Grand distraction called river interlinking

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015


Last fortnight, the Supreme Court issued a diktat to the government to implement the scheme to interlink rivers. The directions are straightforward. The government shall set up a high level committee of ministers and other representatives on interlinking of rivers; the committee shall meet “at least, once in two months”; in the absence of any member the meeting shall not be adjourned; the committee shall submit a biannual report on actions to the Union Cabinet, “which shall take final and appropriate decisions in the interest of the country as expeditiously as possible and preferably within 30 days from the matter being placed before it for consideration.”

Without getting into the obvious matter of judicial overreach, let us take a careful look at what interlinking is all about and what the decision will imply. The fact is that transfer of water from one river basin to another is not, per se, either a novel or an untested idea. Every irrigation project involves such transfer at some scale. The question is what this particular idea of linking rivers implies.

The term river linking has come from the idea floated by irrigation engineer K L Rao way back in 1972. He proposed the construction of a grandiose Ganga-Cauvery Canal, which would divert floodwaters of the Ganga near Patna for about 150 days in a year to river Cauvery some 2,640 km away in the south. This idea captured imagination, as it seemed to state such a delicious proposal: take excess water from the Ganga to the water-deficit and stressed areas of Tamil Nadu.

A pilot, Captain Dinshaw J Dastur, suggested a variation: construction of garland canals, one for the Himalayan watershed and the other for the Western Ghats. This idea was also appealing, simple and essential. Long-distance irrigation projects then spawned a huge water bureaucracy. In 1982, the National Water Development Agency was set up to study and implement the project to first link peninsular rivers and then Himalayan rivers. Its objective is based on the same simple concept: there are floods in some parts, droughts in the other, so if we link the rivers, we all will be happy.

But for equally obvious reasons the agency’s proposals were, government after government, studied, considered and buried. But not forever. In early 2000, the Supreme Court and government got back into the game. The court ordered the government to speed up implementation of the project and set the deadline of 2016 for its completion. The National Democratic Alliance then in power quickly announced the setting up of a task force for linking rivers. It was to complete some 30 river links in two years, adding some 1,000 km of canals. This task was a non-starter.

The next government came to power and while the concept appealed, better sense prevailed. Interlinking was found technically unfeasible and costly. But the water bureaucracy did not give up. In 2008, the National Council of Applied Economic Research produced a study volume, in which it explained in simplistic terms that the project would cost Rs 4,44,331.2 crore at the 2003-2004 rates. But this investment would lead to rich dividends in terms of increased household income and prosperity for all, it stated. The report would have gone unnoted but for the Supreme Court, which has bought this line and ordered the government to obey or face contempt.

The question still is: what does this project imply, given that a massive number of irrigation projects on the government’s wish list remain incomplete? First, it implies the notion that there is huge surplus of water in river basins. This assumption is flawed. Most river basins today are overextended in usage, and in most regions tension is growing between old rural users of surface water and new industrial and urban users. The Mahanadi basin, which would be linked to the Godavari is a classic example of this error. As Down To Earth explained in a recent investigation, there is little unallocated water in the basin (see ‘In deep water’, Down To Earth, February 16-29, 2012).

The second assumption that floodwaters can be channelised is equally erroneous. The fact is when one river is in spate so is next river and transferring water would require huge storage facilities. Construction of large reservoirs has massive environmental impacts not considered in the scheme. Many irrigation projects are stalled on this count. More importantly, the government’s track record in resettling people displaced by such projects is abysmal.

The third assumption is that India will gain from investment in irrigation projects is indeed true. But it is equally true that the current challenge is to ensure that the projects, already built and commissioned, are kept operational. The 12th Five Year Plan working group clearly states that priority is bridging the growing gap between the irrigation potential created and utilised.

The idea of interlinking rivers is appealing because it is so grand. But this is also the reason it is nothing more than a distraction that will take away precious time and money from the business at hand. The task is to provide clean water to all and to use the resource with efficiency. This agenda needs our attention. Indeed our obsession.

