Punjab’s irrigation induced prosperity.) Some years back, the FAO estimated that nearly 50 per cent of the world’s irrigated areas had become saline. But the internationally recognised authority and highly respected soil scientist, Professor Kovda, who passed away a decade back, had placed the estimate at 80 per cent. The estimates varied because of the nature of irrigation under observation (flow irrigation, or tubewell or borewell irrigation) and the duration of the observation.

Deeper questions of ecology always get bypassed in our country. We rarely try to fathom the various functions of a river – that its functions are (i) to carry the salts and toxins from the basin to the sea; (ii) to supply sweet water to the estuaries so that the intermingling of sweet and salt water may cause a welling up to celebrate the emergence of new lives by invigorating the reproduction spree of aquatic animals – fish, sea fowls, crabs, oysters etc; (iii) to maintain the hydrologic cycle; (iv) to carry detritus to the oceanic phytoplanktons to enable them to release the major portion of the globe’s oxygen to support aerobic life. We can impede these functions only at our peril.

Also the fact needs to be grasped that each river’s water properties are different from those of every other river, depending on the characteristics of its source, its catchment area and the basin as a whole. The difference of water properties lies not only in their hardness or softness but also mineral content, extent of aeration, transparency, electro-chemical properties, and healing power. On these distinctive properties depend the kind of aquatic species they nurture, the varieties of insects and birds that hover over their water surface and nestle on their banks.

The hilsa fish that the Ganga water helps spawn is peculiarly its own. Dolphins are seen in only a few rivers – that too, of differing varieties. The differences in varieties of birds and insects river-wise are also considerable. This biodiversity is important. What value which underwater or abovewater species has for maintaining the web of life or for mankind’s own welfare, nobody knows. Limited study has been done on these aspects, river-segment-wise. In the USA, when the large Tellico Dam was nearing completion, despite colossal expenditure, the courts ordered the abandonment of the project simply because the river was home to the small dart fish not present anywhere else. If our major rivers are interconnected, many species of life will disappear and many varieties within each species of fish, molluscs, insects, birds and other animals will become extinct. The loss will be irretrievable.

Let us now take a look at some already revealed aspects. R.K. Murthy, a retired engineer of the Neyvelli Lignite Corporation, has revealed that during Indira Gandhi’s time the project was seriously discussed and given up because of formidable geographic-technological hurdles and mind-boggling costs.

‘At Patna, which is the only point along the course with a divertible surplus, the Ganga flows 200 ft. above the mean sea level (MSL). If it has to be linked with any river in the peninsula, the water has to be raised over the Vindhyan chain – i.e. to 2860 ft. above MSL. Pumping 20,000 cusecs of water to that height would have required the entire day’s power generated in the country at that time.’ The requirement was estimated at 90,000 MW of electric power.

Assuming that the scheme has now been so modified that instead of lifting the water over the Vindhyan heights the waterway is lengthened to circumnavigate the mountain ranges, even then the costs will be unbearably high. Reportedly, the rough figure that was mentioned before the Supreme Court is a mind-boggling Rs 5,60,000 crore. No agency anywhere in the world would even look at this project for funding.

The modified plan which seeks to get Brahmaputra water for the Ganga from Manas in Arunachal Pradesh and to redirect the flow of the Ganga-Mahanadi link from the West/North East to South East (by gravity) and South of the mountains, and the flow of the Mahanadi-Godavari link from the East to South-West/South (by gravity) may look nice on paper. One has to exclaim in Shakespearean language, ‘There are many things in heaven and earth, Mr River-Diversion Engineer, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

These engineers would be advised to remember the fate of the erstwhile Soviet Union’s plan to divert the snowmelts of Siberian rivers to feed the rivers of Central Asian republics. The experiment failed miserably as salt water incursion and other forms of ecological disaster occurred wherever the canal came up and the scheme had to be abandoned in the 1980s. The experience in California (USA) of interlinking two rivers, too, proved deleterious. It caused huge salt build-up. Besides, by preventing the water from reaching the ocean, it seriously affected coastal ecology.

Let us suppose for a moment that despite the enormous risks, the country decides to take up the interlinking project. The cost in terms of human displacement will, in that case, be terrible. In the words of C. Rammanohar Reddy: ‘The construction of barrages and excavation of thousands of kilometres of canals will make villages disappear, flood towns, and cut through millions of hectares of agricultural lands. It will uproot millions, the number exceeding the population shifts of Partition.’

There is yet another kind of cost. Many rivers have already become open sewers. In the new set-up, pollution control will be even more difficult. Hence larger segments of many more rivers will turn into drains.

Evidently, the inter-state conflict over Cauvery water has revived interest in the interlinking project. But the conflict was caused by the twin evils of unsound cropping practices and the disuse of traditional and highly efficacious rain water harvesting systems. The large landholders of the Thanjavur delta in Tamil Nadu keep insisting on three crops of water intensive paddy for short term commercial gains. In Karnataka, the farmers of Mandya have been cultivating sugarcane, a water intensive cash crop, in the name of protecting their agricultural right.

