Rivers, Interlinking Disputes?
By A. Vaidyanathan
The Hindu, March
The concept of interlinking
rivers is evidently appealing to considerable sections of the general
public and to policy-makers. More than three decades ago, K. L. Rao
proposed the linking of the Ganga and the Cauvery. It was followed by
Dastur's plan for a garland canal, linking all the major rivers in the
country. Both the proposals attracted considerable attention. But due
to widespread criticism of their feasibility, desirability and viability,
these were shelved.
In the 1990s, the Government
appointed a Commission to examine the strategy of water resource development,
including the possibility of interlinking rivers. Its report - which
is not available to the public - is understood to have given cautious
support, subject to a careful examination of all relevant aspects, to
the idea of link canals to divert surplus waters from some selected
rivers to the water-short basins and regions.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court,
on a public interest litigation, directed the Centre to draw up and
implement by 2015 a programme to interlink major rivers. Subsequently,
the Prime Minister announced the Government's decision to act on the
court directive and appointed a task force to ensure the implementation
of the project by 2015. The task force headed by Suresh Prabhu is now
The popular appeal of interlinking
rivers is based on the understanding that an enormous amount of water
of our rivers flows into the sea and that if only this is prevented,
and water transferred from water-abundant rivers to water-deficit areas,
there will be adequate supply for everyone in every part of the country.
At another level, the project is seen as promoting national integration
and a fair sharing of the country's natural water wealth. Both these
presumptions are far too simplistic.
Whether the linking of rivers
will promote integration or generate more disputes and tensions is a
moot question. Besides, several obvious, but prima facie important,
questions about the concept, and the feasibility, desirability and viability
of the proposal need to be clarified before its implementation can be
considered seriously. The belief that interlinking is necessary to ensure
adequate and safe water supply to everyone and everywhere is wholly
misplaced. Domestic use currently accounts for a mere five per cent
of the total use of water harnessed through canals, tanks, wells and
The requirements are no doubt
growing rapidly but will still be relatively small compared to those
of other uses. Interlinking is hardly justified as the solution for
this problem. Even if interlinking were justified for other reasons,
it will not be possible to reach the water to all the habitations without
huge investments in a centralised distribution network. Decentralised
local rain-water harvesting, by reviving and improving traditional techniques,
can meet essential requirements for domestic purposes more effectively
and at a far lesser cost.
By far, the largest user
of harnessed water is agriculture. Currently, more than 85 per cent
of water from canals, tanks and wells and tube-wells is used for irrigation.
The demand on this account is growing and will continue to be, by far,
the biggest claimant on available supplies. There is much scope for
increasing the efficiency of the irrigation systems in place by reducing
waste and through better water management. Measures needed for this
purpose - by way of investment in physical improvements and institutional
reform - are not receiving due attention.
The need for irrigation arises
in regions and seasons when rainfall is inadequate for raising crops
and obtaining optimum yields. The total rainfall is adequate to meet
crop water requirements in the kharif season over large parts of the
country. Irrigation is required essentially to tide over inadequate
soil moisture during dry spells within the season. There are, of course,
some areas - especially in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, parts of Gujarat,
Tamil Nadu - which need irrigation during the kharif season. Practically
everywhere, including the northwest, irrigation is essential between
November and June. So far, these imbalances have been met by constructing
storages to store monsoon surpluses for use in the dry season and by
exploiting groundwater. Some areas, such as Tamil Nadu, have exhausted
the potential for harnessing the surface flows. In several others, the
possibilities for constructing storage are limited. Groundwater resources
are already under a severe stress. The scope for expansion is limited.
In many areas, the problem is to check expansion and contain the rate
of exploitation. It is in this context that interlinking is seen as
a way out.
A closer examination of the
interlinking idea raises several questions: First, it is based on the
presumption that there are large surplus flows in some basins and that
the physical transfer is feasible in terms of physical engineering,
and can be accomplished economically without creating any adverse impact.
On what basis and who determines
the surplus basins and the magnitude of the surplus? The volume of flows
during the flood season is misleading as a basis for judging surpluses.