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  • To end the water crises and

    To end the water crises and to move towards the supply of water for all with better food security, interlinking of rivers (31st March 2012:DTW Grand distraction called river interlinking)is essential. There is a logic and concern in the concept proposed by the professionals and other team members. It only lack in its implantation. This reflects the concern and commitment of our elected representatives towards the promises made for their people. Understanding the limitations of the setup, developmental works should be continued irrespective of the government as development is for the people who are struggling for basic needs in spite of their hard work done at grass root level. Though, river linking needs lot of time and resources, still it is the better option to:

    @ control floods on one side
    @ cater the needs of the drought prone areas
    @ reduce river pollution
    @ look for long term if not permanent solution and
    @ address the consequences on people and environment.

    In addition to better way of addressing the water crises, this process shall improve the relationships among the people all over country. By addressing this issue to the right forum, the efforts should move towards getting the acceptance of the concerned group for its implementation with true spirit and thus to achieve the sustainable development of the people and environment.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Yes bigger projects will have

    Yes bigger projects will have bigger issues requiring large size solutions. We need balancing reservoirs to manage floods and draughts whether we link rivers or not; itÔÇÖs the requirement for our tomorrow. thnks

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • why not file a PIL to get it

    why not file a PIL to get it scrapped.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The statement that there is

    The statement that there is no ample water is not correct in true sense. There is water in Brahmaputra Ganga etc. The basic probelm is Deccan plateau is at higher leevel than that of Gangetic basin. It might be still possible to get Ganga Brahmaputra water upto Narmada from Jabalpur area. However Linking Narmada further to Tapi and then to rivrs in Vidarbha and further south is the major probelm. It appears that there is teechniquee avaialble in Kerala that uses gravity for lifting the wateer at successive higheer levels. Water is stored at one level in a tank and then through the narrow tunnel type structure it is first sent down and then immediately up. The force geenerated through the narrow pipeeline takes th wateer to higher level. If this proceedure is repeated then it might be possiblee to lift Narmada/ Tapi water to rivers in Vidarbha. Onc this is linked then again simple gravity system of canals can be made to connect upto Kauvery. Withoout discarding the idea at thee face value the effrot should be made to examine this phenomeenon at scale model. Linking through Vidarbha is suggested beecuase Satpura Range can offer sufficient area for step storage tanks. I hope scientific world would be open minded to examine the idea.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I agree that too much of

    I agree that too much of Government time and money is being wasted on such a grandiose distraction.
    I also believe that it is not prudent to meddle with Nature. For generations, we all know that civilizations have begun along the river banks. We also know that when calamities & disease struck some of these civilizations, many were wiped out. Fortunately, the insulation that was available between such civilizations in existence across different river banks ensured that another was not impacted.
    By interlinking rivers, we may be altering the very composition of the waters that flow in various parts of the country, allowing for local problems to get exported easily to other parts of the country and diluting the unique plant & animal species or even minerals along existing river banks. Worse still, any communicable disease for humans and livestock may easily spread to other parts of the country because of inter-linked rivers, and there may be no known ways for Governments to restrict/reverse the havoc that may be wreaked.
    The damage that we would be causing marine life when these mixed waters flow into the ocean is another story. There are no guarantees.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The point should be made that

    The point should be made that reduced flows lead to a reduced quantity of sand reaching the coastlines, leading to increased beac and coastal erosion. The economic cost of this has never been calculated, to the best of my knowledge.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • My opinion is to go for it

    My opinion is to go for it even in phases. Our economy and country is not able to progress because we do not go in for the grand projects whereas other nations who go for grand projects are now developed. Look at the Three Gorges Dam Project in China and many other grand projects in other nations. We have had many pseudo intellectuals opposing the Narmada Project financed by vested interests but look at the number of people it benefits v/s the number of people it has affected?

    There would always be pros and cons of any grand project and our country has a few intellectuals who just publicize cons of the projects and are supported by competing nations to keep our growth down.

