Home > 2016 > The Idea of Interlinking Rivers: Cupidity or stupidity?

Mainstream, VOL LV No 1 New Delhi December 24, 2016 - ANNUAL 2016

The Idea of Interlinking Rivers: Cupidity or stupidity?

Monday 26 December 2016, by S G Vombatkere

The idea

A project to interlink Indian rivers was formally declared in 2002. It was envisaged as a grand scheme to link 37 major Indian rivers by 30 link canals (14 Himalayan and 16 peninsular) with a total length of 14,900-km. The interlinking of rivers (ILR) project, had a first-estimate cost of Rs 5,60,000 crores (Rs 5.6 trillion).

But the project is not simply a scheme to connect rivers by canals. It is a system of large dams and high-capacity canals to sequentially transfer very large volumes of water from one river basin to another, to connect the high-discharge, perennial Himalayan rivers with the seasonal rivers of peninsular India. The phrase “sequential transfer” is important because the system was based on the concept that, with the exception of the Brahmaputra and Ganga rivers which were primary donors and Cauvery which is a recipient basin, every other river basin would donate its “surplus” water to another river basin in exchange for water which it received.

Since the inception of the ILR project, there have been questions raised concerning the legal, procedural, socio-economic and technical aspects of its validity, and many well-argued and authoritative articles in this regard have been written and published. Besides these, many meetings and agitations on-the-ground also took place to oppose ILR. It is not the intention of this writer to repeat these arguments or recount the agitations.

This article recounts the ‘progress’ of the ILR project, starting with the idea itself, the manner in which it came into being and tracing its promotion upto the present, and focusses on the participation and role of the Central and State governments and the Apex judiciary in promoting the ILR project over the years. But before going into the ‘history’ of the ILR, let us briefly look at India’s water resources.

Water resources and use

India has traditionally used water from rivers, lakes (natural and man-made) and shallow wells for agriculture, and in more recent times, deep bore wells using electric pumps. Irrigation by canals, especially sourced from Ganga and its tributaries, and in some peninsular rivers, dates back into history.

India’s Himalayan rivers are perennial because non-monsoon flow is due to glacier and snow melt, and most peninsular rivers have been perennial mostly because of the Western Ghats’ forest cover. Since the monsoon delivers about 75 per cent (3000 BCM) of annual rainfall in the four months June to September, rivers are subject to heavy flood flow in these months. The other eight months provide scanty (1000 BCM) rainfall, and in any case, the rainfall pattern is far from uniform across the subcontinent.

Thus India, even with an annual precipitation of 4000 BCM, has large arid and semi-arid regions, and also large regions of moderate-to-heavy rainfall. According to the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR), the annual water resources of the country, as measured in terms of run-off in the river systems, is estimated as 1953 BCM, with the utilisable resources as 690 BCM of surface water and 396 BCM of ground water. [BCM=billion cubic metres].

Simplistic but deceptively attractive idea

A characteristic especially of the Gangetic rivers is monsoon flood which annually affects large areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, just as the Brahmaputra river does in Assam. It is well argued that flood is a natural feature of rivers, and that flood intensity is mitigated by upstream forest cover and vegetation. But in the last five or six decades, mountain and hill deforestation has resulted in larger volumes of flood water arriving in shorter durations. Some of this flood gets trapped behind “flood control structures” (embankments), instead of receding by flowing away in the river channel. The water trapped behind embankments stagnates for weeks together, causing devastation by serious loss of livelihoods and property, social disruption and health crises. Thus flood disasters are, to a large extent, man-made. Further, while some areas are in the grip of flood devastation even after rainfall has ceased (as in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar), there are many areas—a mere five to 10-km distant—which suffer from severe water shortage. This demonstrates the trivial utility of the concept of “water-surplus” regions supplying water to “water-deficit” regions hundreds of kilometres away.

However, neglecting ground realities, govern-ment officials deliberated on how to handle the annually recurring disasters of flood and drought which existed simultaneously in widely separated river basins. The Ministry of Irrigation (later MoWR) had already formulated a plan for “National Perspectives for Water Development” in August 1980. This led to the establishment, in 1982, of the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), a Government of India Society under the MoWR, to study basin-wide surpluses and deficits, and explore the possibilities for storage, links, and transfers of water. Based on this, technocrats of the MoWR conceived the simplistic but deceptively attractive idea of simultaneous mitigation of flood and drought by canal-based mass-transport of water from “water-surplus” areas of the Brahma-putra and Ganga basins to the “water-deficit” areas in peninsular India.

