A noose in the garb of a garland
Binoo K John
IN A CLEAR case of judicial overreach, the Supreme Court had last fortnight ordered the government to go about the task of interlinking rivers of the north with the south. The SC ordered the setting up of a committee and all the rest of it.
The concept of river linking has a long history in India and was first proposed by the British and revived by irrigation engineer KL Rao in 1972. Later, Captain Dinshaw Dastur suggested a garland of canals to interlink the rivers. He was a pilot who, when flying over the country, had a vision of the rivers interlinked around Mother India’s neck. Many governments had dumped the idea for the impracticability of the project. “The idea of interlinking rivers is appealing because it is so grand. But this is also the reason it is nothing more than a distraction that will take away precious time and money from the business at hand,” said Sunita Narain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment, in a press release on Thursday.
The river inter linking is based on the simplistic theory that the excess water in some rivers in spate during the monsoon can be diverted to other rivers — like from the Ganges to the Kaveri — and then everyone will have enough water. So from Patna the Ganges waters will be diverted. Kaveri is more than 2,600km away from the Ganges. The Mahanadi basin is also sought to be linked to the Godavari basin as part of this scheme.
In any case, rivers are naturally formed water flow systems and tampering with them will only kill rivers. Even where there is dam and the river water distribution has been spelt out, there have been problems. States are at war with each other on the distribution of water. The latest Mullaperiyar dam issue is a case in point pitting Kerala against Tamil Nadu .
The grandiose scheme, despite the judicial ambitions, is full of problems. What happens to the unimplemented irrigation projects? How many states will agree to this Tughlaqian scheme? Where is the money? In any case what is the assurance that all the South Indian rivers will be continually fed by Himalayan rivers which themselves are running dry in many places? There is a massive water bureaucracy in India, topped by the National Water Development Agency set up in 1982. Off and on, this agency and others float this idea followed by some bureaucratic scurrying around. All these agencies work on the notion that once linked there will be equal water in all rivers. Nothing can be more ridiculous. The NDA government tried to set up a task force to complete 30 river links. Nothing happened because it is just not possible.
“The assumption that floodwaters can be channelised is equally erroneous. The fact is that when one river is in spate so is the next river and transferring water would require huge storage facilities, which further have massive environment impacts,” said Sunita Narain.
Will Himalayan rivers continually feed all the South Indian rivers?
For Indian rivers, there is another large-scale problem brewing. Not from within but from our gigantic neighbour China which is planning to dam the Brahmaputra river with a dam mightier than the Three Gorges dam. According to Brahma Chellany of the Centre for Policy Research, the Metog dam is to be twice the size of the 18,300MW Three Gorges dam and will be situated on the disputed border with India. These and other Chinese projects ‘threaten to replicate in international rivers the degradation haunting China’s internal rivers’, writes Chellany. So both externally and internally Indian rivers are under tremendous stress. The mighty Brahmaputra will soon lose its might and grandeur as it is dammed in India and before that in China. In Asia, freshwater availability is less than half the global average.
It in this scenario that a project dumped by many governments is sought to be resurrected by the Supreme Court. Most of the pending irrigation and mega dam projects are unlikely to get environment sanction. Also India’s record of resettling displaced people is quite shabby to say the least.
Binoo K John is an author and columnist based in New Delhi.