The Supreme Court should not be issuing peremptory orders for the implementation of projects like River Interlinking. These are the grand products of bureaucratic hubris and madcap engineering, and raise far too many complex issues to be resolved by judicial fiat.
It is a scheme unlike any other: four times the capacity of China’s Three Gorges dam, five times the capacity of similar projects in America, six times that of existing projects in India. This is the Indian river interlinking project, one that four weeks ago received judicial benediction from the Supreme Court.
Linking rivers is not new, even in India. Inter-basin water transfer projects have been completed both here (Beas-Sutlej, Madhopur-Beas, Kurnool-Cudappa, Periyar-Vegai for example) and abroad. What this particular scheme proposes is of another order of magnitude altogether. It has two components: the Himalayan Development project will create storage dams along the eastern rivers, the Ganga and the Brahmaputra in India, Nepal and Bhutan (using the goose-neck in Assam to avoid problems with Bangladesh). Then canals will transfer something called “surplus” water from the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the west; the Brahmaputra and its tributaries will link with the Ganga, and the Ganga with the Mahanadi. The Peninsular component then sends water from east India to the south and west. The Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna and Cauvery rivers are to be canal-linked. West-flowing rivers to Mumbai’s north and south of the Tapi are to be linked with more dams. And there are similar proposals for the Ken-Chambal, and separately for west-flowing rivers along the Western Ghats.
Similar proposals have been flying around for a very long time. Arthur Cotton proposed something like this in 1881. The British, determined engineers to the last man, listened politely, took it seriously and rejected it on scientific and technical grounds. In 1972, during Indira Gandhi’s environmental putsch, Dr KL Rao came up with another fantastic idea: a 2640 km long Ganga-Cauvery link. This involved lifting water some 12-15 metres using an estimated 7000 MW of power, all to irrigate only an additional 4 mn hectares at an underestimated cost of Rs.12,500 crores (about 150,000 crores at 2002 prices). The Central Water Commission found it unviable. Five years later, Captain Dinshaw Dastur proposed a 4200-km Himalayan canal from the Ravi in the west to the Brahmaputra and beyond in the west; and a another 9300 km “Garland” canal covering central and south India with several dams and pipelines in between. The estimated cost (1979) was 12 million crores, Rs.70 million crores at 2002 values. The project was found by several experts to be technically unviable.
Charles Kingsley’s fairy-tale, The Water Babies found an echo in India’s bureaucracy: we got the water-babus in the National Water Development Agency. The operating premise seems to be this: some areas have too much water. Others have too little. Solution: link them and we can all live happily ever after. Successive governments and one President continued to push it quietly. In 2008, the National Council of Applied Economic Research produced a study outlining the so-called benefits of this project.
Matters would have remained there but for the recent 27 February Supreme Court order in a PIL (“In Re: Networking of Rivers”). Based to a very large extent on the NCAER report, the SC order mandates the project. It directs the setting up of a special committee on river interlinking and what this committee must do. The order is not worded as a request for the Government’s consideration; it is a peremptory command, a mandamus1 and it even allows amicus to file contempt proceedings if the directions are not followed.2 That is serious.
The order raises far too many questions, none of them comfortable. Should the Supreme Court — or any court — get into matters which are purely within the realm of policy? River linking is about water-sharing and riparian rights. Inter-state disputes and treaties over these rights are matters to be resolved by governments. Our courts have always held that they should not venture into the “treacherous” shoals of public policy. When asked to examine safety and environmental issues in large projects, courts have always said that they are unqualified to decide technical matters and that these are best left to “experts”. What has changed now?
Here’s the problem: the entire proposal proceeds on faulty assumptions: that there is “surplus” water in river basins, that this water is clean and usable, that population pressures and industrial growth have had no impact on rivers, that the unmeasured costs of displacement, environmental damage and rehabilitation are outweighed. There may have been a surplus a century ago, but more contemporary studies show this is no longer true. There is no systematic analysis of the enormous displacement and rehabilitation issues involved, the loss of forest cover (the Panna Tiger Reserve certainly seems destined for destruction) and the ensuing environmental catastrophe. The technical information is not in the public domain. But there is ample material pointing to potential pitfalls: studies from universities and scientific bodies here and abroad — the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, SOAS and IIM Calcutta, and more. None of these have entered the thinking.
Proposals to interlink the rivers of India also entail massive economic, ecological, and social costs. At the time K.L. Rao first proposed the project decades ago, these watersheds had more water, less pollution, lesser deforestation, and floods that were not so severe or frequent as now. Since then, the Indian population has increased enormously; efforts to aid those afflicted by the problems of displacement and rehabilitation that inevitably accompany such projects must be taken as a prerequisite. Increasingly, the entire socio-economic strata of affected people are more aware of their rights and know how to protest, agitate, and demand their due. Such changed circumstances are bound to create impediments to the execution of the project and offer stiff resistance to it. The involvement of global capital will have its own complications. In recent years, popular awareness, participation, and empowerment in evaluation of such projects has created an awareness of the merits and demerits they offer, along with recognition of alternative solutions. These conditions present a number of challenges.
Even managing water within one river basin can bring states into conflict. Envisaging the interlinking of ten rivers passing through twenty-five states and involving issues of riparian rights between competing nation states may indeed be all set for a modern Mahabharata fought over water. In India, ground water user rights are provided to land owners and there is a general notion that surface water is for consumption locally by user right. Riparian rights are seldom honored. Given this socio-cultural view of water rights, other realistic water sharing scenarios have the potential to exacerbate conflicts, inflate water problems, and present nearly insoluble challenges to interstate and inter-country water sharing. For example, riparian rights and their enforcement are at the root of the previously mentioned disputes involving sharing Cauvery River waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, as well as many of those amongst other states of the nation. If Indians are unable to solve conflicts arising within a basin to share a river, large-scale inter-basin transfers of water by interlinking rivers may lead to water conflicts on an unprecedented scale.
The 2007 University of Michigan study is even more emphatic. It assesses the hydrological and environmental impacts of Ken-Betwa Pilot Link, points to the massive bio-diversity loss, the incorrect assumption of the Ken as surplus basin and the Betwa as a deficit basin. It also indicates the likelihood of the complete loss of tiger habitat in and around the Panna Tiger Reserve, and that the project feasibility study cheerfully states that there will be “nil” impact on wildlife.
Oddly enough, the SC judgement says that if properly implemented “there shall be hardly any financial strain on the economy”.3 It’s unclear on what this is based. The SOAS study puts the project cost at upward of US$200 billion, and another puts it at over Rs.5 trillion. Far from the idyllic vision of a “garland” of pristine, flowing rivers, another analysis predicts a less appealing garland of sewers, not so much drought/flood relief as drought and flood translocation. Clearly, the journey from utopia to dystopia is ensured only by myopia.
The order cries out for review. In a 2005 article entitled “Skinning a Cat”,4 Justice Srikrishna, one of our most highly regarded judges, made an impassioned plea for judicial restraint, for putting the brakes on. Those are words of caution and reason and we would all do well to heed them when we talk of these grand products of bureaucratic hubris and madcap engineering.
It is a scheme unlike any other: four times the capacity of China's Three Gorges dam, five times the capacity of similar projects in America, six times that of existing projects in India. This is the [Indian river interlinking project], one that four weeks ago received judicial benediction from the Supreme Court.
: http://www.livemint.com/2012/02/28000409/SC-revives-NDA-dream-to-interl.html "SC revives NDA dream to interlink rivers, Jacob P Kushy and Nikhil Kanekal, Mint, 28 February 2012"