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					Cover Story                                                                                                    APRIL 20, 2012

Mission Imposs
                Experts agree that the economic and environmental costs of interlinking India’s
                rivers far outweigh its projected benefits. B Y V . V E N K A T E S A N         IN NEW DELHI
                                                                                                                   RITU RAJ KONWAR

                       in Barpeta district of Assam, when the Brahmaputra flooded in 2009. Proponents of the
river-linking project believe it can prevent floods.

The old debate on the idea has been                                       leading to long-term ecological consequences. The
                                                                          contentious idea of interlinking India’s rivers has
revived by a February 27 directive of                                     come to the fore again with the Supreme Court’s
                                                                          directive on February 27 to the Central government
the Supreme Court to the Central                                          to set up a special committee for its implementation.
                                                                          The National Water Development Agency (NWDA),
government to set up a special                                            the nodal agency responsible for inter-basin transfer
                                                                          of river waters, has identified 14 river links in a
committee to ensure its                                                   northern Himalayan river development component
                                                                          and 16 in a southern peninsular river development
implementation as a priority.                                             component even as a lot of experts have raised
                                                                          doubts about the feasibility of the projects.
                     SOME people believe it is the one-stop solution          According to the NWDA, the population of In-
                to prevent floods and droughts, reduce water scarci-       dia, which is around 1,200 million at present, is
                ty, raise irrigation potential and increase foodgrain     expected to increase to 1,500 to 1,800 million in the
                production in the country. But others say it is just      year 2050, and that means the requirement of food-
                another grandiose scheme involving huge costs and         grains will go up to about 450 million tonnes. To

                                                      4   F R O N T L I N E
 APRIL 20, 2012

 meet this requirement, the agency esti-
 mates that it will be necessary to raise
 the irrigation potential in the country
 to 160 million hectares for all crops by
 2050. India’s maximum irrigation po-
 tential through conventional sources is
 about 140 million hectares.
      Besides, floods are a recurring fea-
 ture, particularly in the Brahmaputra
 and the Ganga, affecting the States of
 Assam, Bihar, West Bengal and Uttar
 Pradesh. Almost 60 per cent of the
 river flows of the country occur in these
 rivers. On the other extreme are large
 areas in the States of Rajasthan, Guj-
 arat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and
 Tamil Nadu that face recurring
 droughts. As much as 85 per cent of the
 drought-prone area in the country falls
 in these States.
      Inter-basin water transfer aims to
 transfer water from the surplus rivers
 to the deficit areas. The Brahmaputra
 and the Ganga, particularly their
                                              NOAH SEELAM/AFP

 northern tributaries, and the Mahana-
 di, the Godavari and the west-flowing
 rivers originating in the Western
 Ghats are said to be surplus in water
 resources.                                                     T H E D RY B ED of a river that usually irrigates the paddy fields of Raigiri
      The NWDA’s ambitious plan is to                           village in Nalgonda district, Andhra Pradesh.
 build storage reservoirs on these rivers
 and connect them to other parts of the                         be a huge waste to spend precious re-      Centre and in the concurring States,
 country. This, it believes, will reduce                        sources on a project whose feasibility     bureaucrats, experts drawn from rele-
 regional imbalances. Other benefits of                          and benefits have not been studied          vant Ministries and the Planning
 the project spoken about are addition-                         thoroughly.                                Commission, social activists, and the
 al irrigation, domestic and industrial                                                                    amicus curiae in the case, Ranjit Ku-
 water supply, hydropower generation                            THE JUDGMENT                               mar.
 and navigational facilities.                                   Delivered by Justice Swatanter Ku-              The Bench has also laid down the
      It is in this context that the Su-                        mar, on behalf of himself, Chief Justice   nitty-gritty of how this committee
 preme Court’s judgment delivered by a                          S.H. Kapadia and Justice A.K. Pat-         should function: that it should meet
 three-judge Bench in the case In Re:                           naik, the judgment is unusual by all       once in two months, maintain records
 Networking of Rivers in favour of in-                          standards. It has directed the Central     of its meetings, not adjourn the meet-
 terlinking rivers as a priority has to be                      government, particularly the Ministry      ings because of the absence of any
 seen. It has raised the hopes of people                        of Water Resources (MWR), to consti-       member, constitute subcommittees,
 living in drought- and flood-prone ar-                          tute forthwith a committee to be called    and submit bi-annual reports to the
 eas. However, critics of the project                           “Special Committee for Inter-linking       Union Cabinet. The Cabinet shall take
 warn that there is no consensus among                          of Rivers”, comprising Ministers for       all final and appropriate decisions in
 the States to link rivers and that it will                     Water Resources or Irrigation at the       the interest of the countries

                                                                           F R O N T L I N E   5
                                                                                                                APRIL 20, 2012

as expeditiously as possible, preferably   this to the court’s notice in the form of    ing an additional area of 4 million hec-
within 30 days, the Bench has said. To     an application in an ongoing case.           tares only. The scheme was also not
many, this sounded like a clear case of         In his application, Ranjit Kumar        having any flood control benefit. Dr
judicial overreach, one setting a wrong    made a few additional claims about the       Rao had estimated this proposal to
precedent of the judiciary entering the    benefits of ILR. He claimed that it           cost about Rs.12,500 crore, which at
executive domain. But to the court,        would solve inter-State water disputes,      2002 price level comes to about
these directions had a single purpose:     ensure cheaper and safer form of             Rs.1,50,000 crore. The Central Water
going ahead with the interlinking of       transportation of goods, stop soil ero-      Commission, which examined the pro-
rivers (ILR) programme (ILR).              sion, recharge groundwater, improve          posal, found it to be grossly under-
    Lastly, the court has granted liber-   the quality of water and the environ-        estimated       and       economically
ty to the amicus curiae to file a con-      ment, help promote tourism and earn          prohibitive.     (Emphasis       added,
tempt petition in the Supreme Court in     foreign exchange, and improve em-            throughout.)
the event of default or non-compliance     ployment potential.                              “Capt. Dastur Proposal (1977) en-
of the directions contained in the or-          Ranjit Kumar’s application so con-      visaged construction of two canals –
der. The Bench has also issued a man-      vinced the court that it decided to con-     the first, 4,200 km-Himalayan Canal
damus to the Central and State             vert his application into a separate writ    at the foot of Himalayan slopes run-
governments concerned to comply            petition. Somewhere down the line,           ning from the Ravi in the west to the
with the directions contained in the       however, it was clear that the court was     Brahmaputra and beyond in the east,
judgment effectively and expeditiously     not looking at findings that would sug-       and the second, 9,300 km-Garland
and without default.                       gest that the networking of rivers was       Canal covering the central and south-
    The judgment left many stake-          not a feasible concept.                      ern parts, with both the canals inte-
holders bewildered and worried. The             A few instances amply bear this         grated with numerous lakes and
noble intentions of the Bench and the      out. In his application, Ranjit Kumar        interconnected with pipelines at two
amicus curiae were never in question,      referred to a K.L. Rao Committee re-         points, Delhi and Patna. The cost esti-
though.                                    port submitted in the early 1960s (the       mated by Capt. Dastur was Rs.24,095
                                           correct year of the report is 1972),         crore. The proposal was examined by
THE CASE                                   which had made references to the net-        two committees of experts comprising
The case has its genesis in an Inde-       working of rivers and which was sub-         Senior Engineers from CWC [the Cen-
pendence Day speech delivered by           sequently spoken of by the Central           tral Water Commission], State govern-
President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in            Ground Water Board and agriculture           ments, Professors from the IIT Delhi,
2002. It went thus:                        economists.                                  and Roorkee University, and Scien-
    “…It is paradoxical to see floods in         After the court issued notices to the   tists from Geological Survey of India
one part of the country while some         Centre and the governments of all the        and India Meteorological Department
other parts face drought. This             28 States and the National Capital           who opined that the proposal was tech-
drought-flood phenomenon is a recur-        Territory of Delhi, the Central govern-      nically infeasible. The cost estimated
ring feature. The need of the hour is to   ment claimed in its affidavit filed be-        by the experts in 1979 was about Rs.12
have a water mission which will enable     fore the Supreme Court that the              million crore. The realistic cost at
availability of water to the fields, vil-   networking of rivers had been consid-        2002 price level comes to about Rs.70
lages, towns and industries through-       ered with great seriousness even after       million crore.”
out the year even while maintaining        the 1972 K.L. Rao Committee report.
environmental purity. One major part       But both Ranjit Kumar’s application          OMISSION OF FACTS
of the water mission would be net-         and the Centre’s affidavit were silent        The omission of any reference to these
working of our rivers. Technological       on why the committee report has been         two historical facts from the court’s
and project management capabilities        buried quietly.                              record and the judgment may well be
of our country can rise to the occasion         The NWDA’s website itself shows         inadvertent, and their possible consid-
and make this river networking a real-     why this and a later proposal, by Cap-       eration by the court might not have
ity with long-term planning and prop-      tain D.J. Dastur, were not feasible.         significantly altered the judgment it-
er investment.”                            About the “Earlier Proposals”, the           self. But the point is that the court did
    Incidentally, Kalam was not the        NWDA’s website says as follows:              not find it necessary to examine the
first person to propose such a project.          “K.L. Rao’s proposal (1972), which      question why successive governments
A few experts had done so earlier and      had 2,640 km-long Ganga-Cauvery              at the Centre had not been serious
given up for various reasons. But the      link as its main component, involved         about the networking of rivers. The
fact that the President referred to this   large-scale pumping over a head of 550       fact that the history of earlier propos-
in his speech was a good enough rea-       metres. The power requirement for            als was not considered by the court led
son for the court to intervene in the      lifting the water was huge, estimated        to it reaching the conclusion that it saw
matter when Ranjit Kumar brought           to be 5,000 to 7,000 MW, for irrigat-        no reason as to why the governments

