The Grand Project to link India’s Rivers

India’s forgotten attempt to solve her water crisis

In a country where one half is submerged underwater and the other is parched dry, why is the age-old solution to India’s water woes still a dream in the books of bureaucracy?

Recently India has been facing droughts and floods at the same time. Source: Pexels

“Pure water is the World’s First and Foremost Medicine”

— Slovakian Proverb

“Water”- the most abundant, yet the scarcest natural resource. The most important, yet the most neglected- until it decides to show off its power! Water has the power to destroy human lives and livelihood like no one else has. Excess of it could drown you to death and the dearth of it- could parch you to death.

India, for the past several years, is experiencing both sides of it. Ironical… But true. The vast geographical diversity of India causes extreme situations during its year. As one part of the country suffers from severe famines and droughts, the other parts get destroyed by floods, landslides and dam breaks due to overflowing rivers.

A reading of data across decades of Indian weather history brings up startling facts. Between 1980 and 2017, India experienced 235 floods, leading to more than 12600 deaths and affecting around 1.93 billion people. Government data shows that between 1953 and 2011, on average, floods were responsible for 1,653 deaths each year. Some of the biggest flood disasters in the last 10 years include the floods of Uttarakhand in 2013, The Kashmir Floods in 2014, The Chennai Floods in 2015, The Kerala Floods in 2018 and 2019, The Patna Floods in 2019, and of course the ‘normally’ recurring Northeast-India floods. Despite July 2020 being the driest year in almost half a decade, many parts of India, especially the states of Assam and Bihar, suffered the wrath of excess water with over a100 fatalities. 2021 too saw floods affecting several districts of West Bengal, Nagaland, Meghalaya, and other parts of Northeast India.

Floods inundate several parts of the country, affecting millions every year. Image Source- India TV

Not only do floods take a toll on human lives and livelihood — the economy as a whole tends to suffer greatly when a natural calamity befalls. But the scarcity of water is an equally dreadful crisis.

India in recent years has suffered flash droughts- in 1986, 2001, and 2015- severely impacting crops and lives. Southern India was hit by severe droughts from 2016 to 2018 due to low rainfall during the northeast monsoon. So severe was the impact that a water crisis erupted in one of the major cities of India- Chennai, as four of the metro’s reservoirs went bone-dry and groundwater levels plunged. Since 2015, India has witnessed widespread drought conditions with the Deccan region seeing the highest frequency.

Droughts in India — An Equal crisis like Floods (Image Source- The Wire)

Notwithstanding the severe impact on life and property in the affected area, the country takes a hit as agricultural produce and supply chain suffer thus bumping up inflation and impacting exports.

What is ironic though is that in 2022, we still deem nature’s fury to be more powerful than human capability. There was an idea that took seed in the early 19th century and then was revived in the 1970s to humanly solve a ‘God-given’ problem:

The massive project of River Interlinking

The Massive National River Linking Project (Image Credit- India TV)

The National River Linking Project (NRLP) foresees the transfer of water from water ‘surplus’ basins to water ‘deficit’ basins through inter-basin water transfer projects. Rivers Interlink plan is a large-scale civil engineering project and aims to link rivers through a network of reservoirs and canals across the nation. The idea behind the enormous project was to deal with the issue of drought and floods afflicting different parts of the country at the same time and to decrease farmers’ dependency on the uncertain monsoon.

The Indo-Gangetic plains suffer from floods and the peninsular states suffer from droughts. If this excess water can be diverted from the Plains to the Peninsula, the problem of floods and droughts could have been solved to a large extent. The project envisaged that water-surplus rivers will be dammed, and the flow will be diverted to rivers with a shortage of water.

The Timeline of the River Interlinking Project

Sadhguru’s Quote on River Interlinking Project (Source: Sadhguru JV quotes)

The proposal to link India’s rivers undoubtedly has a long history. The Interlinking of rivers was first proposed by Sir Arthur Cotton in the 19th century, but it was not implemented then. Over the years, the plan has been revived and revised by many experts-

In 1970- K. L. Rao, engineer and former Irrigation Minister revived the plan of linking the Brahmaputra and Ganga basins, which are the water surplus areas to the central and southern parts of the country, to form a National Water Grid.

In 1980-Ministry of Irrigation and Central Water Commission formulated the plan for ‘National Perspectives for Water Development’

In 1982- The National Water Development Agency (NWDA) was constituted to study basin-wide surpluses and deficits and look into the feasibility of linking and transferring water.