Nor can the regions where floods occur be considered water surplus.
Most of them may have floods in the monsoon but have inadequate water
for use in the dry season. Substantial tracts in these regions do not
have the benefit of irrigation. Estimates of surplus made by Central
agencies such as the National Water Development Agency are hotly contested
by the States.
A more serious difficulty
arises from the fact that most of the flow in practically all rivers
occurs during the southwest monsoon. Published data from official sources
show that 90 per cent of the flow in south Indian rivers occurs between
May and November. Data on the Indo-Gangetic and Brahmaputra river basins
are classified. Being perennial, the proportion of the total flow occurring
during these months may be somewhat smaller but not all that much smaller.
For instance, over 80 per cent of the annual flow in the Kosi is between
May and November; and almost three fourths between June and October.
The monsoon happens to be
the season when rainfall in the aggregate is adequate for crop growth.
Of course in some regions, such as Rajasthan and parts of Gujarat and
the Deccan, even the kharif rain is far too low and variable for productive
agriculture. In some others, more water could help switch to more productive
crop patterns. These "deficit" regions are far from those
considered "surplus" requiring transport over very difficult
terrain and long distances.
Moreover, since the surplus
occurs in the rainy season and the demand is in the dry season, it is
not enough to merely carry the water from one point to another. Large
storages will be necessary. One needs to know the quantum of water to
be stored, and whether and where potential sites on the required scale
are available, and their likely impact on environment and human displacement.
All we have to go by are
some maps published in the media, purportedly from the Hashim Report,
indicating from which rivers and at which locations surpluses will be
diverted and to which river(s), and at what points in these rivers the
diverted water will be taken. There is no information on the quantum
of water to be transferred through different link canals; the extent
and location of the area to be benefited at the receiving end; and the
distribution system through which water is to be distributed to this
The maps and the sketchy
accounts in the media and official pronouncements tell us little on
these aspects. If these maps accurately reflect the concept of the interlinking
projects sought to be implemented, it will only mean that instead of
the surplus flows flowing to the Bay of Bengal via the Ganges and the
Brahmaputra and the Mahanadi, they will flow to the sea through the
Krishna, the Godavari, the Pennar or wherever!
Enthusiasts of interlinking
of rivers tend to be dismissive of the concerns over the environmental
and human consequences of the project. They claim that these fears are
vastly exaggerated or argue that they are unavoidable costs of "development"
and that they should not be allowed to hold back the project. One has
to be extraordinarily insensitive not to recognise the consequences
of ignoring these aspects in our water resource planning in the past.
They are reflected in the callous manner in which displaced persons
have been treated, land degradation due to misuse of water, depletion
of groundwater and the growing pollution of water sources. The experience
of the Indira Gandhi Canal is a stark example of the problems arising
in the wake of bringing in vast amounts of water without adequate understanding
of and concern for its impact on the fragile desert ecology.
There are also good reasons
to be sceptical about the state of preparation for the interlinking
projects. Anyone familiar with the planning of projects such as Bhakra
Nangal and Sardar Sarovar knows that the detailed investigations and
site surveys preparatory to the design and the analyses and studies
needed for the actual design take many years of intensive effort and
expense by a large body of experts in diverse fields. A mega project
of such complexity as interlinking of rivers calls for preparatory work
of far, far greater dimensions. Moreover, the quality of preparatory
investigations and surveys for many, if not most, of the irrigation
and water resource projects leave much to be desired. Inadequate investigations,
changes in scope and design, huge cost escalations and inordinate delays
in completing projects are all-too-familiar features of irrigation planning
in the recent decades.
Under these circumstances,
it is difficult to believe that the interlinking programme has been
worked out in sufficient detail to qualify for serious examination,
leave alone immediate implementation. The best way to counter this scepticism
is to make all the studies, analyses and reports available for public
There is little authenticated
information on the likely cost of the programme and its various component
projects. Figures as high as Rs. 5,600 billion are mentioned but no
details are available. This is about 50 times the total allocation for
the ongoing water resource development projects in the Tenth Plan.