                                                      6   F R O N T L I N E
                                                                                                                  APRIL 20, 2012

should not take appropriate and time-       the local people, especially those who      [Uttar Pradesh], Haryana, Punjab,
ly interest in the execution of the         consider themselves deprived, and           and to arid Rajasthan desert, as also
project.                                    from environmental agencies and ac-         perhaps to the peninsular component.
     Another instance of omission is the    tivists unless their legitimate concerns    The storages and links involved are of
absence, in the judgment and also in        are looked into. Above all, there will be   very large sizes and lengths; and the
the proceedings of the parties before       the human problem of displacement of        costs of construction and environmen-
the court, of any reference to a report     people and their rehabilitation. There      tal problems would be enormous.
of the National Commission for In-          is [an] urgent need to develop a policy     These links should only be taken up if
tegrated Water Resources Develop-           and programme of sustainable water          and when they are considered un-
ment      (NCIWRD),        which     was    resource development of each river in       avoidable in national interest. For
submitted to the government in Sep-         which inter-basin transfer, if found        Thar desert area, it would perhaps be
tember 1999. The 14-member com-             feasible, would be one possible             desirable to promote arid zone low
mission, headed by S.R. Hashim, then        component.”                                 density tree cover as far as possible.
Member of the Planning Commission,                                                      The Indira Gandhi Nahar on the west
was asked to suggest modalities for the     NCIWRD REPORT                               and the Narmada canal on the south-
transfer of surplus water to water-def-     The commission noted that in ap-            east, together with practices of desert
icit basins by interlinking rivers.         proaching this complex issue, it would      moisture conservation can perhaps
     In its report, the commission re-      not be possible to persuade a State to      achieve this limited objective. The
ferred to a National Perspective            spare water until its own demands           need for further expansion of irriga-
brought out by the Ministry of Water        were met to the maximum possible            tion facilities in this area will have to be
Resources in 1980, which is also the        extent. Contrast this with what the Su-     examined from all angles, including
basis for the Supreme Court’s Febru-        preme Court has said in its judgment:       ecological        and      environmental
ary 27 judgment. This Perspective has           “We have no hesitation in observ-       considerations.”
two main components: (a) Himalayan          ing that the national interest must take        On the basis of published informa-
Rivers Development (HRD) and (b)            precedence over the interest of the in-     tion, the commission was of the view
Peninsular      Rivers     Development      dividual States. The State govern-          that the Himalayan component would
(PRD).                                      ments are expected to view national         require more detailed study using sys-
     The HRD envisages the construc-        problems with greater objectivity, ra-      tem analysis techniques. It felt that the
tion of storage reservoirs on the princi-   tionality and spirit of service to the      actual implementation of the Hima-
pal tributaries of the Ganga and the        nation, and ill-founded objections may      layan component was unlikely to be
Brahmaputra in India and Nepal              result in greater harm, not only to the     undertaken in the decades in the im-
along with interlinking canal systems       neighbouring States but also to the na-     mediate future. Therefore, it is incred-
to transfer surplus flows of the eastern     tion at large.”                             ible how both the Ministry of Water
tributaries of the Ganga to the west,           The Bench saw no reason why any         Resources and the Supreme Court
apart from the linking of the main          State should lag behind in contribut-       found the implementation of the Hi-
Brahmaputra and its tributaries with        ing its bit to bring ILR to a success,      malayan component feasible within
the Ganga, and the Ganga with the           thus saving the people living in            three years of the publication of the
Mahanadi. The PRD is divided into           drought-prone zones from hunger and         commission’s report.
four major parts: interlinking of the       people living in flood-prone areas from          The commission added: “Studies
Mahanadi, the Godavari, the Krishna         the destruction caused by floods.            of important east-flowing peninsular
and the Cauvery; interlinking of the            The commission was clear that in-       river basins, namely, Mahanadi, Go-
west-flowing rivers north of Mumbai          terlinking of rivers must be considered     davari, Krishna, Pennar, Cauvery and
and south of Tapi; interlinking of the      the last option. It said: “After meeting    Vaigai, indicate that there is no imper-
Ken and the Chambal; and diversion          all these essential requirements, if        ative need for large-scale transfer of
of other west-flowing rivers.                there is surplus water available in the     water. Reasonable projected water de-
     The commission did not study the       basin, its transfer to other basins may     mands of these basins can be met from
Himalayan component because of the          be considered. Such basins should first      within the resources of the basins ex-
lack of data, which were classified.         aim at efficient utilisation of all the      cept for marginal shortages in Krish-
About the peninsular component              in-basin resources.”                        na, Cauvery and Vaigai, with the
links, the commission said:                     With regard to the Himalayan            proposed enhanced irrigation intensi-
     “These links will involve stupen-      component, the commission cau-              ties. However, limited transfer from
dous engineering activity. They will        tioned thus: “Generally speaking, the       Godavari towards Krishna, Cauvery
have large-scale socio-economic, hu-        idea is to transfer water from water-       and Vaigai would be desirable.”
man and environmental impacts and           rich Brahmaputra and lower Ganga                It is also surprising how the Febru-
will involve very high financial out-        basins towards the west, finally con-        ary 27 judgment repeatedly claims a
lays…. There will be opposition from        veying it to water-short southern U.P.      consensus among the States and the

                                                       8   F R O N T L I N E
                                                                                                                APRIL 20, 2012

Centre over the merits of going ahead           Gujarat had underlined the fact         from Nepal and it may be necessary or
with ILR. Of the 28 States and Delhi,       that water was a State subject and that     desirable to take the consent of neigh-
to whom it sent notices, only 10 had        the opinion of the respective States        bouring countries. It is not clear
responded. They are Rajasthan, Guj-         must be sought. It had deplored the         whether the consent would be easy to
arat, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kar-         fact that the NWDA had prepared the         obtain.
nataka, Bihar, Punjab, Assam, Sikkim        plan for interconnecting rivers with-
and Kerala.                                 out consulting the States.                  STUDIES REQUIRED
    The court, in fact, interpreted the         Bihar had questioned whether the        Reliable water balance studies are im-
silence of the States as consent to ILR.    increase in agricultural production ef-     portant to determine whether a State
    On October 31, 2002, no State ex-       fected by the networking of the rivers      or a basin has surplus water. Himan-
cept Tamil Nadu had filed affidavits          would justify the cost of the project. It   shu Thakkar, an expert member of the
opposing the prayers in the petition,       had also asked whether the supposedly       NWDA-constituted committee of en-
after notice had been issued to them on     “scarcity-affected” States had ade-         vironmentalists, social scientists and
September 16, 2002, and response            quately used water-saving irrigation        other experts on interlinking of rivers,
sought again on September 30, 2002.         methods and whether their cropping          points out that these studies are not
    The Central government, through         patterns were indicative of the fact that   available in the public domain, and
the then Attorney General, stated that      water was a scarce commodity in the         even if available, they are not reliable.
it had accepted the concept of interlin-    region. The State also insisted that the        The judgment observes that the
king of rivers and a high-powered task      transfer of water must involve a quid       National Water Policy, which seeks to
force would be formed. The court then       pro quo.                                    make available water to those areas
recorded that there was a consensus             Bihar had observed that floods           that face shortages, could be effective
among all the States to go ahead with       were a temporal phenomenon and that         only if the rivers in the country are
the project of interlinking.                it did not essentially mean that a par-     linked and nationalised. Thakkar,
    The NWDA has identified 30 links         ticular place suffering from floods at a     however, says that no participatory
– 16 under the peninsular component         particular time was surplus in water        process was involved in the prepara-
and 14 under the Himalayan river de-        resources on an annual basis. The           tion of both the National Water Policy
velopment component – for the prep-         overall scene on the national level         of 2002 and the draft policy of 2012.
aration of feasibility reports. It has so   could be ascertained only after de-         “Both are basically children of the pro-
far completed the feasibility reports of    tailed studies were made in this re-        large project mindset of our water re-
14 links under the peninsular compo-        gard, it said. Madhya Pradesh left it to    sources establishment, including the
nent and two links under the Hima-          be decided by the Centre, as in its view,   Ministry of Water Resources, the Cen-
layan component.                            the interlinking of rivers was a Central    tral Water Commission and related or-
    In its counter-affidavit, the Centre     subject.                                    ganisations. They are also non-serious
had opposed the plea to form a high-            Kerala stated that the consent of       collection of statements of intent that
powered committee on the grounds            the State should be obtained in utilis-     are not backed by any credible plans or
that the consent of all the States need-    ing the river waters within its territory   legal institutional set-ups,” he
ed to be obtained. Reportedly, the Cen-     for purposes elsewhere, in view of the      observes.
tre is disappointed with the February       constitutional provision bestowing              The amicus curiae, in his report to
27 judgment because the court has di-       control of State rivers on the States.      the court, estimated the new aggregat-
rected the constitution of an unwieldy      Therefore, it opposed the writ petition.    ed cost of the entire project at anything
committee comprising nearly 70                  The judgment itself admits that         between Rs.4,44,331.20 crore and
members. It is said to be planning to       Karnataka, Bihar, Punjab, Assam and         Rs.4,34,657 crore at 2003-04 prices.
seek a review of the judgment.              Sikkim have given a kind of “qualified       Is this expenditure justified, especially
                                            approval” with definite reservations         when there are divergent views about
SOME RESERVATIONS                           with regard to environmental and fi-         the benefits of ILR? The court enter-
Most States have expressed some res-        nancial implications, and socio-eco-        tains pious hopes to justify such a huge
ervation or the other about the project.    nomic and international aspects.            expenditure. It has relied mainly on a
According to the judgment, Rajasthan,       However, in the same paragraph, the         report of the National Council of Ap-
Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have sup-            Bench reveals that Assam, Sikkim and        plied Economic Research (NCAER) to
ported the concept of ILR. But by the       Kerala have raised their protests on        conclude that expert opinion convinc-
judgment’s own admission, Rajasthan         the grounds that they should have the       ingly dispels all other impressions. But
had refused to consider the memoran-        exclusive right to use their water re-      the NCAER report makes no claim to
dum of understanding (MoU) for the          sources and that such transfer should       having considered the social or envi-
priority    link,   Parbati-Kalisindh-      not affect any rights of these States.      ronmental impact of the project or ex-
Chambal, until the updation of its hy-          The judgment also refers to the fact    amined whether ILR is the least-cost
drology project.                            that all the rivers in Bihar originate      option.

                                                      1 0   F R O N T L I N E
Cover Story                                                                                               APRIL 20, 2012

‘Listen to
       Interview with Ramaswamy R. Iyer,
       former Secretary, Union Ministry of
       Water Resources. B Y V . V E N K A T E S A N

“West Bengal and Bihar don’t want
Ganga water diverted. Odisha
doesn’t say that there is any surplus
in the Mahanadi for transfer.

