Mr. Modi’s river disconnect  

Purely technological solutions like the ambitious river-linking project, do not understand or prioritise those who are affected by these projects  

Updated - May 24, 2016 01:42 pm IST

Published - August 14, 2014 01:07 am IST

Since taking office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been busy outlining just how exactly he will make the acche din (good days) roll in for India and Indians. And central to the government’s vision of a sujalam suphalam mataram is the river interlinking project. The interlinking project aims to link India’s rivers by a network of reservoirs and canals that will allow for their water capacities to be shared and redistributed. This, its votaries claim, is an engineered panacea that will reduce persistent floods in some parts and water shortages in other parts besides facilitating the generation of hydroelectricity for an increasingly power hungry country.

Three components

While the interlinking project may be one of the flagships of Mr. Modi’s acche din , its provenance goes all the way back to the British Raj. One of its first proponents was the British engineer, Arthur Cotton who suggested linking the Ganga and the Cauvery for purposes of navigation. Cotton’s proposal was shelved but the plan to connect rivers has come up repeatedly in post-independence India. Since the 1980s, the interlinking project has been managed by India’s National Water Development Agency (NWDA) under the Ministry of Water Resources. It has been split into three parts: a northern Himalayan rivers interlink component, a southern peninsular component and an intra-State rivers linking component. The NWDA has studied and prepared reports on 14 projects for the Himalayan region, 16 projects for the peninsular India component and 36 intra-State river interlinking projects. While several governments have toyed with the idea before shelving it (including the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance), Mr. Modi seems all set to go ahead with it. Ms. Uma Bharati, the Union Minister for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, has informed the Lok Sabha that three interlinking projects — the Ken-Betwa link, the Damanganga-Pinjal link and the Par-Tapi-Narmada link — are set to take-off.

But the most crucial questions about these projects remain unanswered. Will the interlinking project really be the magic wand to reduce water scarcity as is being claimed? Whose experiences of scarcity and struggles for livelihood will it resolve? And what will be the financial and, most importantly, the ecological costs of that process?

For example, the Ken-Betwa river link is currently set to benefit the States of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The cost of the project, budgeted at over Rs.9,000 crore, is expected to transfer surplus water from the Ken to the Betwa basin through a 221-kilometre long canal. But there’s more to the cost than meets the accounting eye. It will also result in the flooding of 8,650 hectares of forestland, including a part of the Panna National Park in Madhya Pradesh. For some, drowning a few tigers here and there does not seem much of a price to pay for more water and more electricity, but what of the communities who depend on these lands for their livelihoods? Of course there is that old logic that people must be displaced for the greater good of the country, but would the lives of these people get magically transformed for the better after they have been resettled? Perhaps the question to ask then is whose thirst for water will be quenched by this process. Or, must the more vulnerable sections of the Indian population subsidise the rich and powerful once again?

Portraying water scarcity

The interlinking project offers us an expansive view of how “development,” ambitiously championed by the Narendra Modi government, can be ecologically and socially disastrous. For, at the heart of the project lies a technocratic fantasy of ending water scarcity through the power of hydraulic engineering. Writing about water scarcity in Kutch, Gujarat, Lyla Mehta has shown how water scarcity is often portrayed as something that is natural, rather than humanly produced. She raises the rather crucial point that the naturalisation of scarcity within political discourse mostly benefits powerful actors and mega projects; that the water scarcity crisis must also be seen as a crisis of unequal access to and control of a finite resource. Purely technological solutions like the interlinking project are myopic precisely because they do not adequately study, understand or prioritise the socio-economic and long-term well-being of those families — “Project Affected Peoples,” as the Ministry of Rural Development calls them — who are affected by these mega projects. Is the crisis of water scarcity and livelihood in contemporary India about to be solved for landless farmers, tribal communities and seasonal labourers or is it only going to benefit the consumptive desires of elite and middle class families?

In a recent article, prominent environmentalists Vandana Shiva and Sarika Malhotra argue that the interlinking projects have no hydrological or ecological soundness. Their study of the Ken-Betwa link and the Sarda-Yamuna link points to the false government claim that the links will deliver water to drought-prone Bundelkhand. Instead, the drought season they argue, occurs when both the Ken and the Betwa have reduced flow due to the fact that they emerge from the same Vindhyanchal range. As for the Sarda and the Yamuna, both these rivers flood at the same time because they both emerge from the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand.

Ms. Shiva and Ms. Malhotra claim that since the estimated cost of the project was Rs.5,60,000 crore in 2002, the river interlinking projects are not just ecologically but also economically unsound, effectively constituting a gigantic waste of public money. In fact, developmental feats that claim to tackle water scarcity ironically do not pay any attention to the many alternatives for water conservation, such as organic farming, water harvesting and other local initiatives, which can be more effective and less ecologically destructive in mitigating scarcity in drought prone areas.

Effects on cultivation

In South India, an environmental impact study by the Centre for Water Resources and Distribution Management (CWRDM) claims that the State of Kerala has several reasons to oppose the Pampa-Achankovil-Vaipar interlinking project aimed at diverting water to the water-starved Vaipar basin in Tamil Nadu. The study claims that the interlinking project is based on false data provided by the NWDA. Instead of there being surplus water in the Pampa and the Achankovil rivers, as claimed by the NWDA, in reality both rivers are water-deficient. The study further claims that the link will have detrimental effects on rice cultivation in northern Kerala’s Kuttanad region, and could potentially create an ecological disaster for both the Vembanad wetland system and the biodiversity of the Western Ghats. It is no wonder then that Ms. Maneka Gandhi, a Union Minister in Mr. Modi’s cabinet, has stated that India’s river-linking projects are extremely dangerous, and will end up killing the very rivers that they seek to link.

In the context of the interlinking project, one is also reminded of a comment by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan on the significance of confluences to Hinduism. Commenting on a passage from the Mundaka Upanishad, he notes that the meeting of rivers, and of a river with the sea, reminds the Hindu mind of the individual soul uniting with the infinite universal soul, shaking off all names and forms. But if the Upanishad points towards a sacred geography etched on the bodies of rivers that travel across our subcontinent representing an age-old, everyday relationship between the natural world and us, the interlinking projects instead present a deeply anthropocentric and commoditised view of riparian environments, and of their relevance to the Indian subcontinent. And while the interlinking projects stand in stark contrast to Hinduism’s long-standing reverence for the river, it is deeply ironic that it is being heralded in by a political establishment that seeks to identify itself continuously with Hinduism.

(Parvathy Binoy is a doctoral candidate in geography at Syracuse University, U.S. E-mail: )

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