Proponents of river interlinking say that there is no alternative even though some of them concede that decentralized schemes for water harvesting can work locally but not at national level. This is precisely where the logic of decentralization applies, because each State is nothing but many "locals" and the nation consists of States. Local water systems are viable in isolation since they simply conserve as much as possible of the rainfall precipitated within their own boundaries.

Shortage of water is simplistically seen as increase in demand without taking into account the very serious problems of distribution anomalies, obvious wastage and profligate consumption of water, which is a limited resource. As in the electric power sector, the thinking of planners appears to be that the only way of solving water shortage problems is to increase the quantity of water supplied to meet demand. This view does not recognize two factors.

First, that even though there may be an overall shortage of water, the reason for the seriousness of the problem is primarily improper distribution and vast differential in consumption, including leakages and consumer wastages. And second, that if water is collected and used where it falls as rain (by rainwater harvesting from roof-tops and open areas in urban areas and check dams or johars and soak pits in rural areas), and the run-off made to naturally or artificially percolate into the ground, the local demand for water can be met locally to a great extent. Such measures will also check soil loss by erosion by encouraging green cover. The second factor has actually made hitherto dry seasonal rivers to flow (as demonstrated in Rajasthan by Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh, by M.S.N.Reddy in Mylanahalli near Tiptur in Tumkur District of Karnataka and elsewhere) and increase the flow in perennial rivers. Also, as the late Anil Agarwal demonstrated conclusively, ten reservoirs each of 1 hectare catchment area can store more water than a single dam with 10 hectares of catchment area. That is, decentralization of water collection and storage will provide better availability of water than huge dams and lengthy canal systems. Small indeed is beautiful!

Action based on the above two factors will cost vastly less in terms of finance and more importantly, cost almost nothing in terms of the ill effect of projects on people since local people will take local action for their own benefit. Planning for decentralized water availability also practically obviates displacement of people and acquisition of land, and makes for better local cooperation within and between communities instead of competition for scarce resources that are the basic reason for tensions. Thus the two factors briefly explained above are a clear alternative to the current thinking on interlinking rivers with a network of numerous dams and lengthy canals that have very high initial capital cost, very high operating and maintenance costs, and social and environmental ill effects and political fall-outs.

Naturally, the cost of the alternative I recommend needs to be realistically estimated, and therefore a cost-benefit (C-B) analysis needs to be carried out for the options of:

  1. River interlinking or networking (with its several sub-options such as pumping, tunnelling or contour canals and various combinations), versus
  2. Water harvesting by local, decentralized effort and formulation of a rational agricultural policy along with controlling wastage and over-consumption.

Arguments against the proposed network of rivers

Changed circumstances
It is true that the proposal for interlinking of rivers is decades old, but at the time when Sri K.L. Rao (doubtless an eminent engineer) envisaged the project, rivers had more water and were not polluted with industrial wastes, the state of deforestation was considerably less and floods were not as severe or frequent as today, India's population was substantially less, displacement, resettlement and rehabilitation of project affected people was not a factor that was seriously considered, and people of the lower socio-economic groups were not as aware of their rights and did not agitate for them as they do today.

The current situation is entirely different. Thus, to apply a proposed solution of yesteryears to the situation of today and extrapolate it to tomorrow without examining clear alternatives (as opposed to sub-options of the main proposal) would not only be financially ill advised but also be undemocratic and politically unwise at a time when physical displacement, social disruption, and economic and environmental degradation are causing more people to question decisions taken unilaterally by people in power who determine policy. There may not be doubt as to the technological feasibility of networking rivers or the capability of India's engineers, but all technology has a cost that is not only in terms of money but is also social and environmental.

Riparian rights
The questions of international relations and inter-State relations within India need to be carefully considered. It is known that USA claims rights of an upper riparian state with regard to water sharing of rivers with Mexico, but at the same time, as a lower riparian state with Canada, it disputes Canada's claim as an upper riparian state. This continues to be possible due to USA's overwhelming economic and military superiority vis-a-vis Mexico and Canada. If India is to dam Brahmaputra and Ganga or its tributaries, and divert water by canals, Bangladesh, which is a lower riparian state, will certainly object. With Bangladesh now clandestinely supporting Pakistan's ISI activities against India, the river networking proposal will only exacerbate relations, and we have neither the intention nor the will nor the means to dominate our neighbours to claim upper riparian rights at their cost, like USA is doing.

As far as inter-State relations within the Indian Union are concerned, let us take the on-going case of water sharing of River Cauvery between Karnataka (upper riparian state) and Tamilnadu (lower). The Supreme Court has clearly ruled that Karnataka has to release water to Tamilnadu and cannot keep the water for itself. Bangladesh cannot be faulted if it applies the same logic. Further, the canals would convey water through many neighbouring states and each state on the way is sure to claim a portion of the water or cash in lieu, even if they admit that their river carries "surplus" water. Without taking this factor into consideration and conducting detailed studies, it is not possible to arrive at any rational calculation as to how much water is to be diverted in which month from where, stored where and conveyed where, how much is to be taken off enroute and where, etc.

