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Interlinking of Rivers: At what cost?

By M V Kamath

In recent times there has been a great deal of talk on interlinking of rivers right from the north to the south and from the west to the east. The concept is very romantic. Fancy some one in Tamil Nadu being able to drink the water of holy Ganga! The thought is mind-boggling. But several questions of late are being asked. Is it really worthwhile to interlink Indian rivers? Is the concept cost-effective? Is it economically viable? Is it ecologically acceptable? The more such questions are asked, the more doubts are being raised and current thinking in responsible quarters is that howsoever noble the aims of our policy-makers, it is wisdom to go slow in pursuing a vain dream.

Even Bangladesh with which India had a "goodwill" treaty in the matter of sharing the waters of the Ganga is now having second thoughts. There is currently a lot of media focus in our neighbouring state on India's plan to interlink rivers so much so that some Bangladesh professionals have written to the Supreme Court to scrap the entire interlinking programme completely.

Even within India itself there are second thoughts over the entire project. Maharashtra's evolving view, for example, is that the proposed inter-linking of national rivers has no benefits at all for the sate and it would rather prefer its river basins to be interconnected at a cost of Rs 56,067 crore. According to one authority what Maharashtra needs is interlinking of its own rivers, rather than interlinking of national rivers. According to estimates prepared, linking the Marmada and Tapi basins would cost Rs 900 crore, linking the Krishna-Bhima basins Rs 6,000 crore, lift irrigation scheme from the Pochampad backwaters Rs 12,000 crore and connecting the Vainganaga and Wardha basins another Rs 4000 crores.

Maharashtra is reported to feel that a proposed transfer of water by the Mahanadi- Vaigai link would see a share of 33.31 per cent to Andhra Pradesh, 19.82 per cent to Karnataka and 25.90 per cent to Tamil Nadu while Maharashtra's share would be "a meagre quantity of 6.71 per cent and that, too, from its own contributions". No state wants to be generous to others where river water is concerned.

What needs to be stressed is that costing of the project is highly subjective. To be honest, very little factual information is available. According to a paper presented at a meeting of the Indian Institute of Engineers in Pune in June this year by Nilakantha Rath, the total cost of the river-interlinking project is around Rs 5,60,000 crore, of which the Peninsular component will cost Rs 1,06,000 crore, the hydro-electric component will cost Rs. 2,69,000 crore and the Himalayan component will cost Rs 1,85,000 crore. The total power generated will be 3,400 crore Watts 400 crore Watts in the Peninsular component and 3,000 crore Watts in the Himalayan component.

According to Rath, the capital cost per Watt of electricity, calculated without any interest over the construction period will be around Rs 89.6. The figures are mind-boggling. But that is only one part of the price the consumer has to pay.

What is not being realised is that at the very least some 3 million people will be displaced if the interlinking project is seriously taken on hand causing untold hardship to them. Where and how are these people to be re-housed and rehabilitated? Will the government of one state accept people from another state should an exigency arise? Then the point is being made that river-linking will really not ensure water for all but merely huge tracts of food-growing soil.

According to one expert, Aditi Roy Ghatak, writing in The Tribune (20 August): "It will not stop the flooding because the rivers are often simultaneously in spate. The Gangetic plain can hardly deal with the excess Brahmaputra waters when the Ganga is overflowing. It will not solve water disputes but places every state against the other over riparian rights. It will not bring peace, but, by displacing some three million people, will tear asunder societies all over the country. It will provide no permanent solutions but temporary ones..." But what really is implied in the i n t e r l i n i n g s c h e m e ?

Essentially, the task is to bring the glacial waters of the m e l t i n g H i m a l a y a n snows to the parched peninsula by literally tapping the flood waters from 14 Himalayan tributaries of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra in North India and Nepal and transferring them to the South via a series of canals and pumping stations across the Vindhya mountains to replenish, so to speak, 17 southern rivers including the Godavari, the Krishna and the Kaveri.

