There are easier, local solutions to the problems river-linking aims to solve.
Election season is here. And like the mythical phoenix, the idea of river-linking has risen from the ashes again. Transferring surplus Himalayan waters to parched peninsular basins is a 150-year-old idea, first aired by Sir Arthur Cotton. In 1972, it crystallised into a gigantic project to re-plumb India with a 12,500 kilometre network of canals that, through 37 links, would connect water surplus Himalayan basins with the deficit basins of the south and west. Among the biggest infrastructure projects in the world, it would dwarf even China’s Three Gorges Dam and the south-north water transfer project.
At one level, its logic is impeccable. About 1,350 billion cubic metres (BCM) of rainwater and snowmelt sloshing around the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin maroons 34 million people and floods three million hectares in eastern India and Bangladesh annually before running off into the sea. Transferring a mere 178 BCM of this to the water-scarce south and west can drought-proof these areas while reducing floods in the east, generating some much-needed hydropower en route.
Fifteen years ago, the project was estimated to cost Rs 5,60,000 crores. Today, the estimate is over Rs 10 lakh crore, close to a full year’s GDP. But given India’s past record, over the 30-50 years it would take to complete, the project cost will multiply many times over. Costs aside, environmentalists worry about dying fisheries, growing water pollution and declining environmental flows. NGOs and activists cry foul about massive involuntary displacement of people in tribal areas.
And all this to what gain? Much of the 35 million hectares the project promises to irrigate is already under private tubewell irrigation, which has proved far more profitable than canal irrigation. Moreover, lifting 178 BCM of Himalayan water across the central Indian highlands will use up much of the 35 gigawatt of hydropower the project is expected to generate. The net socio-economic benefits seem illusory even with rosy assumptions.
Even if the assumptions hold, the future value of the benefits promised is suspect. Agriculture, the key beneficiary, is already shrinking in southern states such as the rapidly urbanising Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Farmers are ageing as the youth is quitting agriculture to participate in the booming non-farm growth. Decades from now, agriculture will have majorly shrunk in the south and the west but it will still be flourishing in the Ganga basin, with its population still growing and irrigation expanding. The canals will be ready but there will be no surplus water to transfer.
Why then does the idea refuse to die? Perhaps because it makes a bold political statement. For centuries, kings have used ambitious irrigation projects to imprint their names in the footnotes of history. In a Keynesian sense, such massive infrastructure might also be desired as an economic stimulus, generating employment and pepping up industrial demand during construction.
More prosaic considerations might also be at play. Irrigation projects are the biggest source of political corruption. For instance, after nearly Rs 2,00,000 crore in irrigation projects awarded mostly to MPs and MLAs, Andhra Pradesh has hardly seen any new irrigation. The recent irrigation scandal in Vidarbha is another example. Nobody knows how much new irrigation was created after that Rs 71,000 crore scam.
To believe that river linking will be a panacea for India’s water crisis is delusional. In any case, the idea cannot take off until Bangladesh and Nepal sign up. India’s abject track record in water diplomacy with neighbours makes it hard to imagine they will cooperate on such an ambitious plan, which has no clear benefits for them. Water being a state subject, getting India’s own state governments to cooperate will also be a roadblock.
There are easier, proven and local solutions to resolve the most significant problems that river linking aims to solve: floods in eastern India and groundwater depletion in western and southern India. First, intrastate water transfers can be quicker and beneficial for flood control in surplus basins — Bihar is already planning such a project. They can also help ease water scarcity in deficit basins, as Gujarat has shown. Second, groundwater depletion can be controlled by decentralised groundwater recharge, as demonstrated in the Saurashtra region of Gujarat and the Alwar district of Rajasthan. Third, aggressive micro-irrigation can drastically cut down water use in agriculture. Fourth, reforming perverse electricity subsidies can curtail the waste of groundwater — and energy — in agriculture. Fifth, reforming the prevailing MSP regime can wean Punjab and Haryana away from the water-guzzling rice-wheat system and make their agriculture far more sustainable. Sixth, transferring food rather than water — the so-called virtual water transfer — from surplus to deficit basins can turbo-charge eastern India’s agriculture while ensuring national food security. Together, these measures can resolve in five years a crisis that river-linking is unlikely to resolve in 50 years, if ever.
The author is senior fellow at the International Water Management Institute, Colombo. Views are personal.