In a situation of severe
resource scarcity, the question of the relative priorities to be accorded
to the improvement of existing facilities and the expeditious completion
of viable projects on hand as against mega projects based on questionable
premises is particularly relevant. This issue ought to be debated seriously.
Questions about the sources of funds for interlinking tend to be dismissed
cavalierly. The notion that private sources can be attracted is the
height of naiveté and wishful thinking. A Government already
saddled with huge public debt, and whose precarious fiscal situation
continues to deteriorate rapidly, can hardly expect the financial institutions
to fork out such large sums for a programme, the content and economic
viability of which have not been assessed.
There are also important
institutional and legal issues to be sorted out. There is no provision
for any mechanism to deal with matters concerning inter-basin transfers.
The Centre has no legal authority to decide on this and no State will
agree to vest the authority with the Centre. There is talk of deciding
these matters through consultation and consensus among the States. One
can hardly take this seriously, given our experience with the working
of existing laws and procedures for dealing with water allocation between
the States within the same basin. The allocation of water among riparian
States even within a single river basin has so far been determined by
law through negotiated legal agreements and treaties, and by judicial
and quasi-judicial mechanisms such as tribunals. We know from experience
how contentious, prolonged and difficult this process is. The awards
themselves have so far been accepted as binding on all the States concerned
and the Centre. But the implementation of these awards has given rise
to innumerable inter-State conflicts, which the Centre, despite the
powers given to it under the law and its financial clout, has been unable
to prevent or settle. These disputes and conflicts are the subject of
numerous litigations. The courts have been cautious in dealing with
these cases and have instead suggested that they be settled through
mutual discussion, arbitration, Central mediation and other extra-judicial
This caution is both wise
and understandable, given the complexity of the issues involved and
the fact that courts have no means to enforce the judgments and the
record of compliance by Governments is at best mixed. No judgment or
award can satisfy all the interested parties. Indeed, of late, the States
are pleading their inability to enforce court judgments on grounds that
they are unfair and likely to cause unmanageable law and order problems.
Instances of Governments condoning blatant violations of their own rules
regarding allocation of uses of water and acquiescing or even permitting
the violation of established rules regarding the rights of access and
use are distressingly widespread.
These questions are pertinent
and basic to a considered assessment of the river-linking programme.
In the absence of satisfactory answers, criticisms of the decision to
go ahead with the implementation of the project are reasonable and legitimate.
The current discussions in the media and on public forums hardly focus
on these issues, much less help allay the apprehensions. That would
call for a serious, open and informed debate based on facts and analyses.
Regrettably, apart from a few sketch maps purported to be taken from
the Hashim Commission report, very little information on the specific
schemes envisaged, details of their design, environmental impact, displacement,
and likely costs and benefits is available in the public domain.
Even the main report of the
Commission, though claimed to be a priced publication, cannot be obtained
from either the Ministry or the Publications Division. The annexure
to the report, in which the details have reportedly been discussed,
are considered secret.
Time was when the opinions
of the Government's irrigation establishment were accepted without much
question. Times have changed. There is much greater awareness now that
there is more, much more to water resource development than constructing
dams and canals, that the process of scrutiny and appraisal is at once
too narrow, too lax and too secretive, and that there is now a sizeable
body of knowledge and expertise on water resource management outside
the Government. The assessments of the engineering establishments are
no longer taken as beyond challenge. Hardly anyone takes seriously,
much less accepts, the claim that "the National Perspective Plan
(linking rivers) has been drawn up by a scientific and professional
organisation, conceptually and technically upheld by the Technical Advisory
Committee of the Ministry of Water Resources, the Central Water Commission
and the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development
Plan... " and that "... the studies have been ratified by
engineers, sociologists and economists". If this is so, why should
the details of these studies and appraisals be a closely-held secret,
instead of being made public to facilitate informed discussion?
The least that Suresh Prabhu,
head of the task force on interlinking rivers, can do is to make all
the relevant reports and documents available to the public and provide
an opportunity for various interested "stake holders" to voice
(The writer is Professor
Emeritus, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.)