First proposed by the NDA government under then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the ambitious project to interlink rivers to try and solve India’s water scarcity problems is far from becoming a reality. As water remains a state subject, building consensus among the states for this project has been a major challenge. A source in the Ministry of Water Resources said, “Water is a state subject and the inter-basin transfer of water involves two or more states. So, until the states develop a consensus among themselves, we cannot do anything. ” The Vajpayee government had identified 30 major links across the country and the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has been envisaged with the project to interlink rivers. The aim of the project is to transfer water from water surplus river basins to water deficit ones from the major rivers in India. The NWDA has done several studies on Himalayan rivers as well as Peninsular rivers, and submitted Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) of the several priority links identified by it from time to time.
The proposed inter-linking of the water surplus Ken river basin in Madhya Pradesh to the water deficit Betwa basin in UP would help irrigate the vast arid and hilly regions of Bundelkhand. It is estimated that the interlinking would help irrigate 6,00,000 hectares of land and provide drinking water to almost 1.35 million people in both MP and UP. However, environmentalists say that the inter-linking project would affect the Panna Tiger Reserve and submerge 58.03 sq km of the reserve. Activist Medha Patkar told The Sunday Guardian, “the Ken-Betwa project would have around six dams and this would impact the surrounding ecology which has several critical flora and fauna that would submerge due to this project. The Ministry of Environment has also not done any proper assessment of the impact due to this project before giving a go-ahead to it.” However, S. Masood Husain, Director General of NWDA, told this newspaper that they have “taken all necessary institutionary clearances for this project” and work on the project is expected to start anytime this year.
According to the NWDA, the Mahanadi and Godavari river basins are both water surplus and the combined surpluses of these basins after meeting their own needs can be diverted to meet the water requirements of deficit basins in the south, up to river Gundar through the Mahanadi-Godavari-Krishna-Pennar-Cauvery-Vaigai-Gundar linkages (9-link system).
This link is also considered the “mother link” to many Peninsular rivers that face acute shortage of water. But Orissa, which has to part with much of its water, is still not on board for this project. Masood Husain said: “We are in consultation with the Orissa government and Uma Bharti (Minister for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation) has also met Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. So we are hopeful that this project could soon be a success.” For the other two priority projects, Damanganga-Pinjal and Par-Tapi-Narmada, an MoU had been signed in 2010 between the Chief Ministers of Gujarat, Maharashtra and the then Union Minister for Water Resources. The DPRs of both these projects have been completed and submitted to the government of Gujarat and Maharashtra by the NWDA. Efforts are being made by the NWDA to arrive at a consensus on the Parbati-Kalisindh-Chambal link through deliberations with the states concerned, that is, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. According to sources, the Damanganga-Pinjal inter-linking project could start by this year-end.
BENEFITS OF INTER-LINKING OF RIVERS
According to the NWDA, the project to interlink rivers would raise the ultimate irrigation potential from 140 million hectares to 175 million hectares. The interlinking of rivers would also help generate 34,000 MW of power. “Inter-linking of river basins would help in large-scale storage of water from the water surplus regions and, in turn, help in water security and food security through better irrigation, as well as energy security through the generation of hydro power,” Masood Husain said.
BMedha Patkar further told The Sunday Guardian, “The whole concept of inter-linking of rivers is a farce. Every river has its own and different ecology and changing the river course affects the river’s ecology and along with it its surrounding areas. The Narmada river has been diverted and see what has happened today — one side of the Narmada dam has been left high and dry.” Patkar also questioned the very concept of measurement of “surplus water”. “The entire concept of transferring surplus water is completely vague. They say they have done an impact assessment, but have never made it public. Why? The government should focus more on river basin management rather than inter-linking as this would save a lot of money and litigations for the government,” Patkar said.
However, Masood Husain said, “Every project is seen from its own perspective and they are different from each other. These are green projects and would benefit the people of this country. We take care and look into every aspect while preparing the DPRs and thus take appropriate measures to address all concerns.”