                                                                                                                              K.V. SRINIVASAN
Andhra Pradesh is not willing to give
water from the Godavari because                                     R AM A S W A M Y R . I YE R : “Why has the Supreme
                                                                    Court gone by one man and one NCAER report?”
there is, in its view, no surplus.”
           RAMASWAMY R. IYER, former Secretary,                     But the court usually goes by affidavits and written
       Union Ministry of Water Resources, has been a con-           submissions in which the Centre has taken a stand.
       sistent critic of the idea of interlinking rivers (ILR).         That may be so, but what has it actually done? If
       In this interview, he shares his concerns about the          it were actively interested in the project, it would
       Supreme Court’s judgment directing the govern-               have pursued it. It is a great pity that the government
       ment to implement the project, and explains why it is        has not made its reservations clear to the Supreme
       deeply flawed. Excerpts                                       Court. If it had done that, this judgment might not
                                                                    have been pronounced. But it has not done that,
       In your article in “The Hindu”, you have claimed that        perhaps because of political compulsions.
       the government’s stand on the project is                         One of its allies, the DMK [Dravida Munnetra
       ambiguous. The amicus curiae has, on the other               Kazhagam], supports the project. Why? Because it
       hand, pointed out that even the second United                thinks the State is going to get water from the north.
       Progressive Alliance government has been                     You ask the governments of the so-called water-
       consistently defending the project.                          surplus States whether they will spare some water.
           Of course, they will do so. They don’t want to say       They will say ‘no’. West Bengal and Bihar don’t want
       they have abandoned the project. Politically, it might       the Ganga water diverted. Odisha doesn’t say that
       not be feasible. But what is happening on the                there is any surplus in the Mahanadi for transfer.
       ground? Nothing. The NDA [National Democratic                Andhra Pradesh is willing to take water from the
       Alliance] government got a lot of credit for launch-         Mahanadi for the Godavari, but it is not willing to
       ing this big project. The UPA government is ambiv-           give water from the Godavari because there is, in its
       alent. What did the UPA’s Common Minimum                     view, no surplus in the Godavari. The Kerala As-
       Programme say in 2004? It said, “We are going to             sembly has passed a resolution against the Pamba-
       comprehensively reassess the project in a fully con-         Achankovil-Vaippar link. It is strongly against the
       sultative manner.” What does that mean? It means             interlinking project. All this has been ignored. Un-
       that they had reservations.                                  fortunately, the amicus curiae has been a persistent

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APRIL 20, 2012

                 F R O N T L I N E   1 3
                                                                                                                  APRIL 20, 2012

advocate of this project. Why has the        experts? Why is it that when some of us      stated that it was not a direction but
Supreme Court gone by one man and            drafted a statement asking for a recon-      only an observation. Such a post-re-
one NCAER [National Council for Ap-          sideration of the judgment, so many          tirement explanation had no value. In
plied Economic Research] report?             distinguished experts fully endorsed         any case, both the Supreme Court and
The judges should have consulted oth-        it? These include, among others, Nitin       the government have been treating it
er people.                                   Desai [former Under Secretary Gener-         as a direction.
                                             al, United Nations], Ashok Khosla                The then President A.P.J. Abdul
The amicus curiae has told Frontline         [President of the International Union        Kalam, whose speech advocating the
that the committee is free to decide –       for the Conservation of Nature), Dr          project was quoted by Ranjit Kumar
even to reject – but the court will look     Vandana Shiva, Prof. Brij Gopal and          and Justice Kirpal virtually created the
at its reasons.                              Prof. V. Rajamani. If they all agree that    project in 2002. The NDA government
     Maybe, but what is the order? The       it is a bad project, is that not a matter    saw political advantage in this. Since it
order is not to examine and take a           for reflection?                               was a grand idea, it could go to the
decision but to implement. What does              The Supreme Court should have           electorate saying it would do this. The
‘implement’ mean?                            asked a number of experts to come and        government engineers hailed the idea
                                             talk to it. And there are published ma-      because it would be a grand engineer-
He says the order is only to see that        terials, articles by others.                 ing achievement, something big,
they comply with its directions.                  There is a solid body of opinion        which they could boast about. Gigan-
    If so, they should have made it          against the project.                         tism is one of our obsessions. So, when
clear. Why do they use the word ‘im-              Please recall the history of the pro-   the Supreme Court issued a direction
plement’? They say, we hereby direct         ject. K.L. Rao came up with the Ganga-       or observation, the government jump-
you to implement the project, set up a       Cauvery link canal proposal [in 1972].       ed at it. The then Prime Minister, Atal
committee to implement the project,          Captain Dastur proposed the Garland          Bihari Vajpayee, set up a task force.
and we will ask the amicus curiae to         Canal Project in 1977. These were ex-        That is how this project, which was not
initiate contempt proceedings if you         amined by the technical experts in the       seriously under consideration at that
do not implement the project. What           government and found unviable or un-         stage, originated.
does that mean?                              sound. Then, in 1982, the government
                                             set up the National Water Develop-           You have referred to the NWDA
That is only for setting up the              ment Agency [NWDA] to study the              reports. Could you tell us what these
committee, the amicus curiae says.           different basins, estimate basin water       reports say?
   That is his interpretation. We don’t      balances, identify possibilities of stor-        Assessment of water balances in
know what the court had in mind. We          ages, transfers and links. It has been       various river basins; calculations of
must assume that judges use words            bringing out reports, but none of them       how much water there was; how much
very carefully.                              resulted in a project. If you look at the    water was required for various purpos-
                                             Ninth Plan and the Tenth Plan, they          es; whether the balance was positive or
The Supreme Court has also relied on         do not mention the river-linking pro-        negative; whether there was a possibil-
the report of the Parliamentary              ject. In 2002, in the context of drought     ity of transfer of water from one place
Standing Committee that                      and inter-State river water disputes,        to another; if so, where it would be
recommended the ILR project.                 amicus curiae Ranjit Kumar submit-           located, where you could build a dam,
     Where is the project? Interlinking      ted an application to the Supreme            or a canal. The reports consider all
of rivers is a grand concept or design. It   Court asking the court to issue direc-       these technical aspects.
consists of 30 projects, or links. How       tions on the river-linking project. The
many of the projects have been decid-        Supreme Court issued notices to the          Have these reports also
ed upon? Nothing. Not one. They have         Centre and the States.                       recommended interlinking of rivers?
not even reached the detailed project             The Central government filed an              They could only say these possibil-
reports stage, except in three cases. So     affidavit saying it was studying it and       ities exist. The reports are preliminary
how can you implement the ‘project’?         that it was a long, difficult process.        identifications of possibilities. These
                                             Among the States, only Tamil Nadu            must be followed by what we call feasi-
The judges say it is in the national         replied. It supported the project be-        bility reports, which establish a prima
interest.                                    cause it wanted water from the north.        facie case for a project. If that is rea-
    How do they say it? Has it been          The Supreme Court took the silence of        sonably well established, a detailed
examined? They have just cited one           the other State governments as con-          project report must follow. These must
report of the NCAER. What about              sent. Then the court said: if it is a good   then be examined from the engineer-
economists like Prof. [A] Vaidyanath-        idea, why not do it in 10 years? Soon        ing, environmental, economic, social
an, ecologists like Dr Jayanta Bandyo-       after his retirement as the Chief Jus-       and other points of view. Finally, the
padhyay, and hundreds of other               tice of India, Justice [B.N.] Kirpal         Cabinet will take decisions. None of

                                                       1 4   F R O N T L I N E
APRIL 20, 2012

those stages has been reached in any of     of Water Resources in 1997 and began       extensive publications took place.
these projects.                             working in 1998. In its 1999 report,       There were debates in Economic and
                                            there is a chapter on inter-basin trans-   Political Weekly about the project. So
Why were these stages not reached?          fers. It was based on a report by a        there was a lot of material in the public
   Nobody was interested. Some en-          Working Group headed by an eminent         domain. Literally, hundreds of articles
gineers thought it was a very good idea.    engineer, Dr Bharat Singh, a former        appeared in 2002 and 2003. I don’t
But that was not the general opinion.       Vice-Chancellor at Roorkee. He is by       know to what extent the amicus curiae
                                            no means an opponent of big projects.      brought these to the attention of the
Was the setting up of the NWDA itself       He said two things about the interlin-     Supreme Court. We thought that
not proper because its reports were         king proposals.                            whatever was published would be tak-
not taken seriously by those who                One was that we simply could not       en note of by the court.
mattered?                                   say anything about the Himalayan riv-          There were also expressions of con-
    No. The reports were useful, espe-      ers because data were not made avail-      cern from Nepal and Bangladesh.
cially the data relating to water bal-      able. As far as the peninsular rivers      They said: these are not just your riv-
ances. Some could say that its              were concerned, the report said that no    ers, you can’t make major changes
calculations were not correct. It was       case existed for massive inter-basin       without consulting us. Bangladesh,
not as if its reports were the final word.   transfers. It said that there may be a     particularly, held several international
They have to be examined. But they          deficit in the Cauvery, there may be a      conferences.
provide useful information.                 surplus in the Mahanadi, but that              Then the government changed in
                                            there was no case for massive inter-       New Delhi, and there was a lack of
If the data produced by the NWDA are        basin transfers. Separately, in an arti-   enthusiasm on the part of the new gov-
not followed up on, how will they be        cle in Hindustan Times, Dr Bharat          ernment to go ahead with the project.
useful?                                     Singh dismissed the idea of river-link-    The Government of India also told Ne-
     They are useful in adding to our       ing as a flood control measure.             pal and Bangladesh that India took
knowledge. Unfortunately, they could                                                   note of their concerns and would not
not be debated because they were not
in the public domain at that stage.         “If there is a                             touch the Himalayan rivers without
                                                                                       talking to them.

Why were they not in the public             water crisis, it is                        Can lack of interest on the part of the

                                            not because
domain?                                                                                government be cited as a ground for
    That is because of the Government                                                  not going ahead with a project, if it is

                                            water is not
of India’s policy. There is an obsession                                               otherwise useful?
with confidentiality. Otherwise, these                                                      Of course, why not? Lack of in-
things would have been discussed and
examined in academic circles. As a re-      available but                              terest is an implicit judgment. What
                                                                                       do you mean by “otherwise useful”?
sult, it remained just an exercise inside
the government. None of the NWDA            because we are                             Who is to decide this? If the govern-
                                                                                       ment does not do something, what
reports were in the public domain till
the controversy began in 2002. And          mismanaging it.”                           does it mean? It means that it does not
                                                                                       believe in it. The weak point is that the
very reluctantly, in 2003 or so, some of                                               government is not willing to say this in
these preliminary feasibility reports           In 2002, some of us submitted a        public. How does the court assume it is
were put in the public domain. And          memorandum signed by 58 eminent            a good project? Why do they [the judg-
one of them was on the Ken-Betwa            persons comprising scientists, econo-      es] say it is in the national interest?
link.                                       mists, engineers, sociologists, etc., to   They could have expressed their con-
    This was examined by two or three       the President and the Prime Minister       cern.
academics, for instance, Dr Kanchan         saying that ILR was a bad idea, and            They could have said that they gave
Chopra of the Institute of Economic         appealing to them to stop it. This ma-     a direction in 2002. Ten years have
Growth, Delhi, and Dr Y.K. Alagh.           terial also should have been placed be-    passed, but nothing has happened.
They found that it was very deficient.       fore the court.                            They could have asked the government
They said that the case had not been                                                   to explain this. Instead, the court has
established and that it had to go back      When this case was being heard in the      asked the government to implement
to the drawing board. Apart from that,      Supreme Court, why did you not             the project and set up a committee to
even earlier there was the National         intervene and bring these concerns to      implement it, and authorised the am-
Commission for Integrated Water Re-         the court’s attention?                     icus curiae to initiate contempt pro-
source Planning, of which I was a               We ought to have intervened. The       ceedings in case of non-compliance.
member. It was set up by the Ministry       failure to do so was unfortunate. But      They said it is the unanimous view of

