Colonial Hangover Casts So Much Shadow

The Interlinking of rivers conceived on a gigantic scale may not been a reality, but no one is inimical of linking rivers as and where it offers possibilities in economic and ecological terms.

Many such schemes have already been completed in the country in the past. These are:

Periyar-Vaigai Scheme

Kurnool-Cuddapah Canal

Parambikulum-aliyar Project

Bhakhara-Rajasthan Canal

Beas-Sutlej Link

Telgu-Ganga Project (Krishna water to Chennai)

Ken- Betwa link

River linking offers many possibilities

(a) The annual floods in the Brahmaputra suggest that there is ample water in the Brahmaputra river and it can be suitably utilized to solve the drought and flooding conditions prevailing in the country.

(b) Similarly, the Ganga river also carries sufficient water in the monsoon season and by diverting this water to other rivers, drought and floods can be controlled. However, Additional Secretary, MOWR, has publicly stated that “at no point would waters of the Ganga be transfered to any of the Himalayan or peninsular rivers”.

(c) In the Himalayan component, construction of storage reservoirs on major tributaries of Brahmputra and Ganga is sought in India, Nepal and Bhutan, along with interlinking canal systems.

(d) This will also help in augmenting water flows at Farakka and in fact resolve the tricky Farakka issue permanently. Therefore, Bangladesh ought to have no objection to the inter-linking of rivers.

(e) Additionally river linking will

  • Generate more than 54,000 MW of electricity
  • Improve Inland water navigation
  • Provide and augment irrigation facilities.

The interlinking of rivers offers some solutions, but comes with a big load of problems, most important of which are environmental problems.

  1. Inbuilt in the linking philosophy is that the rivers flooding is a disaster and that it should be curbed, which is not correct

River flooding, in lowland areas particularly, is good for agriculture and ecology. If all human civilization and development are due to sustainability of agriculture then there is no earth process that is more beneficial to mankind than natural river flooding.

Floods are a constructive geological process, Floods are responsible for alluvium deposits in the Gangetic Plains. The floodwater brings along nutrient rick sediments, which get deposited in the plains, a process so crucial to agriculture.

River flooding created fertile plains, by depositing nutrient-rich sediments, which had acquired the textures and mineralogy to hold enormous quantities of water and nutrients. River flooding as a constructive geological process will be eliminated once interlinking takes palce.

Allowing the rivers not to flood will cut down the sediment supply and this could cause coastal and delta erosion by waves and longshore currents.

On a geological timescale, this will result in a loss of productive farmland as well as small-scale sea transgressions. If the global warming is a reality and taking place, with a consequent sea level rise on the east coast, the cumulative effect of coastal erosion due to reduction of sediment supply and the sea level rise could lead to large scale sea transgressions into the coastal areas.

  1. The floodplains allow the rivers to store store the excess water in these floodplains and deltas during monsoons and release it during dry periods to maintain the minimum flow and to sustain agriculture. The floodplain formation will stop once the rivers are linked.
  2. Whenever water goes through any living body, the chemistry of its dissolved solute changes. The entire ecosystem along a river and at its mouth has evolved in response to the natural and dynamic changes in the chemistry of flowing water as well as small-scale physiographic changes along the river and its adjacent region. This chemistry will change in case of river linking.
  3. There is a strong symbiosis between marine and land life systems on earth. The hydrologic cycle provides fresh water to the land from the oceans. Water, fallen on land either as rainfall on snowfall, weathers rocks on land and picks up the nutrient elements as dissolved solutes, and carries them through surface run-off (rivers) as well as subsurface flows to the sea. The linking of rivers would cause little water to be returned back to sea. If only little water is returned to the oceans there are at least two major consequences.

Marine life is deprived of nutrient supply and marine productivity could get adversely affected.

The Bay of Bengal (BoB) is uniquely characterised by the presence of a less-dense and low-saline layer of water. The presence of this low-salinity layer helps in the maintenance of high sea-surface temperatures (greater than 28°C), a requirement though to be responsible for the intensification of summer monsoon in the BoB. A very large part of the Indian subcontinent gets summer monsoon rainfall because of the development and maintenance of a low-pressure system in the Bay of Bengal. Monsoons can get adversely affected if floods dont take place.

Once reservoirs and virtually a country-wide network of canals are created, this will play havoc with this ecological role. It will not only impoverish river valleys and the prosperity, it will lead to systained displacement of local communities.

As one sees in Punjab and Haryana, it will lead to waterlogging and salinity in the absence of proper drainage that rivers provide.

It will fragment wildlife habitats: Animals require corridors to connect them to far-flung forests, and these will be severed by the construction of reservoirs and canals.

5 Political: Moreover, this river-linking plan can become a potential source of perennial conflicts at various level: centre versus state, state versus state, state versus people, urban versus rural etc.

  1. Constitutional: The National River-Linking Plan is a blatant violation of constitutional provisions, especially in two areas.

First, it is a cryptic effort to circumvent states’ control over water and placing it in the hands of the centre, de facto.

Second, it wipes out all the ambiguous and unresolved issues or rights over water, forest, and land, in just one stroke. This second aspect poses a great threat to the functioning of thousands of field-based smaller action groups engaged in empowering local communities, mostly rural, voiceless and marginalized. It therefore becomes pertinent that such groups have adequate information of the river-linking plan and keep updating it from time to time in the future, as and when the complete picture begins to unravel, especially those groups working in the areas falling under these 30 river links.

  1. The plan may also lead to greater conflict at the international level. Cooperation of neighbouring countries, is crucial for the success of the river-linking project.
  1. Economic-Socio-Environmental Considerations

It has been claimed in the official documents that no new reservoirs are planned for construction under this river network plan in Peninsular India but it seems that it is merely a technical jargon. It implies that various dam projects, pending with the government owing to various reasons, will be brought under the fold of this plan and will be put on fast track in the name of national interest. Many of these projects are delayed because of environmental and financial reasons, which mean that now these parameters will be swept away.

9 Macro-Economic and Financial Factors

The two components of inter-linking, the Himalayan and the Peninsular Rivers Development will cost Rs. 560,000 crores (US $112 billion), at 2003 rates. The enormity of this can be gauged from the fact that this amount is:

More than the total debt incurred in last 50 years

It is equal to 25% of the national GDP

It is 2.5 times more than the tax revenue

More than the total market capitalization of India’s 500 biggest companies

The inter-linking of rivers can only be completed by taking massive foreign loans, as many of the current ongoing water development projects are being completed with similar loans. It is really essential to push the country into yet another debt cycle? Why are other successful alternatives not being given priority and tried? In this context it becomes pertinent to look at the performance of the dams.

In last two decades of the past century, very strong anti-dam, mass-based, people’s movements have emerged throughout the country, drawing worldwide attention on some fundamental issues related to water management.

As per government claims, overall 79,292 hectares of forest land, will come under the submergence of this project.

Secondly, there are 24 river basins in India, as per the MOER, GOI. Even a cursory look at the boundaries of each river basin is enough to tell a common man that a large number of lifts will be involved in the river linking.

Thirdly, each river regime is unique in its own way within its own ecosystem. Which will be disrupted

  1. Engineering limitations

The most important of these pertains to the difficulty of lifting water from the north up to the Deccan. This will entail enormous amounts of energy much of which has to be produced by hydropower to begin with and renders the scheme infructuous from the start.

It has been suggested that a Central authority should construct huge reservoirs on the Ganga and Brahmaputra and link these two mighty rivers with canals, thereby diverting surplus waters south-eastwards into the Mahanadi. Any scheme that smacks of gigantomania of this kind ought to be questioned.