    What happens to the savings we do by not going in for the grand projects because they are massively expensive? All the funds go towards grand subsidy schemes which never reach the users but ends up in tax havens in the names of top notch politicians and henchmen.

    So why not try out investing in some grand schemes? Please support the project and other infrastructure projects. I have been hearing about the project since I was a kid in school.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Since the Supreme Court has

    Since the Supreme Court has issued the diktat of implementing the river linking projects, the government machinery will naturally work at full throttle to implement the same. Well the Hon. Court's order can not and should not be disobeyed, but the Government has enough competent hydrologists and river hydraulics experts to convey that the linking of rivers is not simply the linking of two pipelines carrying water. A river has many facets. It has an ecosystem, it floods the banks and in the process the floodplains get refurbished each year. That is how the famous bread baskets of Punjab and Uttar pradesh came up in the Indo-Gangetic plains. These plains would not have been there-had we been evolved then, because we would have made our terrain flood-proof by linking our mighty rivers with water deficit rivers elsewhere.
    A river like the Ganga flows on the surface but very few understand its intimate relationship with the aquifers in the subsurface. In a lay man's language, almost a parallel Ganga flows under ground. The river takes water from the aquifer and gives water to the aquifer and on that relation it flows perennially-as against the misconception that the Ganga flows due to snow melt only.
    Thus before such a massive exercise is taken the Government must use its teams of geologists, geohydrologists and riverine experts, ecologists etc to completely evaluate the fall out of such a project. The work can be taken on project basis and the related departments can be asked to complete the job in a time-bound phased manner.
    Had such studies been taken before six major canal projects including the Indira Canal in Rajasthan huge tracts of country could have been saved from soil alkalisation and sodacity. No news paper ever reported the fate of the residents of 30 villages on the bank of the Indira Canal who had to migrate as their meager agriculture lands were converted to barren alkaline tracts due to seepage from the canal. This is not from hearesay but from one of the old reports of the CGWB-wherein conjunctive use of ground water and canal water was recommended. But by then the damage had been done.
    Yes if the studies carried out by the experts prove that no damage will be done to the ground water availability for the population on the river banks and the fauna and the flora of the river will be least affected, the project could be fruitfully taken up. Since the project involves huge funds and is likely to affect the nature in a big way I think it would be prudent to carry out the study in an unbiased manner before execution.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • For the present let us forget

    For the present let us forget about the water surplus areas. They are anyway well-off.

    Let us look at the water-deficient areas. Tabulate how much annual rainfall they get and how much is the water run-off from those areas per year. The figures will be self-revealing.

    This run-off water should be used to recharge the ground water using simple methods.

    Also, crop selection should be based on water availability. "Natural farming" is worth a try in many places.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Has an all world encompassing

    Has an all world encompassing study and consultation done regarding the best way to achieve the aims of equitable distribution of the waters of the world by an all encompassing ecologically compatible analogous reforestation by means of people's cooperatives?
    For backgrounder check out all the articles at
    Reforest Mother Earth to Live! at
    The truth is the automatic equitable water distribution all over the globe in proportion to the density of vegetation has natural advantages infinitely more than the interventions of man via ILR or NWP. The dynamics of the earth induced by man's interventions have led to massive earthquakes like the 26th December 2004 Banda Aceh earthquake and tsunami(call it the tearthquake) and the Honshu tearthquake of 11 March 2011, the latter leading to an ongoing extinction level event with the radioactive inventories of many Japanese reactors thrown into the Biosphere. We must not allow such simplistic isolated specialist interventions into nature like the slaves of gravity, the dams. We must resort to our hands and brains to undo the havoc we have created by once again bringing in the trees which with their giant pumping action act defying gravity but using the sun and osmosis to recharge the groundwaters ensuring survival of all life for all time to come. We may use the dams in existence today to water and nurture the saplings and the cooops in the process.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with Milind, but

    I agree with Milind, but being an engineer myself I find it more appealing to link the reservoirs thru a system of pumps and pipe lines, whereby the wastage would be reduced.
    This project can be carried in pilot scale.
    Although the cost would be huge , the success rate is high.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • lifting water with Hanna

    lifting water with Hanna Ghosh could even revitalize
    River Sarasvati :
    Dr.Peter Riefenthaler

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Rivers aren't only open-air

    Rivers aren't only open-air conduits of drinking and irrigation water but offer other, energy - creating and energy-saving alternatives. The case for hydro-electricity and related forms of water power has been made elsewhere. The economic, and positive environmental effects of investing in upgraded riverine transport seems not to have generated quite as much attention. This is unusual in that India has a tradition of long-distance and inter-city river transport.

