After many decades of deliberation and debate, India finally seems to be ready to embark on a mammoth project to link over 60 of the country’s major Himalayan and peninsular rivers. The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi claims that this ambitious project is the perfect solution for the problem of droughts and floods witnessed in the country over the past few years. The interlinking of rivers project is likely to cost the Government of India’s exchequer about USD 87 billion dollars. Apart from the apparent benefits related to the management of river waters and its distribution, the project is also likely to help generate thousands of MW (megawatts) of hydroelectricity, egging India closer to its goal of increasing the production of clean renewable energy. It will also make space for cleaner navigational facilities.
The interlinking of rivers is by no means a new idea. It was suggested by Arthur Cotton during the British Raj. There were debates and discussions about such a project in the 1950s. It is only when Atal Behari Vajpayee became the Prime Minister that the project gained credence it could not take off due to bureaucratic delays and political opposition. Currently the NDA has revived the project to be completed in a phased manner. Of the several phases of the project linking of the Godavari and the Krishna rivers in Andhra Pradesh, the Pattiseema project, is already underway (commissioned in 2015). Construction of a dam on the Karnavati (Ken) river and construction of the canal that will connect it with the Betwa shall be up next. This dam is touted to be the bluebrint of all futire dam constructions in the country. Other major phases will include connection of the Daman Ganga with Pinjal, Par-Tapti with Narmada, Thamirabarani, Karumeniyar, and Nambiyar rivers, linking the Godavari with Penna, and linking the Ganges.
River Interlinking Project Draws Flak
Despite being on the deliberation stage for many decades, the interlinking of rivers project is drawing much flak right now. It is the sheer scale of the project that makes it a grand idea, but it is this very magnitude that also concerns environmentalists. Here are some of the salient objections raised –
Disturbing the Natural Order –Draughts and floods are part of the natural order of rivers and disturbing them may cause massive damage to the ecology and environment. Furthermore, the large pipes used to connect the various rivers are likely to destroy the habitats of freshwater fishes and microorganism that live in rivers.
Necessity – Critics claim that the government has rushed into a hasty decision without having exhausted all other methods of combating draughts and floods such as watershed development, ground water recharge, rainwater harvesting, and developing newer cropping methods that may require less water supplies.
Lack of Study and Planning – Critics believe that the long term implications of linking major rivers have not been studied. There is no clarity on how the project will affect the states and the lives of the people who live in these river basins. For example, it is still not certain where the silt that comes from the de-silting projects will be dumped.
Displacement of Communities – Over half a million people are likely to be displaced from their homes due to the construction of these links. The impact on their lives has not yet been factored in.
Cost Factor – Critics believe that the cost estimates (USD 87 million or INR 5.6 lakh crore) are old and the project may end up at nearly double at double the cost.
Despite the criticisms coming in, it must be acknowledged that the interlinking of rivers is likely to bring immense benefits too. This year alone, over 1000 people have lost their lives in various floods across the country. The drought situation in Maharashtra and the western region is now a recurrent situation. Apart from reducing the dependence of the farmers on fickle monsoons, the interlinking is likely to bring some 87 million acres of land into the irrigation circuit and transfer 174 trillion litres of water on an annual basis. It is likely to end the inter-state water squabbles and food crisis that we have witnessed over the past years. Increased water supply to households and industrial units will boost industrial growth across the country. We cannot ignore the immense benefits brought by the production of hydrogenated power as well. What is needed is a phased and very controlled implementation and a careful monitoring of the effects of this project on the environment.