                                                      F R O N T L I N E   1 5
                                                                                                                APRIL 20, 2012

experts that the project is in the na-       because the State governments don’t        duced. Now, how will you honour that
tional interest. That is completely          want it.                                   commitment if you divert water from
untrue.                                                                                 the Ganga?
                                             There is a view that this judgment             India must at least point out that
You say that the court was wrong in          addresses the irrigation problem,          this does not violate the treaty and that
laying down the manner in which the          rather than the drinking water crisis.     it can still meet its obligations to
right to water should be ensured. But            Irrigation is necessary, but irriga-   Bangladesh.
the amicus curiae has clarified that          tion in this country involves wasteful
the right to water is not the issue in       use of water. Irrigation is a large de-    The NCAER report points to the
the judgment.                                mander of water, but it does not follow    experience of Pakistan as an
    I was only examining the possible        that the demand should be met. When        inspiration. Pakistan built a network
hypothetical grounds on which the            you say that the Cauvery is a deficit       of river links as a part of the Indus
court could legitimately have inter-         basin, that is based on the existing use   Treaty works, which functions as
vened. It could say that it was con-         of water. Before you ask for water from    replacement links to irrigate those
cerned about the right to water, or          another basin, you must do what you        areas, which after Partition got
about persistent inter-State disputes.       can with the available water within the    deprived of irrigation when three
My point was that in either case, while      basin. Today, the concept of Cauvery       eastern rivers of the Indus system
the court could ask the government to        Family has taken root among the            were allocated to India (Chapter 6,
do something about the matter, it was        farmers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.       page108).
not for the court to issue specific direc-    We would be undermining the effort at          Pakistan has major problems. It is
tions on what should be done.                cooperation, conservation and econo-       no use looking at Pakistan as an exam-
                                             my by promising water from outside.        ple. Pakistan’s own experts think that
During the hearing of the case, the                                                     they have grossly mismanaged their

                                             “The River
amicus curiae made the curious                                                          water. If we want examples of good
revelation that Section 2 of the River                                                  water management, we must look else-

                                             Boards Act is a
Board Act, 1956, enables the Centre to                                                  where. Further, the dams and canals
take under its control the regulation                                                   built in Pakistan following the Indus

                                             dead letter. Not
of inter-State rivers and river valleys                                                 Treaty have largely benefited the Pun-
(noted in Para 58 of the judgment).                                                     jab province, leading to a sense of
    This was hardly a revelation. Ev-
eryone knows this. Entry 56 in the           a single river                             grievance on the part of Sindh. There
                                                                                        are severe and intractable inter-pro-
Union List enables the regulation and
development of inter-State rivers and        board has been                             vincial conflicts in Pakistan. We too
                                                                                        have our inter-State disputes, and
river valleys by the Union if Parlia-
ment passes legislation to that effect.      established                                these will be aggravated by the ILR
Parliament has used that enabling
provision only to enact the River            under the Act.”                                The whole idea, that there are ma-
                                                                                        jor water shortages, that additional
Boards Act, 1956. This provides only                                                    supplies are required, and that they
for advisory boards, but even these              Secondly, a justification for the       can come from the interlinking of riv-
have not been established.                   project is that it will transfer water     ers, is completely wrong. If there is a
    The River Boards Act is a dead let-      from flood-prone areas to drought-          water crisis, it is not because water is
ter. Not a single river board has been       prone areas. However, when you link        not available but because we are gross-
established under the Act, essentially       one river with another river, you are      ly mismanaging it in every use – agri-
because of opposition by the States.         giving more water to an area already       cultural, domestic and industrial. If
Even when the government wanted to           served by rivers. The uplands and dry-     you make all these highly efficient, eco-
declare the Ganga as a national river,       lands of India are far away from the       nomical and conservation-oriented,
and establish a Ganga River Basin Au-        rivers and at varying elevations. This     our crisis will be moderated. We don’t
thority, they did not do it under Entry      project is not going to benefit these       need huge answers. We can manage
56 in the Union List. They did it under      areas. In Rajasthan, Rajendra Singh        with local answers. The court could
the Environment Protection Act be-           has shown what can be done locally.        have asked for good expert opinion on
cause that was an easier route. But this         Further, there is a Ganga Waters       these matters.
doesn’t give them the role that legisla-     Treaty between India and Bangladesh.           Finally, I am not even claiming
tion under Entry 56 would have given.        The treaty has a clause that the Gov-      that I am necessarily right. I am only
We do need some kind of institution, a       ernment of India will endeavour its        saying: there are so many sensible,
coordination mechanism, at the basin         best to assure that water flows at the      well-informed people arguing against
level, but it is difficult to establish one   sharing point at Farakka are not re-       the project, please listen to them.

                                                       1 6   F R O N T L I N E
APRIL 20, 2012
                                                                                                            Cover Story

Flawed vision
            Studies show that while it may sound
            really good on paper, interlinking of
            rivers is technically implausible.

The Centre for Science and
Environment, New Delhi, says the
challenge is to complete existing
irrigation projects rather than have
grand ideas like linking rivers.
                EVER since the Supreme Court asked the Na-
            tional Democratic Alliance government in 2000 to
                                                                        G.N. RAO

            speed up the river-linking project, the Centre for
            Science and Environment (CSE) in New Delhi, a
            leading environmental organisation, has been exam-                     D I G G I N G THE G OD AVA R I riverbed for water in
            ining the economic and ecological feasibility of the                   the Bhadrachalam Agency area of Khammam
            project. “This is a delicious idea where the water                     district in Andhra Pradesh.
            from flooded river basins can be diverted to dry river
            basins through canals and storages. While it may                       1950s. In 1999, there was a report by the National
            sound really good on paper, it is technically implau-                  Committee on Water Resources, which makes a
            sible,” said Nitya Jacob, who heads the Water De-                      country-wide assessment of the quantum of river
            partment at the CSE. Until now, India’s water                          water. But there have been no studies on the rivers
            programmes have only talked about diverting excess                     from which water is proposed to be diverted. The
            water into river basins. Excessive rainfall or industri-               rainfall pattern has changed drastically over the
            al effluents flow into river basins, and then into the                   years,” he told Frontline.
            sea. This is the first project that is talking about                         The project began to take shape in 1982, when
            diverting excess water outside the river basin.                        the National Water Development Agency (NWDA)
                Jacob says the problems are aplenty in doing so.                   was set up as an autonomous body and was given the
            “One, there can be simultaneous flooding and drying                     task of carrying out water balance and feasibility
            up of river basins that are proposed to be linked.                     studies. But to date, there have been no such studies.
            Two, the amount of land required to construct diver-                   It divided the river-linking project into two parts:
            ting canals will be huge. Considering the problems of                  the first, to link 16 peninsular rivers and the second,
            acquisition, how does the government propose to                        to link 14 Himalayan rivers. Detailed project reports
            acquire that land? Many irrigation projects have                       (DPRs), which would give the final cost and feasi-
            been stalled in India because of the detrimental                       bility estimates to the government, are not yet com-
            effects on the environment that construction of large                  plete. Only one DPR, that of linking the Yamuna’s
            reservoirs and dams beget,” he says.                                   tributaries in the Bundelkhand region, the Ken and
                Diverting water would require not only canals                      the Betwa (between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pra-
            but also dams and reservoirs to prevent waterlog-                      desh), is ready.
            ging. But more than all these, no one has actually
            done a river basin assessment, Jacob says. “The only                   THE KEN-BETWA PROJECT
            measurement the government has is based on the                         “The DPR for the Ken-Betwa river link was prepared
            rainfall that India receives, and it was done in the                   following a tripartite memorandum of understand-

                                                    F R O N T L I N E   1 7
                                                                                                                  APRIL 20, 2012

ing (MoU) signed in 2005 by the              icy deviated from the first National         The hydrological station at Vijayawa-
Union Minister for Water Resources           Water Policy in 1987 and encouraged         da recorded an average flow of 6,500
and the Chief Ministers of Uttar Pra-        private-sector participation in plan-       cumec [cubic metres per second] in
desh and Madhya Pradesh. However,            ning, development and management.           August between 1901 and 1960. This
the environmental clearance to trans-        Due to the possibility of the private       reduced to about 100 cumec between
fer excess water from the Ken to the         sector owning water assets, this has        2000 and 2004, considered to be a
Betwa through a 231-km canal has             been dropped from the draft. Instead,       drought period. Increased allocation
been denied by the Ministry of Envi-         impetus has been given to the public-       of projects away from the river basin
ronment and Forests. Approximately,          private partnership model.”                 can be largely blamed for the lesser
8,650 hectares of forestland in Mad-                                                     flow,” Down to Earth notes.
hya Pradesh is likely to be submerged        AGRICULTURE VS INDUSTRY                         In this state of affairs, further di-
by the project; part of the forestland is    According to a recent study by the          version of river water outside the ba-
in the Panna National Park. Yet the          CSE, published in its magazine Down         sin, as proposed in the river-linking
Supreme Court, in its judgment, man-         to Earth, the basins of the Mahanadi,       project, can lead to more problems.
dated that this be taken up on a pri-        the Godavari and the Krishna, which         The example of the Mahanadi illus-
ority basis,” says Bharat Lal Seth of the    have been proposed for linking, are         trates the point. It is considered to be a
CSE.                                         over-extended in usage, and as a result     “surplus river” by the Odisha govern-
    A decade ago the cost of the river-      tensions between industries (new us-        ment, but the CSE study points out
linking project was estimated at             ers of surface water) and farmers (old      that over-allocation of river water to
Rs.5,60,000 crore but the actual cost        rural users of water) are brewing in        industries has left little for irrigation.
will be known only when DPRs of all          most of these parts, almost leading to      “In the past decade, Odisha has signed
the 30 projects are drawn up, he says.       water wars. For instance, the Krishna       at least 100 MoUs for projects worth
This can put a huge financial burden          provides drinking water and irrigation      Rs.441,471 crore. From 2002, the
on the Centre when most of its irriga-       to more than 75 million people, but the     State government went on an MoU
tion projects are far from complete.         mean annual flow of the river to the sea     signing spree. It has bagged 12.6 per
The National Council of Applied Eco-         has reduced from 57 km3 in 1901-1960        cent of the country’s total investment
nomic Research (NCAER) has quoted            to less than a third in 1975-2003. In       in 2010,” says the study.
a figure of Rs.4,44,331.2 crore at            Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and                 It further reveals that the Mahana-
2003-04 rates for the project.               Karnataka, tensions are high, the           di accounts for 62 per cent of Odisha’s
    The most flawed assumption on             study shows. With 52,735 sq km of the       total industrial allocation. About a
which river-linking projects are un-         river remaining dry most of the year in     decade ago, it was only 13 per cent.
dertaken is that there is a huge surplus     Karnataka, 50,242 sq km in Maha-            And at least one industry is proposed
of water in river basins. The use of river   rashtra and 45,493 sq km in Andhra          every 10 km of the river’s 461-km
water by industry, as opposed to agri-       Pradesh, the three States have experi-      stretch. The study points out that in
culture, has increased drastically in re-    enced droughts over the years, mostly       Odisha, the Mahanadi sustains
cent times. The draft National Water         because of the extended usage of water      around 18 million people, more than
Policy, 2012, proposed by the Union          by the growing number of industries.        half of whom are farmers, but power
Ministry of Water Resources gives in-        In such a situation, a grand project like   plants and other industries are draw-
dustry a telling priority over agricul-      the linking of these rivers seems           ing most of its water now. Even the
ture. The 2002 policy had accorded a         irrelevant.                                 water in the barrages built for famine
higher status to irrigation than hydro-          “In the 1960s, large irrigation pro-    relief on the river is being diverted to
power and industries but the 2012            jects were initiated. The result was        industries.
draft policy does away with explicit         lesser flows in the lower reaches. The           The assumption that rivers have
priorities and says that water will be       mean annual run-off to the ocean from       surplus water and that the flooding of
treated as an “economic good”, provid-       1901 to 1960 was 57 km3, states a study     these will ensure successful diversion
ing flexibility for allocation for indus-     conducted by the International Water        of excess water to dry rivers is funda-
trial use even at the cost of agriculture.   Management Institute, a non-profit           mental to the idea of river-linking. The
In one of his articles on the draft water    organisation based in Patancheru,           case studies of the Mahanadi and the
policy, Seth quoted G. Mohan Kumar,          Andhra Pradesh. The quantum of wa-          Krishna leave no doubt about its non-
Additional Secretary in the Water Re-        ter reduced to 17 km3 in 1975-2003.         feasibility. The CSE says the challenge
sources Ministry, as saying, “We have        The study also notes that the total res-    is to complete the existing irrigation
done away with priorities since it was       ervoir storage by 2005 was 54.5 km3,        projects rather than have grand ideas
creating confusion. Agriculture may          close to the river’s annual discharge.      like river-linking and make optimum
become irrelevant where industrialisa-       Reduced water may not create conflict        use of local water resources, which are
tion is taking place on a large scale.”      when water is surplus. But during           constantly under threat from polluting
    Seth further writes: “The 2002 pol-      drought years, it can result in a crisis.   industries.

