A series of moves by the current Central Government, along with some of the state governments since March 2021 have tried to orchestra a push for the Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) in a manner somewhat similar to what happened in 2002 under the previous BJP government led by Shri AB Vajpayee. The 2002 effort did not achieve much on ground and the initiatives two decade later are unlikely to achieve any progress either.
The latest series of moves has culminated in the Union Finance Minister making budgetary provision for Ken Betwa Project (KBP) in Revised Budget for 2021-22 (Rs 4300 Cr) and in the Budget Estimates for 2022-23 (Rs 1400 Cr), followed by announcement of formation of the authority and steering committee to implement the Ken Betwa Project.
However, the Ken Betwa project does not have final forest clearance. The conditions of stage I forest clearance (e.g. no power component in forest/ protected area, among others) are such that the project cannot be implemented in current form. The wildlife clearance for the project has been questioned by a brilliant, comprehensive report of the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court of India which is yet to be considered by the apex court. A petition is pending against its environment clearance before the National Green Tribunal. Opposition to the project is gaining strength both in Panna-Chhattarpur districts of MP and also in downstream Banda district of UP.
It is clear that the Ken Betwa Project is a nonstarter in the current situation. In such a situation, why has the central government been making these moves when the project cannot be implemented without the above mentioned statutory and other aspects are resolved? One plausible reason seems to be the ongoing Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.
People of Bundelkhand certainly need better water access and management. But the Ken Betwa project is not for Bundelkhand, of Bundelkhand or by Bundelkhand. The project will bring unbelievably huge adverse impacts, all to be suffered by the Bundelkhand.
Similarly, the push for the larger ILR in general is devoid of scientific basis, acceptance by any donor state, social or environmental acceptability or optimality or desirability.
We firstly need hydrological assessment of any river basin to be declared as surplus, an assessment that is in public domain and is reviewed by an independent (necessarily non-governmental) agency. In case of KBP, such an assessment is neither available in public domain, nor has it been reviewed by any credible independent agency. On the contrary, all available evidence shows that there is no surplus in Ken basin and any such claim is based on an exercise in manipulations that have no scientific support. The project will actually permanently destroy a major hydrological asset of Ken Basin, namely the rich natural forest with destruction of over 21 lakh trees.
Secondly we need comprehensive assessment of all available options in the concerned basins, including rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge, watershed development, treatment and recycling of sewage and other polluted sources, optimum use of existing water infrastructure, proper cropping pattern, desilting of local and other storages, among others. Such an assessment does not exist for any basin or even small sub basin in India.
In fact groundwater is and has been India’s water lifeline for over four decades and is likely to remain for foreseeable future. ILR or any of the big dams does not help in sustaining that water lifeline, they on the contrary destroy the lifeline in multiple ways. We need to put all our efforts in prioritising actions that would help sustain that lifeline rather than going after massive water infrastructure projects like ILR.
Similarly in the context of changing climate, we need to spend the limited economic resources that we have in sustaining benefits from our existing ecological and infrastructure resources. Again pushing ILR projects would be counterproductive.
The futility of perusing the ILR agenda is also clear from what we are hearing from the states. No state is ready to be even seen to be giving water to any other states. Among the five links that were mentioned by the Finance Minister in her budget speech are two concerning Gujarat and Maharashtra for which an MOU was signed way back in 2010 when our current PM was CM of Gujarat and for a substantial part of subsequent period, both states and centre were ruled by the same party. Still there is no consensus in sight. In addition, there is strong opposition to the projects among the tribals of both states.
Similarly in case of Godavari-Krishna-Pennar-Cauvery link proposals, none of the donor states agree that Godavari has transferable surplus and there is no consensus even among the recipient states, with even BJP ruled state like Karnataka opposing the proposal since they are not getting any benefits from the proposals. The hydrology figures of National Water Development Agency are questioned by the party states.
When evidence is strong against the desirability, optimality or viability of ILR proposals, why is the government pushing them? The answer, to paraphrase what the then secretary of Union Ministry of Water Resources told me in the context of Ken Betwa Project is: It is a project worth Rs 45 000 Crore!
Himanshu Thakkar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: An edited version of this was published at: https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/interlinking-of-rivers-where-is-the-sense-in-river-linking/2444084/