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
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
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
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
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
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