Gadkari gung-ho about linking rivers. But experts aren’t amused
Nitin Gadkari has been on a project-announcing spree ever since he took over as Union Minister for Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, from Uma Bharti. And a lot of focus has been on projects related to interlinking rivers, the ambitious plan initiated formally by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002.
Gadkari has already been tested at the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways. Now he has been tasked to do what he does best – finishing construction projects. Considered to be one of the best-performing ministers in Narendra Modi’s government, Gadkari was handpicked to push the river interlinking project that has been mired in controversy and endless delays.
Within a week of assuming the new role, Gadkari announced that work will start on three major river interlinking projects and two dams at a cost of Rs 40,000 crore. The Ken-Betwa, Par-Tapi-Narmada and Damanganga-Pinjal projects will begin in the next three months, he claimed.
On Friday, along with Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Gadkari announced a Rs 60,000 crore plan to link rivers in the state, including the Par-Tapi-Narmada and Damanganga-Pinjal projects. Interestingly, he said he hoped these projects would be finished within two years.
Experts, however, wonder how something that couldn't be done in the last 15 years can now be done in two years.
Under the National Perspective Plan (NPP) prepared by the Ministry of Water Resources, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has already identified 14 link canals under the Himalayan Rivers Component and 16 canals under the Peninsular Rivers Component for inter-basin transfer of water.
According to government data, once implemented, the project will raise the ultimate irrigation potential from 140 million hectare to 175 million hectare and generate 34,000 megawatt power. Incidental benefits will include flood control, navigation, water supply, fisheries, salinity and pollution control, etc.
But experts feel there is little evidence to suggest such great benefits from the ambitious project. On the other hand, it could submerge nearly 28 lakh hectares land, including prime tiger habitat at Panna Tiger Reserve, Madhya Pradesh. Also, nearly 15 lakh people are expected to be displaced. The total cost could eventually outweigh benefits.
The rationale behind the Centre’s aggressive push is based on the assumption that the project will solve the crisis of annual floods and droughts, responsible for hundreds of deaths and crop loss each year.
However, experts feel that the environmental, socio-economic, legal and other technical aspects of the projects' validity have not been taken into account.
“The biggest question is whether such a project is advantageous to society? Does it have environmental feasibility? What would be the repercussions of embarking on something so ambitious?” asked A Gosain, a professor of civil engineering at IIT Delhi.
The basic premise of the project rests on the donor and recipient system: the surplus of the Ganga and the Brahmputra would be diverted to water-scarce basins across the country, he pointed out.
“These two rivers are perennial and depend on glaciers, which are receding at an alarming rate largely because of climate change. If these glaciers disappear, what would be the fate of these rivers? This brings us to the question of whether we have explored all the other options,” Gosain said.
Claiming that the government’s priorities were misplaced, he said: “Why don't we first take care of pollution in our rivers? Moreover, there are other ways like curbing demand of water by reusing water for domestic purpose.
“The irrigation efficiency of India is very low. Therefore, there is no justification for such a project. There are many other low hanging fruit we could use and once we have exhausted all these options, we can then think about something on these lines.”
Echoing his views, Professor Brij Gopal of the Centre for Inland Waters of South Asia said small ponds and wells could substitute such large projects. According to him, he had written to Bharti that instead of spending Rs 20,000 crore for irrigation projects in Uttar Pradesh, the government should spend Rs 1,000 crore on digging ponds across villages.
Villages across India were dependent on such ponds for irrigation and other needs, but increasing real estate development has eaten into these ponds in the last few decades.
Gopal also suggested the use of solar-powered sprinklers, pointing out that both sprinklers and solar panels are subsidised by the government. “But no one cares about simple little things, everyone wants to build big structures and spend thousands of crores,” he said.
Not inclined to believe the three-month suggested by Gadkari, he said: “Crores have been promised not transferred by the minister. Has the state government received the funds?
“Does Gadkari have a magic wand to finish these projects in three years when even NWDA has claimed that it will take seven years and more. They can inaugurate it considering one just needs to put a stone there which can be placed and removed depending on who is in power.”
Citing the example of Sutlej Yamuna Canal Link, Gopal said its 25-year-old water agreement has not been sorted out yet. When asked about the impact of such project on the ecosystem of these rivers, Gopal said, “Who cares about the ecosystem? On the one hand, Ganga is our mother and on the other hand, you suck out her blood by diverting the water.”
Lambasting the concept of transferring surplus water to deficient rivers, he cited the Ken-Betwa river linking project: “Last year there was flooding in Ken so they should have shared the surplus with Betwa. This year Ken's flow has reduced considerably. Does this mean that Betwa should share its water this year?”
The Ken-Betwa project is a classic example of all that is wrong with river interlinking. It has faced one hurdle after. Under this project, a 77-metre high and 2-km long has been proposed, which will submerge nearly 9,000 hectare of prime forest at the core area of Panna Tiger Reserve.
The project has been mired in controversies over its environmental impact, displacement, water-sharing concerns and other legal issues leading to project not taking off despite the big announcements. It has also led to anti-dam movement gaining foothold in the Panna district. Locals believe that the perks of being close to the tiger reserve are finally being felt by them due to tourism related income.
They believe once the project takes off, their livelihoods would be lost and so would their lands. They have also grown suspicious of the way environmental clearances are being obtained and how data is being fudged to present a rosy picture.
Dr MK Ranjitsinh, member of the wildlife board of Madhya Pradesh, is against the project. He claimed that the most productive part of Panna would be submerged by the dam.
“It just bifurcates the park into two. They want to siphon off Ken's water to Betwa but where is the water?” he said.
Ranjitsinh has also given a dissenting note to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who reportedly tore it up. It is not only the wildlife population that he is worried about, but also the people living downstream.
According to him, with most such projects -- particularly dams -- only 50-60% of the initial target is achieved. “This project is bogus and manipulative, considering the environmental assessment was done by a team that listed certain species that are not even found in Panna,” he said.
“If this project takes off, you will neither have Panna nor paani (water),” Ranjitsinh said, summing it up.
Edited by Joyjeet Das