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The costs of river-linking

By Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

External funding for the ambitious river-linking project has been rejected. Instead, industry has been called upon to support the costliest endeavour that the country has ever undertaken. But, by opening up the floodgates to private sector investment, the government could be bargaining away the traditional rights of people over water resources

The chairman of the task force on river-linking, Suresh Prabhu, the National Water Development Agency and the ministry of water resources are taking exception to all criticism levied against the Rs 560,000 crore initiative to link India's Himalayan and peninsular rivers in an unbelievable period of 10 years.

Though the National Water Development Agency has conducted feasibility studies on six of the possible 30 river links over last two decades, Suresh Prabhu is confident that the project will be completed within the given timeframe. If delays in the execution of projects in the past are anything to go by, this confidence is an overstatement. However, in the absence of punitive action on cost overruns due to delayed execution, optimism continues to capture the popular imagination!

Given the incredible cost of the project, should the task force not be held accountable for taxing the public exchequer in the event of a likely delay? Already cost overruns between 50 to 893% over the original estimates have been reported from some of the large water development projects. This has meant a burden of Rs 70,000 crore and Rs 110,000 crore on the public exchequer in the Tenth and Eleventh Five Year Plan respectively for the completion of 'spillover projects'.

This leaves little scope for financing the interlinking project out of the planned expenditure. But the task force continues to make everyone believe that the project can be financed from available resources. The crucial question remains: If the internal resource situation is so good, why is the government raising loans for poverty reduction and infrastructure development from external donors?

The current external debt situation (which has already reached a whopping Rs 500,000 crore) may have discouraged the task force from opting for external lending. But the internal resource situation doesn't look very good either, or else it would have helped ease a portion of the external debt. Prabhu's belief in a healthy internal resource situation appears to be a strategic ploy to keep the controversial aspect of financing the project from being raised.

Having categorically dismissed raising external funding for the project, Prabhu has called on industry to come forward and support the costliest endeavour the country has ever undertaken. "The project is all about tangible benefits," he says. It will irrigate an additional 34 million hectares, provide drinking water to 101 districts and five metros and generate 34,000 MW of cheap hydropower -- all this and much more for just Rs 560,000 crore.

The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) plans to hold a national conclave to discuss its position in the light of potential benefits that could accrue from the project. Following the privatisation of a stretch of the Sheonath river in Chhattisgarh, the private sector sees a distinct role for itself in managing the country's water resources. The interlinking of rivers proposal may indeed provide that opportunity.

Radius Water Ltd, the company that has `ownership' over a section of the Sheonath river, under lease for 30 years, is selling water to industry as well as to the government. It is, however, another matter that the people on the banks of the river have lost ownership over their natural heritage. Farmers are not allowed to use water from the river, and fishermen are barred from casting nets in its waters. People don't even risk taking a bath in the river.

By opening up the floodgates to private sector investment in the interlinking proposal, the task force may end up bargaining away the traditional rights of people over water resources. Because it is not just capital investment that the government is seeking for the project but also recurring expenses towards its operation and management. Privatisation helps achieve both, as consumers have to pay for every drop, whether for household requirements or irrigation.

With operations and maintenance expected to cost no less than Rs 30,000 per hectare for the interlinking proposal, the success of the river-linking project will depend on how best recurring costs are realised from users. Undoubtedly, the water-stressed communities that stand to benefit from the proposed interlinking will have to incur the costs of sustaining this ambitious project.

River-linking: Pipe dreams?

The proposed Rs 560,000 crore plan to connect the water-surfeit rivers of the north with the water-deficit southern rivers, through a network of canals, is surely the mother of all projects. The Ganga-Cauvery link that had been gathering dust ever since Dr K L Rao and Captain D J Dastur proposed it some three decades ago has been revived by the government, which has set up a Task Force on Linking of Rivers under the chairmanship of former Environment Minister Suresh Prabhu.

The river network will knit 10 major rivers and several smaller ones across the country into a massive network -- unheard of in contemporary human history. Water from the Brahmaputra will flow into the Ganga, which will be connected to the Mahanadi and Godavari. The Godavari will be linked to the Krishna, then the Pennar and Cauvery. The Narmada will flow into the Tapi and the Yamuna into the Sabarmati. This huge inter-basin transfer is to be completed by 2016. Radha Singh, director-general of the National Water Development Agency says that feasibility studies have indicated that the project is viable. Flood-prone Bihar and Assam will gain, while drought-prone Rajasthan will have water even when the monsoons fail. The project is expected to deliver 173 bcm of water to irrigate an additional 35 million hectares, strengthening food security. The network of river transport will release the pressure on roads and railways. An additional 34,000 kW of hydro-power will be generated.

But the political connotations are alarming. Diversion of Ganga waters at Farakka to augment supplies in the Hooghly has long created a diplomatic row with Bangladesh on the issue of reduced flow. Managing water within one river basin has put two chief ministers on the warpath and affected lakhs of people. A project that will link 10 rivers passing through 25 states could turn out to be a modern version of the Mahabharata, involving 25 chief ministers and over half a billion people!

The river-linking project may be an engineer's dream but it is an environmentalist's nightmare, rooted as it is in an engineering mindset which believes that the only way to tackle the problem is to find and transport water -- wherever it might be.

The interlinking of rivers will disrupt the entire hydrological cycle by stopping the rivers from performing their ecological functions before reaching the ocean. Besides, some 4.5 lakh people may be displaced and 79,292 hectares of forests may be submerged. Far from increasing productivity through irrigation along its course, the large network of dams and canals may alter the natural drainage, causing flooding and waterlogging to inundate millions of hectares of agricultural land. The equitable distribution of water across the country will inadvertently distribute pollutant loads across rivers as well.

If China can do it, why not India?

There could not have been better news for proponents of India's river-linking dream. China has just begun work on a $59 billion project to divert water from the damp south to the arid north. Expected to be completed by 2010, the first phase of the project will deliver water to the capital city of Beijing through two massive aqueducts.

Each as big as a medium-sized river, the two aqueducts, up to 1300 km long, will bring water from the mighty Yangtze river to Beijing and the nearby industrial towns. The project to divert water from the country's largest river to its capital city was conceived by Mao Zedong, the architect of modern China, half a century ago.

By giving shape to Mao's pet project, China's present regime has shown its continued penchant for monumental projects. Much along the lines of India's river-linking project to supply water to the dried Cauvery, the third aqueduct from the Yangtze will link it with the headwaters of the Yellow river, which chronically dries up from overuse during lean seasons. The third aqueduct will not only cut through the high mountains near Tibet but will need massive pumping stations to propel its water northward. Expectedly, the aqueduct network will ruin the landscape and disrobe land of valuable bio-diversity in the process.

Such destruction isn't the concern of planners who are aiming to belittle California's largest aqueduct on one extreme and the incredible re-routing of the Mississippi river on the other. On the contrary, the dictum `If US can do it, why not us' will now be conveniently replaced with `If China can do it, why should India lag behind?'

(Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is a water expert and columnist attached to the Delhi-based The Ecological Foundation. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

InfoChange News & Features, March 2003