The concept of interlinking of rivers is neither unique to India nor new to India. Such Proposals were earlier implemented in countries like United States, Canada, Iraq, Former Soviet Union, China, etc.In India too in the late nineteenth century itself periyar project was constructed by linking perambakulam and alyar rivers. The Telugu Ganga, KC Canal projects in Andhra Pradesh were also the examples of interlinking rivers. But in the modern times the idea gained currency with DR K.L.RAO proposing Ganga- Cauvery link. The proposal gained enormous popularity primarily for two reasons. First, due to its grandeous nature. Second, the Ganga and Cauvery rivers are not just geographical entities they have cultural, emotional and civilizational importance. The then central government thoroughly discussed the idea and rejected it on the ground that it is impracticable. Then came the idea proposed by captain Dastoor. He proposed linking all the rivers of India to form the garland canal. But, this proposal was also rejected on similar grounds. But, the idea refused to die down. It kept on resurfacing time and again in academic, political and professional circles. The government of India has set up National Water Resources Development Agency to prepare National Perspective Plan on water resources. This plan also included the proposals to link rivers too.The National Perspective Plan broadly categorized Indian rivers into Himalayan river system and peninsular river system. Altogether the national plan envisaged thirty links. The idea has once again received wide publicity as it formed part of the agenda unveiled by president Abdul kalam to transform India into a superpower by 2020.
Drought and floods are recurring phenomena in India. During the same year we face intermittent drought and floods. While some parts of the country are reeling under drought, the other parts of the country face an unprecedented devastation due to floods. The wiser option, therefore, is to transfer water from surplus basin to deficit basin and store water when it is surplus and use it when there is scarcity. According to the Central Water Commission the annual estimated loss due to floods in India is 1347 crores. It is estimated that the total loss due to floods in India in last fifty years is 65,000 crores.
How ever the arguments against this project are also equally strong. The first objection to this project is the unprecedented cost involved in undertaking this project. The task force on ILR project estimated the cost to be 5,60,000 crores . But the history of irrigation in India suggests that there are always time and cost over runs in completion of irrigation projects. The first concern is how to mobilize such huge resources? Investment of this kind shall incapacitate the government to spend on other developmental projects. The second concern is if this project is given up halfway through due to fiscal constraints, it shall be a colossal loss.
The interlinking of rivers project means a massive intervention in nature. The eastward flowing rivers have to be diverted westwards and vice versa. At least in some cases hundreds of reservoirs have to be constructed across the country there shall be a large scale submergence of reserve forests, wild life sanctuaries. There shall also be largescale displacement of people. We have already seen the controversies over Sardar sarover project, Tehri dam, Pulichintala , Polavaram, etc. There shall be many more such controversies due to interlinking of rivers. A section of scientists argue that large dams and reservoirs also cause earthquakes. The controversies over koina dam, Tehri dam are few such examples. In view of spate of earthquakes being experienced, the presence of large number of reservoirs will prove to be disastrous in case of any such eventuality. The interlinking of rivers is resulting in several international and interstate disputes. The Bangladesh and Nepal have already expressed their apprehensions over this project. According to Indo – Bangladesh Ganga water sharing agreement, the water flow at farakka where the two countries share Ganga waters have to be augmented . Instead, the ILR project envisages transfer of water towards south from jojipod near patna. The ILR project is designed based on the existing availability of water resources. But today as Nepal has not developed its irrigation potential we are getting more water than our share in case if Nepal develops its irrigation potential we will not get the same levels of water. It would then prove to be a problem. There are conflicting reports on the estimates of power required and power produced by this project. Large quantities of water have to be lifted to higher levels. This demands huge consumption of power. However the supporters of this project argue that this project shall produce more power than it consumes. The operation and maintenance costs will also be very high. The scope for sabotage also increases with such a huge infrastructure.
The project shall also result in many interstate disputes. The project estimates that rivers Ganga, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Mahanadi are surplus river basins. But the states like west Bengal and Bihar may not agree with these estimates. Similarily Andhra Pradesh may not agree with the assessment that Godavari water can be transferred to other river basins. The Orissa may rise similar objections on the assessment in the river Mahanadi.At a time when riparian states are not in a position to share river waters how is it possible to ensure that a state agrees to share water with non riparian state. The interlinking of rivers can also lead to inter basin transfer of pollution. The lack of irrigation facility is not the only reason for the agrarian distress. The largely irrigated state of Punjab has seen hundreds or farmers committing suicides. Decentralized water systems are cost effective and easily manageable. More than augmenting water supply, the need of the hour is to achieve water use efficiency, conservation of water resources, proper pricing mechanisms to prevent reckless use of water resources.
To conclude the impact and consequences of interlinking rivers is highly unpredictable. The international experiences also reveal contradictory results. For instance, Israel has immensely benefited by interlinking rivers. The rainfall deficient nation like Israel has transformed into a nation which is self sufficient in food production. On the contrary in former Soviet Union two rivers Amudarya and Sirdarya flowing into Aral sea were diverted to the western deserts of Ujbekistan. In the initial stage the results were quite encouraging. Soviet Union became a leading producer in cotton but today the land locked Aral sea is completely dried up leading to a major environmental disaster. Given such unpredictable consequences and lack of unanimity, any hasty move would be counterproductive. It is better to begin with non controversial links where the benefits are assured. Based on this experience further links can be implemented.