                                                       1 8   F R O N T L I N E
APRIL 20, 2012
                                                                                                   Cover Story

Fragile ecosystems
            Kerala’s rivers are part of unique, sensitive ecosystems, which would be
            disturbed by the river-linking project. B Y R . K R I S H N A K U M A R I N T H I R U V A N A N T H A P U R A M

                                                                          in India. “Visitors are often bowled over by the
Kerala’s opposition to the project is                                     breathtaking beauty of the place and wonder at the
                                                                          abundance of water in and around it. Therein is a
based on the contention that the                                          problem. They all see a river, or a lake or the back-
Pamba and the Achankovil are                                              waters, merely as ‘water’ and go home with an idea of
                                                                          abundance. But they fail to see them as unique eco-
                                                                          systems, sensitive and fragile and in need of extreme
intra-State rivers. Also, they are not                                    care,” Professor K.G. Padmakumar, Associate Direc-
                                                                          tor of the Kerala Agriculture University’s Regional
water-surplus river basins and their                                      Agriculture Research Station at Kumarakom, told
waters are entirely needed for uses in                                        He was responding to questions on how the pro-
                                                                          posed trans-basin diversion to Tamil Nadu of the
the Vembanad Kol wetland.                                                 waters of the Pamba and the Achankovil, two of the
                KERALA is a shoestring-like piece of land                 five rivers that drain into the southern Vembanad
            tucked away between the Western Ghats and the                 wetland system, would affect Kerala, a State widely
            Arabian Sea. It has four distinct physiographic               believed to have 41 rivers and hence a surplus of
            zones, the highlands, the midlands, the lowland               water.
            plain, and the extremely narrow coastal plain.                    Continuous freshwater flow from the five rivers
                South of Kochi, central Kerala is an enchanting           (a sixth one, one of the tributaries of the Periyar also
            landscape, a region of five “rivers” originating in the        joins the Vembanad backwater system in its lower
            Western Ghats and flowing rapidly through the un-              reaches) is crucial for the Vembanad region, which
            dulating plains to drain into the “Vembanad wetland           was declared a wetland of international importance
            system”. The Vembanad deltaic region includes one             under the Ramsar Convention in November 2002.
            of the longest lakes in India, the lower reaches of the       The area, however, has been under increasing ec-
            five rivers, and a complex system of backwaters,               ological stress over the years, a target of intense
            marshes, lagoons, mangrove forests, reclaimed land,           human interventions, especially for agriculture and
            paddy fields, coconut palms and a network of canals.           tourism.
                A sizable portion of this coastal wetland zone lies           The result has been extreme fertilizer pollution
            at or below sea level. It is a thickly populated region,      from agricultural fields, and pollution caused by or-
            a major part of which – Kuttanad, with 54 villages            ganic, inorganic and toxic materials locally generat-
            spread over three districts – is known as “the rice           ed or brought in by the rivers, aggressive spread of
            bowl of Kerala” and is famous for its distinctive             invasive plant species such as water hyacinth,
            patterns of cultivation, sometimes carried out up to          choked waterways and poor drainage, loss of fish and
            two metres below sea level, with the fields being              migratory water fowl species and population, in-
            prone to floods as well as salt water intrusion from           creasing intensity of flooding, shortage of potable
            the sea.                                                      water, and proliferation of water-borne parasites
                The region is also famous for the unique forma-           and predators affecting human health.
            tion of mud banks, known as “chakara”, during the                 “The proposal for diversion of the Pamba and the
            monsoon, when the mud and silt washed down by                 Achankovil is viewed with a lot of concern here. The
            the rivers help form nutrient-rich havens on the              Vembanad lake has today become a dumping yard,
            coast for fish and prawns that come seeking sanctu-            and the natural flushing mechanisms have long been
            ary from the rough sea, and offering a rich harvest to        hindered or proved inadequate. There is concern
            fisherfolk. The Vembanad backwaters is today                   that such a project is even being considered without
            among the most sought-after tourism destinations              taking into account the visibly decreasing river flow

                                                     F R O N T L I N E   1 9
                                                                                                                APRIL 20, 2012

during most parts of the year,” said Dr      merely as a body of water, but it is a     competency to legislate (by reference
S. Leena Kumari, Professor and head          unique ecosystem. The Vembanad             to entry 56 of List 1) for transferring
of the Rice Research Station, Mon-           lake, located below sea level, plays an    water from Kerala to Tamil Nadu; (d)
combu, in Alappuzha district.                important role in determining the wa-      the Kerala Assembly passed a resolu-
     “An inter-State transfer of the wa-     ter table of the midlands and the high-    tion in August 2003, which was bind-
ters of the Pamba and Achankovil will        lands. Do we not have an obligation to     ing on the State of Kerala, opposing
be suicidal to the interests of Kutta-       protect such sensitive ecosystems in       the transfer of water of the Pamba and
nad, which is already facing an ecolog-      the national interest? Kerala already      the Achankovil to Tamil Nadu; (e) the
ical disaster. The fact is Kerala has no     has 35 reservoirs; can we afford to dis-   State Assembly had all legal rights un-
surplus water to transfer even from          turb the Western Ghats further and         der the Constitution to make laws vest-
one basin to another within the State.       build more of them there?” he asked.       ing the waters of intra-State rivers for
The Kuttanad package recently an-                 The proposed project is meant to      the benefit of its inhabitants; (f) the
nounced by the Union government it-          transfer 20 per cent of what has been      waters of the Pamba and the Achanko-
self is meant to find solutions to the        found by the NWDA as “surplus” water       vil are entirely needed for uses in the
ecological crisis in Kuttanad. One of its    of the two rivers to the Vaippar river     Vembanad Kol wetland; (g) the pro-
major concerns is how to find more            basin in Tamil Nadu through a nine-        posed transfer of the waters to Tamil
water to maintain the ecological bal-        kilometre tunnel across the Western        Nadu would prejudicially affect the
ance in Kuttanad,” said Chief Secre-         Ghats. It involves the construction of     rights and interests of the people of
tary K. Jayakumar, who has for long          three concrete dams, across the Pam-       Kerala in the downstream region, and
been in charge of inter-State water          ba-Kallar at Punnamedu (150 m high         particularly the hydrology of the Vem-
issues.                                      and with a storage capacity of 208 mil-    banad Kol wetland, which is a Ramsar
     The refrain, initially raised by the    lion cubic metres, or Mm3), Achanko-       Convention site; and (h) in protecting
scientific community, is now a com-           vil-Kallar (160 m high; storage            these wetlands the precautionary prin-
mon one in the State, ever since Tamil       capacity 501.7 Mm3) and Achankovil         ciple should apply and that the envi-
Nadu began to insist on speedy imple-        river (35 m high; storage capacity         ronmental interest of the Vembanad
mentation of the Pamba-Achankovil-           33.86 Mm3), a powerhouse for peak          wetlands system takes precedence
Vaippar (PAV) project proposal, one          power demand at Achankovil-Kallar          over the “alleged economic interest of
among the eight river-linking projects       (installed capacity of 500 MW) and six     Tamil Nadu”.
on the “priority list” for which the Na-     other powerhouses in the link compo-
tional Water Development Agency              nent (with a total installed capacity of   ‘NO SURPLUS WATER’
(NWDA) had prepared feasibility re-          8.37 MW). The Punnamedu and                According to former State Water Re-
ports in 1995.                               Achankovil-Kallar dams are to be con-      sources Minister N.K. Premachan-
     According to Prof. Padmakumar, it       nected by an eight-kilometre long tun-     dran, Kerala had informed the NWDA
is important to understand that the          nel. Thus, 634 Mm3 of water is to be       that its conclusions about the surplus
rivers of Kerala cannot be termed “riv-      diverted eventually from the Achanko-      availability of water in the Pamba and
ers” in the real sense, as they are dimin-   vil-Kallar reservoir through the Ghat      Achankovil rivers was “wrongly based
utive rivers, compared with those in         tunnel and a 50-km-long main canal         on the annual water availability and
many other parts of India that are           that joins the Alagar Odai, a tributary    that the temporal variations of the riv-
1,000 km or longer. They are also not        of the Vaippar river in Tamil Nadu.        er flow were not at all considered by it
perennial rivers, being monsoon-fed,         The diverted water is to be used for       while forming such conclusions”.
and many of them go mostly dry dur-          irrigation in the districts of Madurai,        “The only remedy open before Ker-
ing the summer months. Moreover,             Virudhunagar,        Tuticorin      and    ala to overcome the problem of lean
Kerala’s unique topography means             Tirunelveli.                               season flows is to go in for storage
that all the rain that falls in the high-         Kerala had been opposing the pro-     reservoirs. But reservoirs can only be
lands flows to the sea in a matter of         posal ever since it was mooted. Among      built in the highlands, again a region
hours.                                       its essential arguments, as explained in   rich in biodiversity. In the past, Kerala
     “But though the State has only a        a counter-affidavit filed before the         had shared not only water (as part of
small share of the country’s geographic      court in July 2009, were that: (a) the     the Mullaperiyar and Parambikku-
area, it is a biodiversity hot spot. Near-   proposal was based on the erroneous        lam-Aliyar projects) but also such fea-
ly 22 per cent of the plant diversity of     estimation that surplus water is avail-    sible reservoir sites with our
India is in Kerala, and 35 per cent of       able in the two rivers; (b) Tamil Nadu     neighbouring State and found itself
freshwater fish diversity of the country      has no right to demand transfer of wa-     without new storage options when the
is found in the rivers of the State. It is   ters because the Pamba and Achanko-        need arose subsequently within those
surprising how everyone wishes away          vil rivers are fully intra-State rivers,   basins in Kerala. We learned hard les-
scientific facts when they moot such          with their entire basins wholly within     sons from those experiences,” he told
diversion schemes. We treat the river        Kerala; (c) even Parliament has no         Frontline, quoting the example of a