These questions, which should lead to formulating preliminary system design assumptions have not been even considered at this time, even though the Supreme Court has directed Government of India to constitute a Task Force and complete the task in 10 years.

Legal angles and election tangles
At present, there are serious disputes between various states of the Indian Union regarding many issues, but especially concerning sharing of river water. The disputes occur on account of the Chief Executive of any State having to take decisions and make claims in the interest of the people of his/her State since after all, that is the purpose for which he/she is elected. A Central Law to dictate water sharing between all the states from the network has the potential to precipitate new problems. This is because there is no guarantee for change in the very political climate that causes inter-state disputes in the first place, despite the present of river-sharing agreements and authorities. Can greater political instability be an assumption upon which the river networking system is going to be designed?

The effect on the economic and political independence of India due to borrowing an enormous amount of money (estimated today at Rs.5.6 lakh crores as conveyed by Government of India to the Supreme Court, but it would surely increase) needs to be re-considered. This especially when India is almost in a debt trap with rising debt servicing almost equalling loans received from financial institutions like World Bank or Asian Development Bank. It is also necessary to consider whether we will be in a financial and physical position to maintain the huge assets when created (dams, canals, tunnels, captive electric power generation plants, etc.) in order for the system to continue to function and give the benefits for which it is designed. If we cannot maintain the network, the capital assets created will deteriorate and be lost and the benefits of the project and incomes from it will not be available, though the loan liability would remain. This will inevitably lead to take over of assets by the creditor Banks to consolidate the entry of foreign interests into India. The political aspect of forcible project implementation is increasing disaffection among displaced people who already number tens of millions since Independence.

Flood period
The basic idea of networking rivers is to convey unwanted floodwaters from one place to another where it is deficient and needed. But this idea does not consider that the period when it is surplus in the donor area (July to October in the Ganga-Brahmaputra basins) is not the time when it is needed most in the recipient area (January to May in the peninsular rivers). In such a situation, it will be necessary to construct enormous holding reservoirs that will add to financial, social and environmental costs.

Flooding per se is not undesirable because it results in deposition of alluvium particularly in the delta areas of rivers to maintain the fertility of the land by compensating loss of topsoil due to natural erosion. Any system that prevents or severely reduces natural flooding (by diversion of floodwater) will cause land fertility to gradually reduce over the years, thus desertifying the land. The greatest loss that land can suffer is desertification by loss of topsoil. The land that will be so lost to cultivation is the most fertile delta land, and therefore the impact of this on total food production needs to be factored into the discussion. History tells us that entire civilizations have vanished due to desertification.

River pollution
Annual floods flush industrial and municipal pollution in the Ganga down to the ocean. Reducing the flow in the Ganga by diversion will increase the concentration of pollution in the river. A live example is the Yamuna, from which Haryana and Delhi draw so much water that it barely flows after Delhi and the water quality at Delhi is so poor as to be positively poisonous. It is relevant to note that the expensive project to clean the Ganga has not succeeded even with annual flooding. This is not to argue that pollution of river water is inherent and may never be checked at source, but that this factor is yet another that needs to be included in the legitimacy check for the project.

India has a national electric power grid that functions with difficulty because supply does not meet demand. However it is kept functional because electric power can be switched from one circuit to another in the grid. Further it is not easy to deliberately interfere physically with the flow of very high voltage (upto 132 kV) electricity on overhead conductors atop huge pylons. But a national water grid is entirely different because water does not flow instantaneously like electricity, it cannot be switched like electric power, and it can very easily be tampered with enroute to divert, pump out or interrupt flow. A canal breached deliberately or due to natural circumstances combined with poor maintenance would spell disaster for the areas around the breach. Water is basic for human survival unlike electric power, and motivation for interference is that much more. Maintenance of a network of canals, dams, etc., will have to be done under central supervision. Flow can be prevented or caused by the simple expedient of taking control of sluice gates as demonstrated by farmers during the recent Cauvery water problem. Thus security of the network will be an enormous load on security forces of Central and State Governments. In contrast, decentralized systems can be maintained, repaired and protected by those who benefit from them and live nearby.

Land acquisition
How do you consider the acquisition of 8000 sq km of land when acquisition of land even in acres is a vexed issue that takes years? Even if fresh legislation makes it possible within a short period, its implementation will cause untold misery and injustice to the displaced people in obtaining compensation due to systemic corruption. Besides, land for resettlement is mostly not available.

In sum for this section of the series, we must scrutinize closely and guard against our tendencies to address the political challenges of progressive policy and lawmaking for resolution of conflicts over natural resources with technology-heavy solutions.

Proposed Interlinking of Rivers, Series:

(To be concluded)