Rivers -The Millennial Folly
By Shailendra Nath Ghosh
15 May, 2003
The Vajpayee governments
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 countrys 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 regions 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 Bangladeshs 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 Indias 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
Will not the networking mean
a flow of pollutants from higher gradients to cause distress to lower
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 Punjabs irrigation induced prosperity.)
Some years back, the FAO estimated that nearly 50 per cent of the worlds
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 globes oxygen to support aerobic life. We can impede these
functions only at our peril.
Also the fact needs to be
grasped that each rivers 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 mankinds 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 Gandhis
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 days 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 Unions 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, Indias 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
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 worlds 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
Indias 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
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 governments 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
Indias 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 countrys