Kick-starting ILR

Linking distant rivers by canals on a grand scale was not a new idea, because even as far back as in 1972, Dr K.L. Rao had proposed the “Ganga-Cauvery link canal” which the government rejected as being too expensive, and in 1977 airlines Captain Dastur proposed a “national garland canal” scheme which was found to be technically faulty.

The NWDA’s idea remained dormant until the President of India, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, stated in his 2002 pre-Independence Day speech that interlinking of rivers was inescapable in solving India’s flood and drought problems. The logic behind Dr Kalam’s statement has never been revealed. But taking a cue from this, in September 2002 Advocate Ranjit Kumar (amicus curiae in another matter) filed a short application praying that the Supreme Court should direct the government to take up this project. CJI Justice B.N. Kirpal accordingly issued Notices to the States and the Centre. When the matter came up for hearing on the day before Justice Kirpal was to retire, and in the absence of response from all States but one, he presumed that the States have no objection to the ILR, and passed an order to the government to take up and complete the ILR project in the shortest possible time. The ILR project, conceived in the 1980s, was thus born in 2002, without proper application of mind by the learned judge, without a study of alter-natives, without discussion in Parliament, and without scrutiny by the Planning Commission.

With uncharacteristic and unseemly haste, and by-passing all planning procedures and checks for major projects, the Vajpayee-led NDA Government kick-started the ILR project, estimated by the MoWR engineers to cost Rs 5,60,000 crores, by constituting a Task Force for the ILR on December 13, 2002. The ILR project envisaged 30 river-linking canals, 14 Himalayan and 16 peninsular, with a total length of 14,900-km. There was no mention made of dams.

Sensing a huge opportunity, the CII and FICCI enthusiastically supported the ILR, and the government set the completion target date as December 31, 2016. On what calculations the cost estimate and the target date were arrived at, were never made public. Under a dynamic Chairman, the ILR TF went into over-drive, going to great lengths and expense to popularise the idea of the ILR among the public, with ready help from the CII and FICCI in organising seminars, etc. When questioned on the planning processes, the ILR TF Chairman sometimes stated that the ILR was “a concept” and at other times, he described it as “a project”, displaying unbecoming confusion or calculated obfuscation. For its part, the NWDA claimed that the ILR will provide water to irrigate 35 million hectares of farmland and supply 34 million kW of hydroelectricity, but never substantiated its claims with data.

Trenchant opposition

Cogent objections and arguments against the ILR were raised by scientists, engineers, social scientists, grassroots and civil society activists, and others, but the government’s studied intransparency and in-built unaccountability resulted in stone-wallng, ignoring, or side-stepping by directing dissenters to the wholly inadequate ILR TF website. The most funda-mental opposition to the ILR was that the mega- project was ill-conceived, and a case of reverse planning logic in the sense that, without consideration of all alternatives to solve the problem of water availability, it was decided a priori that ILR was a solution, and proceeding to address the modalities of its implementation.

Eventually, on-the-ground countrywide resis-tance from thousands of people who would be affected by various components of the ILR project, combined with the strong arguments and objections against the ILR, resulted in the ILR TF being wound up on December 29, 2004 (having “completed its role”, as the new UPA Government put it), and becoming a Special Cell in the MoWR, to coordinate the planning and work, and prepare DPRs under the guidance of two senior technocrats of the NWDA.

Initiatives and confusion

On November 25, 2008, the Supreme Court asked the government why not even a single link out of the thirty planned was underway, and was informed that the consensus between the States had not yet been worked out and in cases where it was done, the signatures of the State governments had not been obtained. The Pioneer (November 26, 2008) reported that the Bench directed the Centre to file a detailed status report by January 2009, indicating the proposed dates for completion of the Feasibility Reports (FRs).

The Indian Express (December 2, 2009) reported that the UPA Government’s MoWR Minister, P.K. Bansal, told the Lok Sabha that interlinking Himalayan with peninsular rivers (re-estimated at Rs 4,44,000 crores by the National Council of Applied Economic Research) was unaffordable, but that Himalayan and peninsular rivers would be linked separately. At the same time, the UPA’s MoEF Minister, Jairam Ramesh, declared the ILR project would be a “human, ecological and economic disaster for the country”, though smaller inter-basin transfers could go on.