According to experts this will entail construction of some 300 reservoirs and digging more than 1,000 km of canals. A plan of a similar kind was envisaged long ago by a British engineer but his idea was not so much to bring water to thirsty millions as to make travel and transport easier for colonial administrators. The idea was given up as quickly as it was presented. Today's dreamers have something else in mind. They point out that in normal circumstances about two-thirds of the 1.9 trillion cubic meters of rainwater in the Indian rivers goes to the sea and is thus wasted. Nobody seems to have given the slightest thought to what would happen to the fish and marine life if the seas, if this water with its rich organic content is recklessly denied it, for ever and ever.

Surely, environmentalists argue, when God made rivers He had the good of fish life in the oceans also at heart? Does mere man have the right to disturb what God has created? Then there is the question of how engineers will handle Vindhyas which divide North India from the South. True, the Vidhyas cannot be compared to the Himalayas but for all that there they stand in all majesty and cannot be ignored.

Dr S. Kalyanaraman, former Asian Development Bank executive is reported as saying that water from the north would be linked with rivers of the south not by lifting water but by circumnavigating the mountains. He is quoted as saying: "North of the mountains the flow of the link between the Ganga and the Mahanandi will be from the west/north east to the south east (by gravity) and the south of the Vindhya mountains, the flow of link between the Mahanadi ad the Godavari will be from the east to the south west/south (by gravity)." Not all engineers and technicians think this is possible. Debashish Chatterjee, a former Geomorphologist in charge of the Geological Survey of India, Eastern region, is quoted as saying that "transferring water from one valley to another across the water divide is a geographical and physical impossibility". He should know.

Our engineers obviously think they can work miracles. Miracles may be worked but as many want to know: are they worth the price? What is disconcerting is the report that the Task Force on interlinking of rivers has already finalised its Action Plan I. The Peninsular links are to be taken up first, if reports are to be believed. But can any action be taken without formal assent by Parliament and, just as importantly, by the states? And what about the people who will be affected? Are they going to be ignored? Not even all scientists are agreed with the wisdom of the interlinking project.

Many hold that interlinking will impair the hydrological balance and the geohydrological setting of he entire Himalayan water system in a region that is seismically sensitive to boot. What, for example, will happen if water seeps in geologically unsteady areas? Will there be more earthquakes? By interlinking rivers are we deliberately buying earthquakes? Besides, let it not be forgotten that every river has its own biological logic. Each river is home to a particular species of fish life which could be damaged by the inflow from the waters of another river. Has anyone thought of that?

Again, when there is so much talk of cleaning up the Ganga, would it serve any purpose by diverting its polluted waters to rivers down south, east of west? Then again rivers carry rich soil which is finally deposited towards the end, to form deltas that are productive. Would interlinking bring delta formation to a predictable end?

There are scores of such questions, minor though they may sound but meaningful if we look at them more deeply. So far there has been no public debate. There hasn't even been a full-length parliamentary debate. Every thing is taken for granted. The interlinking concept is so romantic that it has stopped all debate. What is not realised is that we may end up in a massive disaster, of unheard of proportions. There are some thoughtful people who argue that if it is just a matter of making water available to people there are more constructive and cost effective ways of doing so.

Check dams can be built as Gujarat state has done in recent years to great effect. We will have to devise ways and means of preserving rain water so that it is made available at all times. The Government could do no better than to set up a Ministry of Water Management both at the state and Central level. Efforts must be made to raise underground water levels by storing rain water. Such schemes hardly cost anything except physical labour.

It makes no sense to spend millions of crores of rupees on schemes that at some point in time may have to be given up. In the circumstances the government would be wise to be transparent in every possible way. No step should be taken until its repercussions are publicly discussed and debated. The public must be given full access to all the facts and nothing should be hidden. The matter is too serious for any government agency to take arbitrary action. One final thought. Why is there need for more and more water?

This is because we are having more and more mouths to feed. One way to make equidistribution of water possible is to control and ultimately reduce population. If, in the next hundred years Indian population can be deliberately brought down to half of what it is now, the water problem would indeed have been solved at no cost! And isn't that a thought worth pondering over?

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