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The interconnection of rivers: what is the meaning of the interconnection of rivers?

There is little scientific basis, donor state acceptability and social/environmental optimality

By Himanshu Thakkar

A series of actions taken by the current dispensation at the Center, as well as by some of the state governments, since March 2021, has been to orchestrate a push for the Interconnecting Rivers (ILR) – in a somewhat similar way to this happened in 2002 under the government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The 2002 effort did not achieve much on the ground, and initiatives two decades later are unlikely to make any progress either. The latest measures were reflected in revised Ken Betwa Project (KBP) estimates for FY22 and budget estimates for FY23, followed by the announcement of the formation of an authority to implement the KBP.

The KBP does not yet have the final deforestation. The conditions of the deforestation of phase I (eg no electricity component in the forest/protected area, etc.) are such that the project cannot be implemented in its current form. The clearance of wildlife for the project has been called into question by a comprehensive report from the Empowered Central Committee of the Supreme Court of India which has yet to be considered by the Supreme Court. An application is pending against its environmental clearance before the National Green Tribunal. Opposition to the project is growing, both in Panna, a district of Madhya Pradesh, and in Banda, a district of Uttar Pradesh, downstream from the project.

It is clear that the Ken Betwa project is a non-starter in the current situation. In such a situation, why has the central government taken the measures it has taken when the project cannot be implemented without resolving the regulatory and other aspects mentioned above? One plausible reason appears to be the ongoing Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. The people of Bundelkhand certainly need better water access and management. But the Ken Betwa project is not for Bundelkhand, of Bundelkhand or by Bundelkhand. On the contrary, the project will have negative impacts whose extent could be difficult to apprehend, all suffered by the Bundelkhand region. Likewise, the push for ILR, in general, lacks a solid scientific basis, donor state acceptance, social or environmental optimality or desirability, let alone acceptability.

First, we need a thorough hydrological assessment of any river basin that is to be declared surplus; it must be an assessment that is in the public domain and reviewed by an independent (necessarily non-governmental) body. In the case of KBP, such an assessment is not available in the public domain and has not been reviewed by a credible independent agency. On the contrary, all available evidence shows that there is no surplus in Ken’s pelvis and such a claim is probably based on manipulations that have no scientific basis. The project will in fact permanently destroy a major hydrological asset of the Ken Basin, namely the rich natural forest that surrounds it, with the destruction of over 21 lakh of trees.

Secondly, we need a full assessment of all the options available in the basins concerned, including rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge, watershed development, wastewater treatment and recycling and other polluted sources, the optimal use of existing hydraulic infrastructures, the appropriate cultivation model, the desilting of and other storages, among others. Such an assessment does not exist for any basin, or even a small sub-basin, in India.

In fact, groundwater is and has been India’s lifeline for over four decades. The ILR or any of the big dams don’t help maintain that lifeline. On the contrary, it destroys the lifeline in multiple ways. We must put all our efforts into prioritizing actions that would help maintain this lifeline rather than tackling massive water infrastructure projects like the ILR.

Likewise, in the context of climate change, we must expend the limited economic resources available to us to maintain the benefits of our existing ecological and infrastructural resources. Faced with these realities, pushing ILR projects would be counterproductive.

The futility of browsing the ILR agenda is also clear from what we hear from states. No state is even prepared to give water to another state. Of the five links mentioned by the finance minister in her budget speech this year, two relate to Gujarat and Maharashtra, for which a memorandum of understanding was signed in 2010, when the current prime minister was chief minister. from Gujarat. Moreover, for a significant part of the following period, the States and the Center were governed by the same party. Despite this, no consensus is in sight. On the contrary, there is strong opposition to the projects among the tribes of the two states. Similarly, in the case of the proposed Godavari-Krishna-Pennar-Cauvery nexus, none of the donor states agree that Godavari has a transferable surplus. And there is no consensus even among the beneficiary states, even BJP-led Karnataka opposing the proposal as they derive no benefit from the proposal. The hydrological figures of the National Agency for Water Development are regularly questioned by the States concerned by the project.

When the evidence is strong against the expediency, optimality and even viability of ILR’s proposals, why is the government pushing them? The answer may be that – to paraphrase what a secretary from the Ministry of Water Resources told me on the Ken Betwa project a few years ago – it is a project worth Rs 45 000 crores!

The author works with the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People