In October 2011, questioning whether the ILR project would require land acquisition, the Supreme Court said that it might not favour the project if it meant a huge financial burden on the government. “My concern is only on what is the financial liability of the project. We want to make it clear that we would not pass order on it if it causes huge financial burden”, observed a three-judge Bench, headed by CJI Justice S.H. Kapadia. The Bench also directed amicus curiae Advocate Ranjit Kumar to file a report on the financial viability of the project in a month’s time, and scheduled the next hearing for January 2012.

Clearly, apart from the political compulsions of not endorsing a proposal made by the predecessor NDA Government, there was consi-derable confusion in government circles on the financial, economic and environmental viability of the ILR project considered as a whole. As clearly, one cannot help but notice the unusual interest evinced by the Supreme Court, over the years, in promoting the ILR project.

The wheels of justice

Thereafter, two writ petitions on the ILR dating back to 2002 were disposed off by the Supreme Court’s judgment of February 27, 2012, in which it directed the government to implement the ILR project by setting up a special committee whose decisions would take precedence over all administrative bodies created under the orders of the Supreme Court or otherwise. It directed the Union Cabinet to take all final and appropriate decisions, and laid down a (“preferable”) time-limit of 30 days for such decision-making, and granted “liberty to the learned amicus curiae to file contempt petition in the Supreme Court, in the event of default or non-compliance of the directions contained in its order”.

Here was a clear case of judicial over-reach into the arena of the executive, with a Lok Sabha interested mostly in politicking. However, the executive (UPA Government), doubtless attracted by the possibilities implicit in the huge expenditures which the ILR project entailed, overcame its accustomed opposition to judicial encroachment, and raised no objections.

With the BJP-led NDA-2 Government coming to power in May 2014, the MoWR Minister, Uma Bharti, vigorously revived the NDA-1 Govern-ment’s original ILR proposal, without reference to, leave alone resolution of, the outstanding substantive issues. Thus, the ILR project, at humongous social, environmental/ecological and financial/economic cost, continues to be pro-moted without proper application of the judicial mind and without consideration of alternatives. The hand of the politician-bureaucrat-corporate nexus in furthering its neoliberal economic agenda is as plain as daylight.

The foregoing brief 14-years “time-line” of the ILR demonstrates how different members of the Apex judiciary and different parties and politicians of the executive (to the exclusion of the legislature, since the ILR was not discussed in Parliament) have been bypassing established planning practices in promoting and pressing a ruinously expensive national mega-project that entails huge displacement of populations. With the NWDA’s unsubstantiated assurances of irrigation advan-tages, these authorities were only concerned with time and cost issues, and never considered how much land was required and how many families would be negatively impacted by the ILR.

The opposition to the ILR, which became dormant after the ILR TF was wound up, has revived following the current drive of the MoWR Minister, Uma Bharti, to revive the ILR project.


In the interim, there have been several ongoing inter-State and inter-basin water-sharing disputes, which remain unresolved despite judicial (Supreme Court) interventions. It is moot to dwell briefly on water disputes, since the ILR project is all about inter-State, inter-basin mass-transport of water.

Water disputes can be between countries (international), between states (inter-State) and within states (intra-State), and are due to disagreements regarding different perspectives on water. Disagreement could be on one or more of the following: # Validity of hydrological data; # Construction or operation of river projects; # Water utilization; # Real-time water availability; # Immediate, seasonal and anticipated water needs; # Treaties or awards by tribunals or courts; # Ratio of water sharing especially in times of water scarcity; # Riparian rights; # Political compulsions; etc.

In the inter-State context, the decades-long Cauvery water dispute, principally between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, is a typical example of States sharing water of one (Cauvery) river basin, which involves all the above reasons for dispute. Another typical example is the decades-long SYL canal dispute of Punjab and Haryana, inter-basin (Sutlej and Yamuna) water-sharing, with Punjab enacting a law not to share its water with Haryana, and the Supreme Court striking down that law as “unconstitutional”. In both these and other cases, there has been public violence and social unrest.

In the international context, India’s disputes on water are with Pakistan (on Indus water) and Bangladesh (Ganga and Brahmaputra water), again involving the above disagreements. India’s dispute with China on Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) water is nascent so far, but the ILR project has been objected to by Bangladesh and Nepal.

Reality of water needs

Although many examples can be quoted, the above examples are adequate to illustrate that every State wants water, and no State will declare that it has “surplus” water and agree to share water, especially in circumstances of scarcity. This is because every State Government is bound to look after the needs of its own population. Thus, in the past, the Central Government’s orders have been challenged by States, with a rise in animosity between neighbouring States, while judicial decisions on water disputes have nearly precipi-tated constitutional crises. Changing water from a State subject to a concurrent or Central subject by constitutional amendment—as suggested by some—cannot solve on-the-ground thirst for water, whichever way the Central Government or the Supreme Court views it.

