However well-intentioned it might be, the Supreme Court direction to the Centre to constitute a special committee to pursue the outdated plan of linking India's rivers is based on a misplaced premise. Achieving huge inter-basin transfer of waters in the Himalayan and peninsular river systems is a complex goal for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the displacement of a large number of people. Even if funds were not a constraint and the inter-linking idea were to be declared technically sound, the national record on resettlement of people displaced by mega dam projects does not inspire confidence. What is equally important is that the 2008 National Council on Applied Economic Research report on the “Economic Impact of Interlinking of Rivers Programme”, which seems to have guided some of the discussions, explicitly did not consider the plan's environmental aspects or cost-benefit calculus. Moving waters across river basins cannot be achieved without energy-intensive heavy lifts and destructive modification of ecologically important landscapes. Also, in the Himalaya plan component, there is the additional challenge of taking along neighbouring countries. It is no surprise then that the National Commission on Integrated Water Resources Development Plan, which went into the proposals a decade ago, favoured development of water resources within river basins over massive inter-basin transfers.
Negative externalities are a concomitant of any big river link project, and the proposals identified by NCAER involve 30 links. Sharing of river waters even under an agreed formula has not been easy, as the Cauvery issue has shown. What is more, the reaction of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala to the Supreme Court direction indicates that they remain unenthusiastic, because of concerns over proposals for the Polavaram and Pamba-Achankovil-Vaippar links. A decade ago, when water surpluses in the Mahanadi and Godavari were assessed by the NCIWRDP, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh disagreed. Given this trend, what reason is there to believe that States would be more willing to apportion waters now? As the Supreme Court has pointed out on various occasions, environmental impact assessment must be the cornerstone of any project. In this context, the Ministry of Environment and Forests found no cause to support the Ken-Betwa link and declined to clear it last year. The way forward to improve the prospects of water-deficit basins is to work on more efficient and less destructive options. These include devoting resources for rainwater harvesting programmes of scale, raising irrigation efficiency, curbing pollution and effecting local water transfers for agricultural and municipal use.