One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first priorities after winning an overwhelming victory last year on a platform of development and growth is to fast-track a decades-old plan to link India’s rivers.
The ambitious infrastructure project, based on an idea first put forth in 1980, envisions linking 14 rivers from the Himalayas with 16 across the Indian peninsula to move water from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity. Besides controlling floods, supporters claim the project could irrigate 35 million additional hectares of agriculture and generate over 34,000 megawatts of electricity.
But critics argue the interlinking project is neither economically feasible nor environmentally sustainable, and neighboring states have expressed alarm about cross-border implications.Following China?
The idea of linking rivers to equalize water surplus and deficit is not new. From the Romans to Mesopotamia to India, rulers and visionaries have attempted to bend rivers to their will and lead water to barren lands.
Inter-linking major Indian rivers was first proposed at the end of 19th century under British colonial rule in order to improve navigation and address water shortages and droughts in southeast India.
In the post-independence period, Congress Party-led governments produced several reports on various water transfer schemes, but the plans were considered too politically explosive to pursue. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which followed, revived the plan but was blocked by a lack of political consensus. When the Congress Party returned to power in 2004, the idea was again sent to cold storage.
China’s recent “success” – hundreds of thousands have been displaced and rivers dried up – in implementing itsSouth-North Water Transfer Project has motivated Modi to bring the idea back as India’s own “North-South” project.
This has caused alarm beyond India’s borders. Countries that share Himalayan river basins are rightfully concerned about losing their share of waters. Upstream, Nepal and Bhutan are worried they will come under pressure to build dams and provide for Indian water storage due to past experiences. There is strong popular opposition to this idea.
Downstream, Bangladesh is concerned about water being diverted from the Brahmaputra and Teesta Rivers to the Ganges. India even officially proposed transferring this water within Bangladeshi territory in 1978, much before carrying out any detailed study for its national river-linking plan.
Inside India, the river-linking project has different meanings to its supporters and critics – the long-term answer to this fast-growing economy’s increasing water needs or an expensive and environmentally damaging albatross – but both sides have a penchant to ignore the enormous internal political challenges the scheme faces.
A conservative estimate of the cost for the project is approximately $168 billion, according to Bloomberg Business, with near certainty of significant cost overruns. Given past investments and returns on dams and canals by the government, whether the benefits that these new projects would generate are worth the cost is debatable. Besides construction costs and the engineering challenge of building large dams and canals, the government would need to compensate as many as 5.5 million displaced people for loss of land and livelihoods.
The economic and ecological problems associated with other long distance water transfer projects in India, like the Sutlej Yamuna Link, Indira Gandhi Canal, and Telugu Ganga Project, should deter the government from carrying out future projects of this nature on such a grand scale. These efforts have been very expensive, many people were displaced, water quality was reduced, salinity and water logging increased from excessive irrigation and seepage. The list goes on.
But the Modi administration is going ahead with linking rivers where possible within single states. In September, the Godavari and Krishna Rivers, the second and the fourth longest rivers in the country, were linked by a canal in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. A second project, the Ken-Betwa River link, is being constructed now in central India, primarily within the borders of Madhya Pradesh.
Fractured Political Landscape
The politics of regionalism and increasing strength of environmental activism and judicial interventions in India will likely not allow the administration to carry out large-scale inter-basin water transfers cutting across state boundaries, however.
Indian politics have changed considerably since 1980s. Regional parties are in power in most of the crucial states, making it difficult for New Delhi to carry out cross-state planning. In India’s federal structure consisting of 29 states, a national consensus is required to plan for a river basin as a whole. While water-short states are strongly in favor of declaring major rivers national assets, others resist the idea. Most states are already engaged in bitter disputes with neighbors over water allocation, and there is only one river basin authority, the Cauvery, which is not functioning well.
In the present political landscape, no national party or leader, including Narendra Modi, who is popular but also extremely controversial, has the political capital to override the wishes of the regional parties and leaders. This political limitation is clearly visible in Modi government’s reported withdrawal of most of the changes it wanted to impose on the previous government’s Land Acquisition Act.
In reviving the grand river-linking plan, Modi is trying to impose his Gujarat model of development at the national and regional level, with its emphasis on infrastructure and capital growth and relative disregard for social issues and the environment. This has created serious apprehension among India’s neighbors, especially Bangladesh. The project would also create many new internal disputes between states and revive old ones, resulting in new fissures in the Indian Union.
The administration might be able to push through a few small-scale, intra-state river-linking projects but the political reality at the national level will likely frustrate the grand idea of an Indian North-South Water Diversion Project to rival China.
Ashok Swain is professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden, and director of the Research School for International Water Cooperation.
Sources: Bloomberg Business, Center for Development and Environment Policy, Circle of Blue, Hindustan Times, The Indian Express , International Rivers, National Water Development Agency (India), Press Information Bureau (India), University of London.
Photo Credit: The Purna Wildlife Sanctuary, courtesy of flickr user Adam Cohn.