    The cost of investing in upgrading and modernising river transport would be unquestionably high. However, the benefits include both a direct contribution to further modernisation of India's production capacity, and to increases in incomes generated within, and by the sector. A single modern river barge provides the same carrying capacity as a fleet of trucks, but has a significantly lower fuel requirement and thereby generates less pollution. River transport also saves on the costs of maintaining, (and of upgrading?), road infrastructure. Whilst river transport of course has environmental costs, technical advance means that there are now options available to mitigate some of the negative environmental effects.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
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    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Every long journey begins

    Every long journey begins with small steps and ends with smaller steps. Rather than thinking big and rejecting it being too bid, cautious approach will be small baby steps to integrate into a large project. but we must begin and make it larger based on feed back. Look at Bandra Worli sea link. In case the project was Borivili Cuff parade link with take offs in between, the big project would have never been lauched.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • It clear that the big

    It clear that the big contractors and engineers are salivating at this idea of a large/grand/national scale 'construction' project.

    First of all, river systems are not gutters.
    They are alive.
    An original river system is created with the joining of thousands of tiny tributaries, flowing through the entire landscape. If one goes onto a physical satellite map on google maps or google earth, one can see this immediately.
    The thousands of intertwined roots of natural vegetation along the banks of these tributaries absorbs falling rainwater and keeps them circulated with local cloud systems throughout the year. These very waters are released throughout the year into those tributaries as natural seepage or springs. Springs feed tributaries throughout the year. Natural vegetation also keeps the soil entirely intact and river beds running deep downriver, by minimizing siltation.
    We can easily see in deforested landscapes across the country today, that when all this vegetation is cleared by man, the entire volume of rainwater simply flows away as it falls, pulling millions of tons of soil into the river beds creating massive siltation. This is what causes floods.
    Contrary to what our clever engineers seem to believe in these comments, floods do not occur because of 'too much water'. They are a direct result of too little absorption. And because there has been no absorption, the river goes dry soon afterwards even with the most adequate rainfall in a given year. All the water runs away and evaporates.
    Further, as Shri V K Joshi has pointed out, with adequate vegetation in the catchment areas and along the entire river, the 'wetness' seeps deep and far into the banks creating fertile floodplains on which we grow our food. Billions of little wild creatures interact with the soil and the vegetation in moist conditions, making these flood plains fertile beds for 'our' use! We are talking here, about gigantic living systems of inter-connected living creatures including flora and fauna.
    Do our engineers and planners seriously imagine that a concrete set of gutters can replace this living earth? Do they even understand what chemical fertilizers are doing to our soil? Has anyone travelled up and down, for instance, of the grand 'construction' that is the Indira Gandhi Canal in Rajasthan? Has anyone seen what a colossal waste that project has been for the local people there? There are hundreds of examples of failed concrete projects as Ms. Narain has pointed out in her article..
    Also, apart from the giant scale corruption and underhand deals that will go into the 'making' of these concrete projects, what about the 'contracts' that will be set up for 'maintainence' those giant systems? Who will undertake those? Do we really want to promote a nationwide series of checks and controls by the corrupt state over our water systems? Can we afford to hand over the 'maintenance' of our our rivers to private parties, corrupt officials and contractors once this project is implemented?
    Let's wake up, countrymen.
    Instead, what we should look at, as Shri Prashanth Vats rightly points out, is to give incentives to people all across the country, to take water systems back to grassroots; back into the hands of our people 'micro' control. That would be true democracy. There are many NGOs working on the reviving of micro level water harvesting and eco friendly irrigation practices. The government should instead promote these green technologies and systems that will not only improve the natural health of our devasted mother - India, but also give her health back into the hands of her people.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Reason for Inter Linkig of

    Reason for Inter Linkig of Rivers: There are floods in some parts, droughts in the other.
    Don't We have a local solution?

