Supreme Court questions viability of river linking project

Directs Centre to submit detailed report on project cost and land acquisition

By Anupam Chakravartty
Published: Friday 21 October 2011

The ambitious river linking project, connecting rivers of peninsular India with  Himalayan rivers through canals, has hit a roadblock after the Supreme Court's observation that the project would burden the Union government because of escalating costs. While environmentalists and activists have welcomed the order seeking detailed report on the project's cost, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has commenced work on two of 30 project components, which propose linking two or three rivers each.


On October 17, a bench comprising chief justice of India, S H Kapadia, K S Radhakrishnan and Swatantra Kumar reportedly said the project cost, initially estimated at Rs 500,000 crore, must have increased since land acquisition expenses had increased considerably. “My concern is what will be the financial burden. It is a huge project and land acquisition has acquired a different connotation now. So, we want to know the financial viability of the project on both counts—cost and land acquisition,” said Kapadia, while directing amicus curiae Ranjit Kumar to submit a detailed report on the project cost by January. The bench further stated that “inflation is very high and economic growth is slow. We will not force any additional financial burden on the government.”

Feasibility report ready for 20 projects

NWDA, which is one of the implementing agencies for the ambitious project, says that the feasibility reports have already been prepared for 20 of the 30 proposed linkages. Meanwhile, work has started on the Ken-Betwa river linkages   and the Par-Tapi-Narmada linkage. Senior officials refused to comment on the Supreme Court order, saying they are yet to receive a copy of the order. NWDA officials, however, add that when the Ministry of Water Resources filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court in 2002, saying a task force was looking into the feasibility of the project, costs were not revised. “We do not think the project cost is now too much; we are now calculating the land acquisition and other costs for this projects,” says an official.

Activists and environmentalists, however, say that the Supreme Court should have questioned the cost when the affidavit was filed. “Without considering the social and environmental impacts of this project, estimating the financial viability is impossible,” says environmentalist Shripad Dharmadhikary, director of Madhya Pradesh non-profit working on water rights, Manthan. A lot of land would have been required for this project, which would have displaced a lot many people. The social and environmental impact assessments (SIAs and EIAs) for existing projects have been shoddy as demonstrated in the Ken-Betwa linkage, he says. What's more, the concept of surplus water in some rivers as opposed to others is yet to be understood by the project proponents, and dividing this project into smaller components is not helping much because impact would be cumulative says Dharmadhikary. He adds the real solution for the problems which these projects purport to solve are micro-hydel projects, better watershed management projects, rainwater harvesting and renewable energy.

Many states had opposed river linking

Bihar non-profit Barh Mukti Abhiyan’s convenor, Dinesh Kumar Mishra, questions the Supreme Court monitoring the project, saying it lacks expertise and understanding of the project. “The original river-linking plan was drawn by British engineer, Arthur Cotton. In the early 20th century, Cotton wanted to connect all the rivers through canal linkages so that navigation for the ruling British officials becomes easy,” says Mishra. The plan did not aim at boosting agricultural growth.  While promises made by former Bihar Cheif Minister, Gulzarilal Nanda in the 1960s that floods in Bihar would be controlled in seven years were never kept, this project was again proposed in the 1970s, he adds. Initially, it was the Supreme Court of India which entertained the affidavit by the Ministry of Water Resources. These projects were never open for a debate, while there were several contradictions in the statements of the members of the task force and the impacts that this project could have. Even if this project is allowed, it would lead to inter-state disputes as many states had opposed it, says Mishra.

The project also found its place in the election manifesto of former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government during in 1997-1998. Vajpayee set up a task force, headed by former Shiv Sena member of Parliament, Suresh Prabhu, following drought-like conditions in the country between 2000 and 2002. On September 30, 2002, following a speech by the former president of India, A P J Abdul Kalam, the Supreme Court took up the project for monitoring.

In its report, the task force had concluded that the linking of the rivers in the country would raise the irrigation potential to 160 million hectares for all types of crops by 2050, compared with a maximum of about 140 million hectares that could be generated through conventional sources of irrigation.

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