In 1999- The government of Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee again propagated the idea of interlinking rivers. This time the proposal was modified to intra-basin development and not inter-basin water transfer.

In 2002- President Shri APJ Abdul Kalam mentioned the river linking project during a speech and proposed it as a solution to India’s water woes which resulted in a petition to the Supreme Court in October 2002. The Court ordered the Central Government to initiate work on inter-linking the major rivers of the country. In the same year, a task force was appointed and a deadline of 2016 was set to complete the interlinking of 37 rivers across the Nation.

In 2012- The Supreme Court directed the constitution of a “Special Committee for Interlinking of Rivers” headed by the Minister of Water Resources. But the Court refused to give any direction for the implementation of the project.

In 2014- Under the ‘National Perspective Plan’, the Ken-Betwa River Linking Project got Cabinet approval.

In 2015- The Godavari and Krishna rivers- were linked through a canal in Andhra Pradesh.

In 2021- The Union Cabinet approved the funding and implementation of the Ken-Betwa inter-linking of rivers project with a total cost of Rs 44,605 crore. The project is to be completed in eight years despite opposition regarding the project’s impact on the ‘Panna tiger reserve’.

In 2022- The central government announced that it would undertake the rejuvenation of 13 major rivers in the country, based on the suggestions in the Draft Policy Recommendation (DPR) of the Rally for Rivers (RfR) movement, a campaign spearheaded by Sadhguru.

How is the River Interlinking Project expected to work?

Managed by India’s National Water Development Agency (NWDA), under the Union Ministry of Water Resources, the Inter-link project has been split into three parts:

The National water grid for Bharat (Source:
  1. A northern Himalayan River inter-link component-

This component has two sub-components:

a) Connection of the Ganga and Brahmaputra basins to the Mahanadi basin.

b) Connection of the Eastern tributaries of the Ganga with the Sabarmati and Chambal River systems.

Storage dams are to be constructed on the Ganga Brahmaputra, and its tributaries. There is also a proposal linking the Ganga and the Yamuna. The aim is to control flooding in the Ganga — Brahmaputra River system and to benefit drought-prone areas of Rajasthan, Haryana and Gujarat.

2. A southern Peninsular component-

This component has four sub-components:

a) Connecting Mahanadi and Godavari River basins to Cauvery, Krishna, and Vaigai river systems.

b) Linking Ken to Betwa river, and Parbati & Kalisindh to Chambal River.

c) Connecting West-flowing rivers to the south of Tapi.

d) Linking some west-flowing rivers to east-flowing rivers.

3. An intrastate river linking component-

The NWDA has received 46 proposals for intra-state links from 9 States-

Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Chhattisgarh and the Pre-Feasibility Reports (PFRs) of 35 intra-state links have been completed by March 2015.

The NWDA report shows 14 inter-link projects for the Himalayan component, 16 inter-link projects for the Peninsular component, and 37 intrastate river linking projects.

Some of the Major River-Linking projects under the plan are:

  1. Ken — Betwa Linking

Ken-Betwa linking project has been declared a National Project by the Government of India. The project proposes the construction of a dam on the Ken River (Karnavati River), located in north-central India and plans the construction of a 22km (14-mile) canal connecting it to the Betwa.

2. Damanganga — Pinjal Linking

This envisages the linkage of the Daman Ganga River to the Pinjal reservoir, located on the Pinjal river to the south. The Detailed Project Report (DPR) of the Damanganga — Pinjal link was completed in March 2014 and submitted to Maharashtra and Gujarat. In January 2015, this linking project was approved for implementation. The plan is to complete this entire project within 9 years.

3. Par — Tapi — Narmada Linking

The basic aim behind this project is to serve the irrigation needs. The Detailed Project Report (DPR) was completed by the NWDA in August 2015 and was submitted to the governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra. According to a report by the NWDA, about 6065 ha of the land area will be submerged due to the proposed reservoirs. A total of 61 villages will be affected, of which one will be fully submerged and the remaining 60 partly. This has got the tribals up in arms and against the project.

4. Mahanadi — Godavari Linking

This project is a critical link of nine link systems of Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Pennar-Cauvery-Vaigai-Gundar. NWDA has identified a total of 30 links under this project and the Pre-Feasibility Reports (PFRs) are ready too. Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao termed the proposal a “joke of the millennium” reflecting the stated stand of the State government that there is no surplus water in the Godavari for a project of this nature to run for 1,211 km and cost ₹86 lakh crore.

5. Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganga Linking

This linking project is under the Himalayan component and aims to divert the surplus waters of the Sankosh and Manas rivers to augment the flow of the Ganga at Farakka and provide 14 BCM of water in the Mahanadi basin leading to further diversion of water in the water-deficit areas of Krishna, Cauvery and Pennar basins in the South.

The interlinking of rivers has been envisaged at a cost of over Rs 5.5 lakh cr Image Source- India TV

The implementation of the Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) program under the ‘National Perspective Plan’ could benefit the nation in many ways-

  1. The biggest hope the project gives is to control both floods and droughts happening simultaneously across the nation.
  2. It will benefit the irrigation system as it envisages raising the ultimate irrigation potential from 140 million hectares to 175 million hectares.
  3. It claims to generate 34,000 megawatts of hydropower.
  4. It will provide incidental benefits for navigation, water supply, fisheries, salinity, and pollution control.
  5. There are also commercial benefits of the project- as it will lead to the betterment of the inland waterways and transport system.
  6. The project could prove to help resolve inter-state water disputes.

The Political Will behind the River Interlinking Project

Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered prayer to the river Ganga, in Varanasi on Monday. (ANI Photo)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s River Inter-link project or ‘The National Perspective Plan’ is an ambition worth Rs 5.5 lakh crore. It aims to connect more than 60 rivers across India. A Task Force for Interlinking of Rivers was constituted by the Ministry in April 2015.

The project highlighted the following points-

  1. The National Perspective Plan (NPP) is responsible for focusing on this project of 150-million-acre feet (MAF), along with 185 billion cubic meters of shortage of water.
  2. Construction of large reservoirs that could lead to the generation of hydroelectric power of 34 gigawatts
  3. Around 30 canals are proposed to be built, between 50 to 100 meters in width, and stretching up to 15,000 km.

The Resistance to the River Interlinking Project

The first challenge to the idea of linking rivers across the country is of course the Feasibility of the project.

The project costs around Rs.5.6 lakh crores with the additional requirement of great engineering capacity.

Another matter of concern is the problem of displacement and rehabilitation.

The building of dams and reservoirs will cause displacement of thousands of people therefore, proper planning of rehabilitation and adequate compensation needs to be formulated.

The project’s competence in controlling floods is also questionable.

Though it seems theoretically practical that these projects will control floods, some do doubt their capability to do so.

International disputes are another major reason for the constant delay and reconsideration.

In the Himalayan component of the project, the effect of building dams and interlinking rivers might affect the neighboring countries. Bangladesh has also opposed the transfer of water from the Brahmaputra to the Ganga.

The Environmental Impact of the project.

The project can alter entire ecosystems. The wildlife, flora, and fauna of the river systems will suffer. Some national parks and sanctuaries fall within the river systems. The project can reduce the flow of freshwater into the sea, which might affect marine life. Ecologists and environmentalists have warned that the project is imprudent and dangerous, especially since there is little clarity on the ultimate impact of its undertaking.

Is there Precedence to such a project in the World?

Some successful interlinking projects in the World have been undertaken and completed. One such project is the Panama and Suez Canal interlink. The two canals connect two oceans with completely different ecologies. The Rhine-Main-Danube Canal, also known as the Europa Canal is another successful interlinking project.

However, neither of these links water bodies from a deficit basin to a surplus basin. A project doing that is The South-North Water Transfer Project of the People’s Republic of China and it is an ongoing project facing its challenges. So, the only country apart from India, that has approached such a massive task is China- and their struggle is still as ongoing as ours.

The Sutlej- Beas- Yamuna Interlinking project is a positive step towards setting some precedent at home. The Sutlej Yamuna link canal is an under-construction project that when completed will facilitate water to some parts of Rajasthan. The project is 85% complete and is a major subject of inter-state disputes between the states of Punjab and Haryana.

No matter how ambitious the project sounds- its execution is indeed difficult and will require a lot of discussions, proper planning, political will, unimaginable financial resources and a steady passion to make it a success. Every time the elections are around the corner, the project gains immense currency and then dies down until another calamity. On the one hand, the river-linking project seems a promising solution to India’s water issues, but on the other hand, it also opens a ‘Pandora’s box of many unseen problems and unanswered questions. It is a matter of concern to many environmentalists and policymakers, but it is also a ray of hope for millions of rural households- facing the adversity of floods and droughts every year.

With human intelligence and political backing coming together, perhaps the Grand Project of Linking India’s rivers to each other can save the loss of thousands of lives and millions of livelihoods for centuries to come.

You are reading a Dais Editorial 2022 ©

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