These practices are comparable to the other distortion – namely, the cultivation of paddy, the highest water-demanding crop, in the scanty rainfall area of Punjab, and the cultivation of sugarcane on a large scale in Maharashtra. Before our very eyes, India’s fertile soils are marching towards salination. The Union and the state governments are presiding over this march towards ruination. Now, they are going further ahead into succumbing to the myopic large farmers’ demand for connecting the rivers so that the latter can grow more cash crops unsuited to their soils. Somebody will have to write a new Mahabharata of our blind kings acquiescing in the conversion of this once fertile country into a vast wasteland.

I.C. Mahapatra, a noted agronomist, has suggested an alternative crop pattern for Karnataka and Tamil Nadu requiring minimal water. It will save their soil and possibly yield them higher income as well as create a better nutritional status for the people.

‘In non-irrigated (rainfed) areas, Karnataka can go in for ragi, jowar, bajra, horsegram, redgram, groundnut, castor and coconut. In irrigated conditions, it can choose from sugarcane, maize, brinjal, chillies, mulberry, tomato, potato, turmeric, ginger, grapes, banana and betel. In Tamil Nadu, 62 per cent of the river basin grows rice thrice – kuruvai, thaladi, and samba. Our study shows that a single crop of samba variety will give far higher yield than thaladi or kuruvai crops. Apart from rice, the state should opt for ragi, groundnut, sesame, castor, blackgram, greengram, sugarcane and cotton.’ (Down to Earth, 15 November 2002).

There is no point in engaging in grandiose projects inviting bankruptcy while continuing to kill the preexisting rainwater harvesting structures whose efficacy was acknowledged the highest in the world. Today, in Karnataka, ‘at least 11,000 traditional water harvesting structures such as tanks and ponds have silted up and dried, as the local farming communities, which maintained and used them, have stopped doing so.’ In Tamil Nadu, there had been wonderful ‘Eries’ in large numbers whose efficiency were the marvels of the world’s experts. These are now suffering neglect. Besides, Tamil Nadu has been destroying the potential of some of its rivers by sand quarrying. The sorry spectacle of the Qoom river running as an open sewer in the city of Chennai itself shows how it has been taking care of its own water resources.

Whether in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka or Kutch, there is no need for a big project for water. According to India’s eminent meteorologist, P.R. Pisharoty, who passed away three months back, ‘If the rainfall over the area is merely 50 cm per year, then all the water requirements can be met by local rainwater harvesting techniques.’

A number of recent experiments in the arid zones of Rajasthan and several other states have conclusively proved that local water harvesting techniques can meet all legitimate needs. But big project oriented engineers tend to play down their potential. They seem to have succeeded in brainwashing the present rulers. The ‘Link the Rivers’ project is virtual repudiation of the decentralised water harvesting technologies. It is also the denial of the potential of percolation tanks which, if resurrected, can help cope with successive years of drought by preserving water in the underground, in evaporation-free condition. It is also a disavowal of the government’s own advocacy hitherto for conjunctive storage of water. Plainly, this is surrender to the clamour of large landholders who seek to cultivate a series of high water demanding crops to the detriment of their soils, in their short term interest of money profits.

The fundamental problem of India’s water resource is the Himalayan snow fed rivers’ rate of siltation, which is highest in the world. Because of this the raised beds of the rivers are unable to hold enough water. This maximises the wasteful runoff to the sea, causes floods during the rains and water shortage during the dry season. The primary task, therefore, is to desilt and deepen the rivers, re-excavate the canals, reforest the Himalaya and all other mountain ranges and hills, and reforest both sides of the banks from their source to the deltas. These basic tasks will get sidetracked by the grandiose project of linking up the rivers.

The government must first study (i) which crops are suitable – or otherwise – for specific climatic conditions; (ii) which combination of crops, including coarse cereals, pulses and oilseeds, is most suitable for nutritional needs; and (iii) which kind of irrigation and/or drainage is suitable thereof.

While noise is being made about great navigation opportunities to be provided by the inland water grid, not even the first step has been taken for encouraging large-scale boat movement in the existing inland waterways to carry cargo. The water-driven crafts are known to be the cheapest mode of transportation. Sane thinking will also suggest that oil slick spreading vessels ought not to be permitted in the inland waterways in the interest of maintaining purity of water and preserving aquatic life.

So far as the lure of electricity is concerned, the first thing that needs to be laid down is that electricity supply for the burgeoning industries or landed estates is counterproductive unless foolproof measures are first taken to see that no untreated or half-treated effluents/sludge is unloaded in the rivers. For these are the agencies which have been converting the rivers into open sewers.

In view of the ecological, economic and human costs and the likely negative consequences of the project, as narrated above, the government would be well advised to retreat from this Tughlaqian project. And the Supreme Court, in its wisdom, may possibly review its own order, suo motu, in the country’s interest.