                                                       2 0   F R O N T L I N E
APRIL 20, 2012

similar situation caused by the Param-
bikkulam-Aliyar Project (PAP) in the
Chalakudy basin. “Kerala had gener-
ously granted water and reservoir loca-
tions under the PAP to its neighbour
and now is left with only 6.5 tmc ft
storage in that basin, while Tamil Na-
du has 24.5 tmc ft of storage within
Kerala,” he said.
    Moreover, the agreement on the
PAP was based on a similar study con-
ducted earlier by the Central Water
and Power Commission (CW&PC),
which said that there would be surplus
water to share with Tamil Nadu in
those rivers. “Kerala offered water and
space to Tamil Nadu for building res-
ervoirs in its territory, but now faces
acute water shortage during the sum-
mer months and the situation becomes
even worse during lean years. In the
case of the proposed PAV project, too,
the only possible reservoir sites re-      advocate who had
maining in the Pamba and Achankovil        appeared for Kerala in
basins are those proposed for the di-      the Supreme Court, told
version project to Tamil Nadu. Hence       Frontline that the Division
it causes concern in the minds of the      Bench had only partly noted the
people of Kerala,” the former Minister     contentions of the State and that
said.                                      Kerala’s main argument that the
    Dr A.B. Anitha, Head of the Sur-       Pamba and the Achankovil are intra-
face Water Division of the Centre for      State rivers on which Parliament had
Water Resources Development and            no competency to legislate by refer-       and the Achankovil rivers,” said N.K.
Management (CWRDM), Kozhikode,             ence to entry 56 of List 1 for transfer-   Sukumaran Nair, general secretary of
told Frontline that the investigations     ring water from Kerala to Tamil Nadu       the Pampa Parirakshana Samiti, an
by the CWRDM in the late 1990s had         had not been recorded by it.               organisation dedicated to the cause of
shown that the basins of four of the five        “The effect of the judgment is that   saving the Pamba.
rivers, namely, the Muvattupuzha, the      it allows one to argue both ways: that          The initial reaction of Chief Minis-
Meenachil, the Manimala and the            since the issue has not been decided, it   ter Oommen Chandy was that the
Achankovil draining into the Vemba-        can be opened again; or that since it      judgment would not apply to Kerala or
nad backwater, would have a fresh wa-      has not been decided, it has been de-      its rivers “as the order was applicable
ter deficit for meeting the demands         cided against the State. It thus creates   only to concurring States”. “Kerala has
within their boundaries by A.D. 2051.      a grey area,” he said.                     opposed the interlinking of rivers and
The Pamba has a freshwater flow of               “We feel that the Kerala govern-      the judgment will hence not apply to
1,208 Mm3, after meeting the project-      ment has been negligent in informing       us,” he said.
ed demands within the basin. Howev-        the court about the real situation on           Premachandran, however, said
er, 4,745 Mm3 of water is required to      the ground, that the Pamba and the         that it would be wrong for the State to
flush out the present level of pollutants   Achankovil are actually water-deficit       come to such a conclusion because “the
from the Vembanad wetland. There-          river basins. There were several occa-     court seems to have issued a general
fore, the Pamba will also have a deficit    sions in the past years, when the Aran-    direction to all the States after hearing
of 3,537 Mm3, she said.                    mula boat race, conducted as part of       the arguments raised by Kerala too”.
    At the time of writing this report,    the annual regatta there, had to be        The Supreme Court’s direction seems
the Kerala government was yet to de-       postponed because there was no water       to have reopened the whole issue of the
cide on what course of action it would     in the Pampa during the monsoon sea-       Pamba-Achankovil-Vaippar project,
take regarding the issue, following the    son. The river course along the road to    and the State needs to tread carefully if
judgment of the Supreme Court on           Sabarimala runs dry frequently; so do      its genuine interests are to be protect-
February 27. Mohan V. Katarki, an          the drinking water tanks in the Pamba      ed, he said.

                                                     F R O N T L I N E   2 1
Cover Story                                                                                                               APRIL 20, 2012

Political divide
       The political class by and large sees the court order on interlinking rivers as
       unduly hasty. B Y V E N K I T E S H R A M A K R I S H N A N

                                                                                    relations with Pakistan. According to Hari Babu, the
The BJP sees the order as a                                                         Vajpayee government had prepared a detailed pro-
                                                                                    ject report for the interlinking of rivers with an
vindication of its vision. The                                                      estimated investment of Rs.5,00,000 crore. The re-
                                                                                    port had visualised completion of the project by
Congress, which did not act on the                                                  2016.
project after coming to power, has                                                      While the apex court order has come as a political
                                                                                    shot in arm for the BJP, it remains to be seen wheth-
                                                                                    er it will actually goad the UPA government into
no stated position. But party sources                                               taking up the project as advised by the principal
                                                                                    opposition. The Congress, which wound up the spe-
say it is not in favour of the idea,                                                cial panel set up during NDA rule immediately after
                                                                                    coming to power in 2004, does not have a stated
mainly for environmental reasons.                                                   position on the project. Party general secretary Ra-
           IN purely political terms, the Supreme Court                             hul Gandhi had said in a statement that interlinking
       order directing the Union government to set up a
       special committee to take forward the idea of inter-
       linking the country’s rivers is a shot in the arm for the
       principal opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
       While other political organisations such as the Com-
       munist Party of India (CPI) and the Dravida Mun-
       netra Kazhakam (DMK) have referred to the idea
       from to time to time, especially in their election
       manifestos, it was the BJP that consistently brought
       up the topic for discussion in national political                                                            R AHUL G AN D HI ,
       forums.                                                                                                      C ON G R E S S general
           Commenting on the court order, BJP spokesper-                                                            secretary, issued a
       son Prakash Javadekar stated that it was a vindica-                                                          statement saying
       tion of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)                                                               interlinking of
       government’s vision. One of the first actions of the                                                          rivers may damage
       Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA)                                                               the environment.
       when it came to power was to mismanage this vision-
       ary programme and ensure that it did not advance,
       Javadekar told Frontline.
           Javadekar’s party colleague, Hari Babu, who had                                                          P R I M E M I N I S TE R
       taken a more active role in the project as a member of                                                       ATAL Bihari
       the Task Force on Interlinking of Rivers set up dur-                                                         Vajpayee with
       ing NDA regime, said that the apex court order had                                                           President
       given the UPA an opportunity to make amends and                                                              A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
       take up the project without further delay.                                                                   in New Delhi in
           According to a number of BJP leaders, the inter-                                                         October 2003.
       linking project was one of three priority ideas per-                                                         Kalam supported
       sonally advanced by former Prime Minister Atal                                                               the interlinking of
                                                                     R.V. MOORTHY

       Bihari Vajpayee. The other two were improving                                                                rivers envisaged by
       roadways across the country through the golden                                                               the Vajpayee
       quadrilateral highways project and building better                                                           government.

                                                  2 2   F R O N T L I N E
APRIL 20, 2012

of rivers could cause environmental         beneficiary States of Punjab, Hima-                           the idea of interlinking rivers. Certain
damage, without dwelling on the issue       chal Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan.                         powerful new entrants in the PMO,
in detail. In the absence of a formal           “But all that these States, especially                   said to enjoy the confidence of the
position, sources in the Congress, in-      Himachal Pradesh, has got is a contin-                       Nehru-Gandhi family, are, according
cluding a number of senior leaders and      ued period of misery. In fact, the pro-                      to these sources, supportive of the idea.
spokespersons, would only say that the      ject turned the fertile Balh valley and                      This is also said to be the reason for the
overwhelming view in the party is one       Mandi district into a veritable desert                       government’s failure to make a strong
that goes against the concept of inter-     because of the silt thrown out of the                        case in the court against the interlin-
linking rivers. These sources pointed       hydel channel and the open reservoir.                        king project.
out that this objection was based on        We cannot afford to repeat such devel-                           Whether these surmises have any
environmental considerations.               opmental misadventures,” the leader                          basis, only time will tell. However,
    According to them, the party has        said on condition of anonymity.                              partners in the ruling coalition such as
closely studied the experience of one of        Why does the Congress not have a                         the DMK and Sharad Pawar’s Nation-
the six inter-basin water transfer pro-     formal position on the issue despite                         alist Congress Party have expressed
jects that are already operational in       such experiences and studies on the                          qualified support for the idea. The
India, namely the Beas-Sutlej Link          problem? The query does not evoke a                          qualifications and the support these
Project executed over three decades         unidimensional response. Most sourc-                         parties have expressed depend largely
ago.                                        es in the party attribute it to the Con-                     on regional political considerations.
    It is apparently this assessment        gress’ informal and open style of                            The CPI, too, has expressed broad sup-
that has led to the overwhelming ob-        functioning.                                                 port for the idea. In its election mani-
jection to the linking of rivers. Accord-       But some others suspect that cer-                        festo presented for the recent Uttar
ing to a senior Congress functionary        tain changes in the administrative hie-                      Pradesh elections, the party supported
from Punjab, the linking of the two         rarchy of the UPA, particularly in the                       the idea as a measure to improve irri-
rivers was believed to be a measure         office of Prime Minister Manmohan                             gation in the country.
that would usher in prosperity in the       Singh, have created a view supporting                            However, CPI leader Atul Kumar
                                                                                                         Anjan pointed out that the environ-
                                                                                                         mental implications of the project
                                                                                                         should be studied thoroughly before
                                                                                                         embarking on it. He also pointed out
                                                                                                         that utmost care should be taken to
                                                                                                         avoid inter-State disputes such as the
                                                                                                         one that exists over the sharing of
                                                                                                         Cauvery waters between Karnataka
                                                                                                         and Tamil Nadu.
                                                                                                             The Communist Party of India
                                                                                                         (Marxist), or the CPI(M), expressed
                                                                                                         amazement at the sudden activist
                                                                                                         mode that the Supreme Court had
                                                                                                         adopted on this issue. Talking to Fron-
                                                                                                         tline, party leader Nilotpal Basu said
                                                                                                         that the CPI(M) had all through ad-
                                                                                                         vocated a thorough assessment of the
                                                                                                         physical, financial and environmental
                                                                                                         implications of the proposed project.
                                                                                                         “One cannot afford to embark upon
                                                                                                         the project without doing this. Even
                                                                                                         after doing this, there should be a de-
                                                                                                         tailed exercise to define and distin-
                                                                                                         guish the share and role of various
                                                                                                         State governments in taking forth the
                                                                                                         project,” he said.
                                                                                                             The dominant view in the political
                                                                                                         class is clearly that the court order was
                                                                                         V.V. KRISHNAN

                                                                                                         unduly hasty. And this, surely, will
                                                                                                         have an impact on the implementation
                                                                                                         of the project.

