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September 20, 2012

Governance & Politics|Natural Resources

The River Linking Project

By Nitin Desai


Why do infrastructure projects in India fall prey to giganticism? Is it the grandiose vision of engineers whose culture is one of manipulating nature? Is it a certain escapism amongst planners who look to gigantic megaprojects in the vain hope that they will rescue us from persistent shortages? Is it politicians who suffer from delusions of grandeur?

The National River Linking Project (NRLP) is a spectacular instance of this.  It is the largest water resource project ever contemplated by anyone anywhere.  The project involves a scale that is four times larger than the South to North water transfer project and the Three Gorges dam in China, that paradise of grandiose engineering. It will be five times larger than all inter-basin water transfers completed in the U.S.A, that other paradise of over enthusiastic engineers.  Its presently estimated cost of Rs 560000 crores (which will undoubtedly be vastly exceeded in the decades that will be required to complete the project) exceeds the total amount spent on irrigation by various Governments in India from 1830 onwards. 

The project involves  30 links, 3000 storages and 14900 kms of canals in two distinct components: the Himalayan and the Peninsular. The former will transfer 33 billion cubic meters (cum) of water, and the latter will transfer 141 billion cum of water through the network of canals with some of the water having to be lifted from the plains to the Deccan Plateau using some 3700MW of power.

Most of the project reports on the various works have yet to be prepared and the highly integrated project is still not much more than an engineering dream (and an ecological nightmare).  Despite this lack of preparation, the Supreme court has instructed the Government not just to consider the project but to implement it by 2016 at the risk of inviting contempt action if it fails to do so.

The work involved in implementing the project is mind boggling.  The canals, which will range from 50 to 200 meters in width may require the acquisition of 3000 sq.km of land and the 3000 storages two or three times more than that. The amount of excavation required will run into billions of cubic meters of earth and rock. The number of project teams that will have to be deployed to implement all the links and storages within the Supreme Court's time frame will far exceed the present capacity of water resource departments. Add to this the diplomatic complications of securing the agreement of Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh and one wonders whether we can even start implementing the Himalayan part before the Court's deadline is upon us.

The court was presumably driven by the impact of potential scarcity of water on people's lives. Is this grandiose dream-cum-nightmare the way to go?

India receives some 4000 billion cubic metres (cum) of water and even if only half can be used it gives a per capita availability above the commonly accepted stress level of  1700 cum. But there are two basic problems with this arithmetic.  First, with rising population per capita availability will fall below the stress threshold.  Second, the distribution of the water availability by region and over the seasons is very skewed and there are periods of stress even now. But does this amount to a sufficient argument for large scale inter-basin transfers?

There is a naive belief that we can solve the problem if the flood waters of the Ganga-Brahmaputra system can be diverted to the drier areas in the Deccan plateau.  The water surplus in the donor area of the Ganga-Brahmaputra basin arises in July-October and cannot be made available in the Deccan at the time needed which is January–May without enormous holding reservoirs.  Many of these would have to be situated in Bhutan and Nepal and they may well not be willing to sacrifice land and livelihood for protecting the distant Deccan from water stress.

The other piece of naivete is the idea that because the water comes as a flood and flows unused by humans to the sea it is wasted.  This fails altogether to recognise the ecosystem use of water for maintaining the health of the river and the groundwater aquifers that need these flood flows.  Holding back water may worsen pollution stress downstream and transferring water from one basin to another may carry pollution where at present it is not a problem.  The water flowing into the sea is a necessary part of the littoral  circulation of water and any drastic reduction may have severe ecological consequences on fisheries, wetlands and even shore installations like ports.  The recent controversies about hydel projects in the upper Ganga tributaries are essentially about ecological issues.

What then can be done in basins where water availability will dip well below the stress level?

Many professionally qualified observers believe that much more can be done to balance supply and demand by improving the efficiency with which water is used, particularly in agriculture, reducing urban losses through leakages from poorly maintained pipes and encouraging recycling in industry.  Supplies also can be augmented with rain water harvesting and, in coastal areas, if required, with desalination whose costs are coming down quite substantially. In fact the Government's own National Commission on Integrated Water Resource Development Plan commented, “there seems to be no imperative necessity for massive water transfers. The assessed needs of basins could be met from full development and efficient utilization of intra-basin resources except in the case of Cauvery and Vaigai basins."

Questioning the case for the NRLP does not mean that one has to oppose every inter basin links.  In fact we already have several like the Beas-Sutlej link and the Kurnool Cuddapah canal.  But it is one thing to proceed a step at a time when detailed studies establish the need, the feasibility and the overall beneficial impact of a specific link.  It is an altogether different matter to commit oneself to implementing a gigantic scheme of interrelated links that have yet to be studied and that too in a time frame far shorter than what we have experienced so far in water projects.

May one hope that the Court will review its decision and allow us to proceed a step at a time to solve India's water problem?

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