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A Disasterous Prescription: Interlinking of Rivers Revived Again

The Hindu today reported that Supreme Court of India on February 27 directed the Union government to constitute a ‘special committee’ forthwith for inter-linking of rivers for the benefit of the entire nation. A Bench of Chief Justice S.J. Kapadia and Justices A.K. Patnaik and Swatanter Kumar, in its judgment in a 2002 case relating to networking of rivers, said the committee should submit a bi-annual report to the Union Cabinet, which must consider the report and take decisions.1 Former President A P J Abdul Kalam has also been an advocate of the inter-linking of rivers as a possible way to check flood, draught and erosion. He has advocated that on many occasions beginning from his Presidential speech on September 30th 2002 and since then at wherever he has been speaking, most recently while addressing Chamber of Indian Insutries (CII) Agricon, Chennai and suggested creation of National Water Grid Management. It was after his speech that Supreme Court took up the project for monitoring. The proposal for river linking was made in 20th century by Arthur Cotton, which had in mind developing land linkages across rivers for navigation purposes. National Democratic Alliance government led by Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) had it in its election Manisfesto in 1997 – 98. Once in power in light of the consecutive drought conditions a Task Force under the Chairmanship of Suresh Prabhu was set up to report on the inter-linking of rivers (ILR) in 2000 – 2002, which suggested 30 links in all total comprising of Himalayan and Peninsular components and a cost of 5600000 Million INR. On December 13, 2011 Supreme Court had expressed concern over the escalating cost, financial liability and displacement, but that seems not be a concern now. While pronouncing the judgement SC said “It is clear that primarily there is unanimity among all authorities concerned, including the Centre and a majority of the State governments — with the exception of one or two — that implementation of river- linking will be very beneficial. In fact, the expert opinions convincingly dispel all other impressions. There shall be greater growth in the agricultural and allied sectors2, prosperity and stimulus to the economy, potentially causing [an] increase in per capita income, in addition to the short- and long-term benefits…”3 India is already witness to a large number of inter state water sharing conflicts and many of the rivers said to be water surplus due to excessive exploitation by dams, farming, thermal power plants and climatic change are no more water surplus.4 It met with stiff resistance when first brought in public domain and once NDA lost the General Elections in 2004, it was put on back burner by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. In a volume edited by renowned social activist Medha Patkar, titled, River Linking : A Millennium Folly? Former Union Water Secretary Ramaswamy Aiyer said that the project without looking at the need of a region, options and alternatives starts with the proposition that the rivers of India must be linked, and then proceeds to consider possibilities of storages, links, transfers, etc. What is the basis of it and how did one arrive at the conclusion that all the rivers of India – or the major ones – must be linked? In the same volume Medha Patkar questioned the scientific basis and environmental studies and assessments which gave the project its sanctity. She further added that the estimated costs of Rs, 5600000 million INR in 2002 will escalate atleast 5 times by the time it reaches its completion as has been our experience. This will only fuel large acquisitions of land, water and forests and a great rush of capital from World Bank, IMF and other big water companies and dam building agencies. Situation after nearly a decade since the ILR idea was mooted is not much different, the studies for all the links have not been completed even then many of the state governments have planned their own river links (Bihar 6, Puducherry 1, Rajasthan 2, Maharashtra 15, Gujarat 1, Orissa 2). These will put extra financial burden and will divert funds from other important and low cost water initiatives to these big gigantic projects. It will not only have extreme financial strain but will add to the number of ever growing development displaced population in the country. It is going to be an ecological disaster as feared by many and will mean death of many of the rivers and communities. The cost for these are nowhere calculated and not even paid attention to. The idea needs to be abandoned even now and a more realistic, holistic and decentralised plan for meeting the water crisis facing India needs to be developed in consultation with the communities, movements and consultations across the country.

1http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article2937800.ece 2 It is supposed to irrigate 30 million hactares of land and generate between 20-25,000 MW of power. 3http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/article2939672.ece 4http://canadians.org/blog/?p=13721