In the present circumstances, as scarce water becomes the cause for conflict at all levels of society, it passes understanding how, over the years, successive Central governments, spurred by a succession of learned Supreme Court judges, were unable to comprehend that pursuing the ILR project will only create fresh conflicts or intensify existing conflicts between people on-the-ground and between governments in courts of law. This can only weaken the Centre and lower or destroy the pedestal of respect on which the judiciary stands in bringing genuine justice to the people.

Environmental concerns

The cumulative ill-effects of the environmental impacts of the component projects of the ILR project are of concern. In a situation of growing environmental degradation due to uncontrolled looting of natural resources on account of the neoliberal economic policy, combined with galloping climate change, the stress on water resources is growing. India, with 16 per cent of global population (and increasing) but only four per cent of global fresh water (and reducing), will be very seriously water-stressed in the coming years.

To briefly look at the environmental issues involved in the ILR project, it is instructive to consider the pilot component of the ILR project, namely, the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP) between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The ILR TF placed some Feasibility Reports (FRs) of some of the ILR projects in the public domain only in 2005 after it was forced to do so by the Supreme Court’s directive following public demands for transparency. The KBLP FR prepared in 1996 by the NWDA was based on data of earlier vintage, and its validity in 2016 is questionable. However, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) was pressured to obtain clearance from the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) after the MoWR Minister, Uma Bharti, declared in June 2016 that delay in clearance to the KBLP was a “national crime”, and threatened to go on a hunger strike. Accordingly, allowing environmental concerns to become victim to political pressure, the NBWL gave its clearance to the KBLP in September 2016. The submergence area of the KBLP is said to be about 9000-ha, about 5258-ha of it being dense forest including 4141-ha of the Panna Tiger Reserve. However, The Economic Times reported that 105-sq km (10,500-ha) of tiger habitat would be lost. Clearly, the different figures of land being reported shows confusion in official sources regarding the basic data. The contribution to global warming by methane emissions due to the submerged dense forest was not considered in the FR.

The KBLP is merely one example, and many other component projects can be quoted, but it is sufficient to demonstrate how governments’ motivation for pressing ahead with project execution overrides environmental concerns, and how its policies value short-term, limited economic gains over long-term survival issues.

Human rights and societal issues

The property and livelihood loss, and social disruption due to mass displacement of populations is a serious issue. This is an on-going, burning problem all over the country, epitomised by the 25-year-long resistance in the Narmada Valley. It is apt to mention here that over 50 million people have already been displaced, many twice over, only due to dam-and-canal construction since 1950. Besides the suffering of the project-affected families, there is social unrest as they move to new places where they are not welcome among people who are themselves already economically stressed. These issues are not addressed at all by the ILR projects.

In a situation of growing environmental degradation due to uncontrolled looting of natural resources demanded by the myopic economic policy combined with galloping climate change, the stress on water resources is growing. India, with 16 per cent of the world’s population but only four per cent of the world’s water resources, is due to be seriously water-stressed in the coming years.

Cupidity or stupidity?

In the present context, as scarce water becomes the cause for conflict at all levels of society, it passes understanding how successive Central governments, spurred by a succession of learned Supreme Court judges, are unable to compre-hend that the ILR project will only create fresh water conflicts or intensify existing conflicts, rather than solve problems.

It is worth noting that in January 2002, in the context of water conservation and availabi-lity, Prime Minister Vajpayee wisely recomme-nded: “Catch every raindrop where it falls.” However, his no-conflict, low-cost and practical idea of water conservation was rudely pushed aside on August 14, 2002 by the NWDA’s ILR scheme, perhaps because the ILR involved huge expenditure. Strangely, Mr Vajpayee never questioned this.

Long-term realism

The Government of India needs to scrap the ILR project permanently, and look to intra-basin watershed management. The Central and State governments need to enforce water conservation by a combination of suitable, region-specific, tried and tested methods, and review the agricultural and industrial water-use policy with an eye towards mitigating the certain effects of increased water-stress due to climate change.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere, VSM, retired as an Additional DG Discipline and Vigilance in the Army HQ AG’s Branch. He is a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). With over 500 published papers in national and international journals and seminars, his area of interest is strategic and development-related issues.