                                                      F R O N T L I N E   2 3
Cover Story                                                                                               APRIL 20, 2012

‘Gigantic challenge’
       Interview with Ranjit Kumar, senior advocate and the amicus curiae in the
       interlinking of rivers case. B Y V . V E N K A T E S A N

“This judgment does not deal with
the water crisis. This judgment deals
with the benefits arising from
interlinking and the malice or

                                                                                                                              SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA
misery that is prevailing on account
of droughts and floods.”
            RANJIT KUMAR, the amicus curiae in the in-
       terlinking of rivers case, is a senior advocate in the      R AN J I T KUM A R : “ N OB OD Y can deny the benefits
       Supreme Court and has been practising for nearly 32         accruing from these projects.”
       years. He has been the amicus curiae in about 14
       matters before the Supreme Court, including the             completion of the detailed project reports (DPRs).
       ones on the cleaning of the Yamuna and the sealing          And even in 2002, while the matter was going on in
       of illegal commercial establishments in Delhi. In this      the court, the government informed that feasibility
       interview to Frontline, he tries to clarify many of the     studies in respect of six river links had already been
       concerns voiced by experts about the Supreme                completed. So, I would not like to say that none of the
       Court’s judgment in the interlinking of rivers case.        projects is lying in limbo. The Standing Committee
                                                                   of Parliament for Water Resources, which has been
       Critics of the judgment have pointed out that none of       noticed in paragraph 24 of the judgment, had asked
       the 30 projects being planned has been approved or          why the project was at a nascent stage. The commit-
       sanctioned and that none of them is ready for               tee had strongly recommended going ahead with the
       implementation. The delay has been attributed to            project. That was why I sought the court’s interven-
       the divergence of perspectives on the project               tion. Undoubtedly, the ILR [interlinking of rivers]
       between the National Democratic Alliance                    programme is a gigantic challenge, and a momen-
       government and the United Progressive Alliance              tous one before the Union government.
       government which succeeded it.
           I don’t want to get into the political realm of the     The report of the National Council for Applied
       matter. What had already been achieved was that the         Economic Research (NCAER) appears to be the only
       peninsular and the Himalayan links had been identi-         basis for the judgment. Does this report adequately
       fied. There are 14 Himalayan links and 16 peninsular         assess the gains from ILR for drought prevention
       links. That apart, most of the rivers are inter-State       and flood control?
       rivers. After the drawing up of the pre-feasibility              The Union of India in all its affidavits filed in the
       reports, which itself took time, there was a bar chart      Supreme Court always supported the programme
       presented by the government as to how much time it          and the NWDA [the National Water Development
       would take. The government had given milestone              Agency] continued to function under the aegis of the
       timetables under which the implementation of the            Secretary, Water Resources. Feasibility reports and
       project would be completed by December 31, 2016.            DPRs were made, or have been made in the cases of
           The steps required were first, the feasibility           some. Therefore, to say that the NCAER 2008 report
       study, then funding proposals, then the concurrence         is the only basis for the judgment is not correct. The
       of the Chief Ministers of the States and then the           court has definitely lifted from the report’s conclu-

                                              2 4   F R O N T L I N E
APRIL 20, 2012

sions dealing with the economic aspect           That is why environmentalists are         happening and how the matter has
and social impact and the benefits aris-      in the task force. They have a big say in     progressed. It did not say that it is not
ing from the project.                        the matter. I have attended a few meet-       feasible or that we should not do it. If
                                             ings of the task force. Most of the ob-       the government were to come to such a
The two basic premises that                  jections pertain to rehabilitation            conclusion that it is not feasible, then it
determined the admission of PIL in           programmes for those being displaced.         will make a somersault of its earlier
this case were that the ILR would lead       Therefore, the aspect which relates to        position. Nobody can deny the benefits
to drought proofing and flood control          rehabilitation will be a part of the pro-     accruing from these projects.
and that there was consensus among           ject itself as we have seen in other plac-
the States. These two premises have          es such as Tehri, and Narmada dam. I          How do you react to the criticism that
subsequently become vulnerable.              don’t agree that the project ignores the      the ILR can lead to fresh inter-State
    I do not agree that they are vul-        concerns on the environment and bio-          river disputes and that it may not
nerable. Because nobody can deny that        diversity. Even if environmentalists          solve the existing ones?
there is flooding every year and              say so, they have to give reasons, and            I have informed the court that in
droughts every year. How much mon-           the court will look into the reasons. If it   view of the provisions of the River
ey does the Prime Minister’s Relief          is successful all over the world, and         Boards Act, 1956, enacted by Parlia-
Fund have to expend to mitigate the          specifically in China, Brazil and Pakis-       ment, there is a declaration under Sec-
devastation caused by floods and              tan, then surely it cannot be said that it    tion 2 that the Central government
droughts? For the last 60 years, can we      will not be successful here.                  should take under its control the regu-
say that the premises of flooding and                                                       lation of inter-State rivers and river
drought are vulnerable?                      Some of the projects may involve              valleys. Section 13 provides for opti-
                                             international agreements, especially          mum utilisation of water resources
Critics point out that courts cannot lay     between India and Bangladesh. Has             and for promotion and operation of
down the manner in which the right to        the judgment taken this into account?         schemes of flood control. Section 15
water should be ensured.                         There are issues with Nepal and           empowers preparation of schemes to
    It is not the right to water which is    Bangladesh, which will be sorted out.         develop inter-State river or river val-
being ensured. What is being ensured         This will be part of the implementa-          leys. And this has been noted in Para-
is the beneficial aspects of having 40        tion process. Whatever will be re-            graph 58 of the judgment. Therefore, if
million hectares irrigated. And when         quired will be done.                          there is an existence of regulatory
you can have waterways systems, the                                                        framework by the declaration of Par-
yearly misery of droughts and floods          Has the court considered the need for         liament, there need not be any inter-
can be got rid of. Chapter 2 of the          clearances under the Environment              State river dispute. The tribunal is not
NCAER report amply bears this out. It        Protection and Forest Conservation            necessary. The Central government
explains the benefits of river valley         Acts and the National Rehabilitation          can exercise that power. The Central
projects, namely, the Indira Gandhi          Policy, and from the Planning                 government never applied its mind to
Canal project, the Tennessee Valley          Commission and the Cabinet?                   this Act when disputes arose and tri-
project, the Colorado River Canal sys-           These are all in the implementa-          bunals were set up. When I brought
tem and the Three Gorges dam.                tion process. Reports have to be filed.        this to the notice of the court, the judg-
                                             The court will consider the grounds           es found a way to deal with the matter.
The relationship between the right to        cited by these agencies if they conclude
water and the ILR project has been           that the project is not feasible and will     It is pointed out that the Supreme
described as tenuous.                        dwell on it. I can file a contempt, if         Court has failed to consider the
    The judgment itself doesn’t say          nothing is happening, for default or for      diversity of views on the reasons for
that there is a link between the right to    non-compliance of the directions by           India’s water crisis and that the ILR
water and the project. The court is only     the Supreme Court as mentioned in             may not be the best possible answer.
saying that the project is in the nation-    Paragraph 64 (XVI) of the judgment.                This judgment does not deal with
al interest. In paragraphs 50, 52, and                                                     water crisis. This judgment deals with
63, the court says that these are mat-       Did the UPA government make its               the benefits arising from interlinking
ters of national interest and national       stand clear to the court on the ILR           and the malice or misery that is pre-
problems should be viewed with grea-         project despite its reservations?             vailing on account of droughts and
ter objectivity, rationality and spirit of        The government has at no stage           floods. This judgment does not deal
service to the nation.                       expressed any reservation about the           with the water crisis to the extent of
                                             project. A few States may have. The           drinking water. But it deals with an
Does the ILR project adequately
                                             Centre has never taken the stand that         aspect that if interlinking takes place,
address the concerns on biodiversity
                                             it is not feasible. It went along, filed       how many million hectares of land will
and impact on the environment?
                                             status reports about what has been            be irrigated.

                                                       F R O N T L I N E   2 5
Cover Story                                                                                          APRIL 20, 2012

Building on sand
       Experts say the river-linking proposal
       is based on a flawed understanding of
       the subject. B Y T . K . R A J A L A K S H M I

For instance, when a river flow
outpours into the ocean,
arithmetical hydrologists describe it
as wastage of fresh water. Such flows
are imperative to reduce salinity of
oceans and to sustain estuaries
and coastal habitats.
           THE Supreme Court’s directive of February 27 to
       the Central government to constitute immediately a
       committee on the interlinking of rivers, based on a
       report of the National Council of Applied Economic
       Research (NCAER) and the recommendations of a
       Standing Committee of Parliament, has evoked
       sharp reactions. A cross section of experts on water
       resources expressed their concerns to Frontline on
       what they thought was a rather unnecessary inter-
       vention by the apex court, relying on a report written
       by economists.
           D. Raghunandan, president of the All India Peo-
       ple’s Science Network and executive member of the
       Delhi Science Forum, said the entire premise of
       river-linking rested on the understanding that some
       river basins had surplus water and others were defi-
       cient. “That itself is an open question. The so-called
       surplus Ganga basin has had a drought period too.
       The idea of surplus presupposes that there is a de-                   E R OS I ON C AUS E D
       mand and a supply. For instance, if Delhi uses more                   BY the Brahmaputra
       water, does the supply to it become justified just                     in Morigaon district
       because of the high consumption of water?” he ar-                     of Assam in 2008.
       gued, saying that river-linking was one of the many                   The water flow in
       quixotic ideas based on some arithmetic formulation                   the Brahmaputra is
       of diverting water from one part to the other.                        so strong that only
           Raghunandan said he had argued against it                         3 to 4 per cent can
       when it was introduced by the Bharatiya Janata                        be diverted, says an
       Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) gov-                     expert.
       ernment in 2003 and a committee set up under
       Suresh Prabhu. Even at that point, the Supreme

                                                   2 6   F R O N T L I N E
APRIL 20, 2012

                                   Court had suggested to the govern-          rect. The Ganga ranked fourth or fifth
                                   ment, and not directed it, to take up       in terms of per capita water availabil-
                                   the plan, he said. According to Raghu-      ity. But there were no studies to show
                                   nandan, the very notion that the prob-      that there was surplus water in the
                                   lems of floods and droughts, that is         Himalayan rivers. The Yamuna, he
                                   surpluses and deficits, can or could be      said, was little more than a drain. “The
                                   met by inter-basin transfer of waters       water flow in the Brahmaputra is so
                                   has raised questions. He said the Na-       strong that only 3 to 4 per cent can be
                                   tional Commission for Integrated Wa-        diverted. Most rivers have only a sea-
                                   ter Resources Development Plan              sonal concentration of water. The rest
                                   (NCIWRDP), set up in 1996 and de-           of the year, the non-monsoon period,
                                   scribed by the government as a “blue-       they run dry,” he said.
                                   ribbon” body, had stated in a 1999 re-           All rivers are flooded in the mon-
                                   port that further studies were needed       soon months, from June to September.
                                   on the Himalayan component and that         “If surplus water is to be transferred, it
                                   in the peninsular component massive         would be from one flooded river to
                                   inter-basin transfers were not              another,” he said.
                                       Any shifting of water, he said, went    GENESIS OF THE IDEA
                                   against gravity and that required huge      The concept of river-linking pre-dated
                                   amounts of energy. The northern riv-        Independence and was a grand notion
                                   ers will have to be lifted high above the   mooted by the British. The genesis of
                                   Vindhyas in order to reach water to the     the idea was in 1858 when a hydraulic
                                   southern States. “No hydrological logic     engineer, Colonel Arthur Cotton, sub-
                                   will say whether it is desirable or not     mitted a report on the Mahanadi river
                                   and no one knows the consequences           to the colonial government in Orissa
                                   too. There is no authoritative body of      (Odisha). His idea was to connect the
                                   hydrologists or geologists who have         Indian subcontinent through a grid of
                                   pronounced in favour of inter-basin         navigation and irrigation canals. But it
                                   transfer,” he said, adding that there       did not take off because of the huge
                                   were hardly any successful global il-       finances involved, and Cotton left In-
                                   lustrations of such an experiment. He       dia. Ever since, the idea to have a river-
                                   pointed out that there were cases of        linking system has cropped up now
                                   dykes built on large rivers such as the     and again.
                                   Mississippi and the Missouri, for flood           In 1960, the issue was resurrected
                                   control purposes, but even those were       by the then Power and Irrigation Min-
                                   now being questioned.                       ister, K.L. Rao, whose proposal was to
                                       S. Sreekesh, Associate Professor at     link the Ganga and the Cauvery with a
                                   the Centre for Study of Regional De-        2,640-kilometre canal. But yet again,
                                   velopment, Jawaharlal Nehru Univer-         the huge investment, estimated at
                                   sity (JNU), Delhi, has similar views.       Rs.12,000 crore, became a hurdle.
                                   An expert on water resources and cli-       “The present estimate is much more
                                   mate change, Sreekesh told Frontline        than that, almost equal to the annual
                                   that feasibility studies had been done      Budget,” said Sreekesh.
                                   only in the case of the Ken-Betwa link           He said the quantum of power
                                   (between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar           needed to lift the water from the Gan-
                                   Pradesh) and not for all the rivers. The    ga to the Chota Nagpur plateau and
                                   investment required, too, would be          beyond would be tremendous. “For
                                   tremendous, more than the country’s         that, hydroelectric ports and thermal
                                   national budget, he said.                   power plants would be needed – all to
                                       On the face of it, interlinking of      irrigate the south,” Sreekesh said.
                                   rivers would bring in several benefits,           In 1977, the Captain Dastur Com-
                 RITU RAJ KONWAR

                                   including the possibility of irrigating     mittee came up with an even more
                                   some 35 million hectares, and surface       comprehensive plan. It was to connect
                                   recharge. But even the definition of         all the Himalayan rivers in the form of
                                   surplus, Sreekesh said, was not cor-        a garland. He proposed a 4,200-km

                                             F R O N T L I N E   2 7
                                                                                                                APRIL 20, 2012

                                                                                                                                    V. SUDERSHAN
                                  Singh flanked by Chief Ministers Mulayam Singh Yadav of Uttar Pradesh and Babulal
Gaur of Madhya Pradesh after the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two States for preparing
a detailed project report on the Ken-Betwa river link project, at the Parliament House in New Delhi in 2005.
Himalayan canal and a 9,300-km                  Rohan D’Souza, Assistant Profes-       these views. In an article titled “Inter-
southern canal linking Delhi and Pat-       sor at the Centre for Studies in Science   linking rivers: Is it the solution?”, pub-
na. The estimated cost was Rs.24,000        Policy at JNU, said it was a deeply        lished        in        The        Hindu
crore. The National Commission for          flawed belief that rivers had surplus       (www.hinduonnet.com/2005/08/
Integrated Water Resources Develop-         waters and that floods and droughts         29), V. Rajamani, Professor of Geology
ment Plan rejected the proposal on          could be banished by technical solu-       at the School of Environmental Sci-
both financial and technical grounds.        tions.                                     ences, JNU, argues that river flooding
    The latest plan, the brainchild of          Supply side hydrology, he argued,      is a constructive geological process and
the National Water Development              was the product of political thinking.     not a disaster as considered by urban-
Agency, also recommends lifting the         There were discrepancies, he said, be-     ised civilisation. Flooding, he writes,
Ganga waters. It proposes 16 links on       tween the compilations of different de-    became a hazard from the human per-
the east-flowing rivers, that is, the pen-   partments on figures and percentages        spective when flood plains were taken
insular component, and 14 links in the      on waterlogging, net irrigated areas,      over for human habitation.
Himalayan component. “The proposal          power generation, and displacement.             Interlinking of rivers requires the
should have included socio-economic         Water scarcity in India today was less a   construction of a large number of huge
benefits as well as acceptance by the        product of meteorological parsimony        dams, and, in addition to several ec-
affected populations,” Sreekesh said.       than an outcome of fatal and degrad-       ological and social consequences this
    R.B. Singh, Associate Professor in      ing land management practices and          causes a near total removal of suspend-
the Department of Geography, Uni-           wastage of water resources, said           ed sediment load from the stream flow.
versity of Delhi, has a different view.     D’Souza.                                   His conclusion: a thorough scientific
His argument is that since a huge pop-          In a paper published on the topic,     study on all aspects discussed above,
ulation needs to be fed, a large area       he has argued that instead of dams,        including the consequences of flood
needs to be brought under irrigation.       diversions and groundwater mining          mitigation, lack of sediment, water
He said rather than have river-linking      approaches, what is needed is reviving     and nutrient supply in the down-
schemes between States, the endeav-         natural drainage by removing massive       stream and coastal regions, and, more
our should be to try it within States       obstructions and obstacles that stran-     importantly, in the Bay of Bengal is
themselves, linking surplus and deficit      gle wetlands, lakes and streams; clean-    essential for evaluating the long-term
areas. The second step should be the        ing up rivers and recovering aquatic       consequences of interlinking of rivers
cooperation of a similar nature be-         ecosystems; and achieving hydraulic        in India. “At present, most of these
tween a State and a neighbouring one.       integrity through efforts to ensure ec-    aspects are huge unknowns,” he says in
But there is more scepticism than opti-     ological connectivity of flood plains,      the article.
mism regarding this mega river-link-        channels, wetlands and estuaries.               Interestingly, the arguments of the
ing scheme.                                     There are others too who share         NCAER, mainly a body of economists,

                                                      2 8   F R O N T L I N E
APRIL 20, 2012

                                                                                       and not geologists or hydrologists or
                                                                                       even ecologists, in outlining the river-

  What experts say                                                                     linking plan have been questioned. An
                                                                                       article by Pranab Mukhopadhyay of
                                                                                       the Department of Economics, Goa
  THE Supreme Court’s judgment of           quences, which might even be               University, and Gopal Kadekodi of the
  February 27 on the river-linking          disastrous in some cases. Each dam         Centre for Multidisciplinary Develop-
  project has raised various concerns       will also mean the displacement of         ment Research, Dharwad, in the No-
  in different quarters. In a statement     people to varying extents, and may         vember 2011 issue of Economic and
  released on March 29, a group of          cause injustice and hardship.              Political Weekly critically examines
  concerned citizens has urged the              (iv) The project is at variance        the developmental role claimed for the
  court “to put the judgment on hold        with the growing recognition that it       mining industry for Goa in an NCAER
  and undertake a reconsideration of        is necessary to move away from the         report.
  the entire matter”. The 62 signato-       long-standing engineering tradition            They argue that the report under-
  ries to the statement include Ramas-      of a supply-side response to a pro-        values the environmental costs of
  wamy R. Iyer, former Secretary,           jected or imagined demand, and to-         mining and overvalues its benefits
  Water Resources; Prashant Bhush-          wards restraining the growth of            when examined in the light of received
  an, Senior Advocate, Supreme              competitive unsustainable demand           practices in environmental valuation.
  Court; Himanshu Thakkar of the            for water in all uses.                     They seek a long-term perspective for
  South Asia Network on Dams, Riv-              (v) Assuming that some aug-            the state for the proper valuation of
  ers & People, Delhi; Prof. A. Vai-        mentation of supply is necessary, the      natural resources such as forest, land,
  dyanthan,        former       Member,     project fails to consider alternative      waterbodies, and marine and biodi-
  Planning Commission; Arun Ku-             possibilities, of which there are sev-     versity resources. There are several
  mar, Professor, JNU, Delhi; Ashis         eral very good examples.                   others who believe that no authorita-
  Nandy, Centre for the Study of De-            (vi) The idea of transferring          tive study exists on the feasibility of
  veloping Societies; Darryl D’Monte        flood waters to arid or drought-            interlinking rivers.
  and Kuldip Nayar, senior journal-         prone areas is flawed because (a)               In another article published in the
  ists; Prof. S. Janakarajan, Madras        there will be hardly any flood-mod-         October 2011 issue of Seminar, Jayan-
  Institute of Development Studies,         eration; and (b) this project will be of   ta Bandyopadhyay, professor and head
  Chennai; and Sanjoy Hazarika of the       no use at all to the dry lands and         of the Centre for Development and En-
  Centre for North East Studies and         uplands of the country.                    vironmental Policy at the Indian In-
  Policy Research, Guwahati.                    (vii) The idea of transferring wa-     stitute of Management, Calcutta,
      The following is a statement of       ter from surplus to deficit basins is       argues against the notion of environ-
  the case they make against the            equally flawed because the very no-         mental flows. He says there is no fixed
  project:                                  tions of “surplus” and “deficit” are        amount called “environmental flows”
      (i) Instead of starting from the      highly problematic. The idea of a          but flows that are allocated on the ba-
  identification of the needs of water-      “surplus” river ignores the multiple       sis of agreed levels of degradation of
  scarce areas and finding area-specif-      purposes that it serves as it flows and     the natural ecosystems when com-
  ic answers, the project starts by look-   joins the sea, and that of a “deficit”      pared with the pristine.
  ing at a map of India, decides a          river is based on “demands” on its             Environmental flows are required
  priori that the rivers of India can       waters derived from wasteful uses of       for the ecosystem, he argues. For in-
  and should be linked, and then pro-       water.                                     stance, when a river flow outpours into
  ceeds to consider the modalities of           (viii) Careful, economical, con-       the ocean, it is often described by
  doing so. This is a reckless and major    flict-free and sustainable intra-basin      arithmetical hydrologists as wastage of
  redesigning of the geography of the       management should come first, and           freshwater. But geologists and ecol-
  country.                                  bringing water from elsewhere              ogists know that such flows are imper-
      (ii) The related ideas of a “na-      should be the last recourse.               ative to reduce salinity of oceans and to
  tional water grid” or the “networking         (ix) The project holds the poten-      sustain estuaries and coastal habitats.
  of rivers” give evidence of profound-     tial of generating new conflicts be-            Clearly, the last word on river-link-
  ly wrong thinking about rivers. Riv-      tween basins.                              ing is yet to be said. There are more
  ers are not pipelines.                        (x) There are international di-        unknowns than knowns. With so
      (iii) The grand design consisting     mensions to this project. Both Nepal       many arguments, each making out a
  of 30 projects involving upwards of       and Bangladesh have expressed seri-        case against river-linking in technical,
  80 dams is bound to have major en-        ous apprehensions that need to be          financial and ecological terms, a re-
  vironmental/ecological          conse-    taken into account.                        view of the proposal needs to be con-

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