    OK , go ahead with Interlinking of Rivers, if anyone so desires , which may take 15... 20.... or more years to complete the IRL.
    But big question is how to survive till then? Simple answer lies in .....

    Why not give an honest try to harvest rainwater underground to solve water problem of that reason , drought related & flood related?

    We have a tested method to harvest upto 80% rainwater underground (in-situ) where it falls , known as KFP(Patented) Rwh, which can solve water crisis related to both floods & drought.
    Want to give it a try?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • We have so many pending

    We have so many pending litigation s in Supreme court related to old water projects (for various River basins)
    Even in these (already made projects) elected leaders do not permit water transfer from their area to others.
    How do you expect (in our democratic system)
    MASS WATER TRANSFER From one River basin to another will be possible in future?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • It is dismaying that so many

    It is dismaying that so many of us tend to fall for such "grandiose" developmental bullshit. Tomorrow the Supreme court may direct the Govt to build a nuclear reactor in every district! I am sure whoever the Govt., they will fall for it instantly and most willingly. If alternatives were to be explored, we could have by now irrigated much more of Bharat with reliable, replicable and cheap technology. Making staggered countour trenches on hillsides for instance; small water ponds all over the place to catch whatever rain falls. But I think the political economy of development dictates that unless there is humungous use of cement, concrete and steel (that favour industry) and with scope for endless delays (read cost overruns - that favour the bureaycracy), it is not worth the while to have gotten into politics in the first place!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • how does river linking

    how does river linking control pollution ,
    it shall jeopradise the river ecology , not to mention the already threatened river dolphins ,
    instead of switching our way of doing agriculture , we are following ourselves to the pit i must say ,
    we need to go organic in a big way , change the way we use water in agriculture ...
    people have no idea about saving water , they are daily throwing huge amount of water in their fields .. its only making water vapour fluxes which causes global warming and climate change ..
    urgent redressal is necessary , and we dont want to pursue river linking

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • it will be suicidal for india

    it will be suicidal for india to follow this path , simply as we ensure that we dont change our basic relationship with our rivers , we continue to do what pleases humans and not what nature wishes ..

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • three gorges dam lead to

    three gorges dam lead to extinction of the chinese river dolphin ,
    do we want to do the same to the river dolphins in india ,
    is it we have lost all insanity ...
    we are heading for extinction ourselves ,
    we have to learn to treat nature with more respect ...
    than behave like grave diggers

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • this interlinking River

    this interlinking River project would not be first time..earlier other developed country has also experienced this type project with good output... undoubtedly, in India we interconnected many rivers in North East to feed water to adjacent reservoir/dams, especially made for Hydro Power project.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • There is good chance global

    There is good chance global warming will dry up glaziers that provide summer flow for Himalayan rivers. It may lead to a situation when lot of money sunk into canals, we realize there is no water.

    Hydrams can lift only small quantities of water and not such massive amount. Lifting water will take up lot of energy and result in more pollution. Ultimately better utilization and rainwater harvesting are only answers.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • There is opposition to every

    There is opposition to every progressive idea in India. No wonder why India left behind China, practically, in every sphere.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I have simple solution for

    I have simple solution for River interlinking, drought, floods and drinking water. All the issues Ms. Sunita Narain has highlighted were taken care.

    Read article on Drought at

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • An impressive share! I have

    An impressive share! I have just forwarded this to a friend who was doing a little research on this. And he actually bought me dinner because I discovered it for him... lol. So let me reword this.... Thanks for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending the time to talk about this subject here on your web site.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I pay a quick visit each day

    I pay a quick visit each day some blogs and websites to read articles or reviews, but this blog presents quality based content.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply