Interlinking of Indian Rivers (ILR Project)

One of the promises made by the BJP in its election manifesto for the Indian General Election, 2014 was the Rivers Interlinking Project, originally envisioned by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government in 2003. Now that the BJP is in power, it is expected to give a big fillip to the long-delayed project in India. Key governance reforms and infrastructure development are the crucial promises made by the BJP; and the Modi government seems all set to fulfill the gargantuan expectations that the electorate has from it.

Background

The idea of interlinking of rivers in the Indian subcontinent is atleast 150 years old. During the British Raj in India, Sir Arthur Cotton, a British general and irrigation engineer, first suggested linking the Ganga and the Cauvery for navigational purposes. 

There are 3 main river systems in India:

  1. The Ganga River System
  2. The Peninsular River System
  3. The Brahmaputra River System

The Ganga and the Brahmaputra river basins are plagued by floods almost every year and there is often acute shortage of water in the Peninsular river system. The Brahmaputra and Ganga basins are water surplus areas, and central and south India are water deficit areas.

The ILR Project (Interlinking of Rivers Project)

The total cost of all the river linking projects has been estimated at around Rs. 5,60,000 crore at 2002 Price Level, but the actual cost will be known only after the DPRs(Detailed Project Reports) of all the river link projects are drawn up. The present cost including the cost of land required to be acquired for the project can be estimated only after the completion of DPR of the projects. The projects which have, so far, more or less remained on papers — will make water available for irrigating 35 million hectares, generate hydroelectricity to the tune of 34,000MW and control floods in many states across the country, if implemented.  The costs of individual project have not yet been finalized. 

The Ken-Betwa river link is one of the projects which got its green signal from the apex court following a tripartite memorandum of understanding signed between the Centre and the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.

The BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government has gifted the Malwa region India’s first ever river-linking project to solve the problem of water scarcity there. As part of the Narmada-Kshipra link project, Narmada’s water has been lifted to 350 metres and through pipelines spread over almost 49 kilometres to Kshipra river in Ujjain, about 15 kilometres from Indore.

There are 2 components to the ILR Project:-

  1. The Himalayan Rivers Component
  2. The Peninsular Rivers Component

NWDA (National Water Development Agency) has already identified 14 links under Himalayan Component and 16 links under Peninsular Rivers Component.

interlinking

Need for the ILR Project

1. Drought, floods and shortage of drinking water

India receives about 4,000 cubic kilometers of rain annually, or about 1 million gallons of fresh water per person every year. However, the precipitation pattern in India varies dramatically across distance and over calendar months. Much of the precipitation in India, about 85%, is received during summer months through monsoons in the Himalayan catchments of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin. The northeastern region of the country receives heavy precipitation, in comparison with the northwestern, western and southern parts. The uncertainty of start date of monsoons, sometimes marked by prolonged dry spells and fluctuations in seasonal and annual rainfall is a serious problem for the country.The nation sees cycles of drought years and flood years, with large parts of west and south experiencing more deficits and large variations, resulting in immense hardship particularly the poorest farmers and rural populations. Lack of irrigation water regionally leads to crop failures and farmer suicides. Despite abundant rains during July–September, some regions in other seasons see shortages of drinking water. Some years, the problem temporarily becomes too much rainfall, and weeks of havoc from floods. This excess-scarcity regional disparity and flood-drought cycles have created the need for water resources management. Rivers inter-linking is one proposal to address that need.

2. Population and food security

Population increase in India is the other driver of need for river inter-linking. India’s population growth rate has been falling, but still continues to increase by about 10 to 15 million people every year. The resulting demand for food must be satisfied with higher yields and better crop security, both of which require adequate irrigation of about 140 million hectares of land.Currently, just a fraction of that land is irrigated, and most irrigation relies on monsoon. River inter-linking is claimed to be a possible means of assured and better irrigation for more farmers, and thus better food security for a growing population.

3. Navigation

India needs infrastructure for logistics and movement of freight. Using connected rivers as navigation is a cleaner, low carbon footprint form of transport infrastructure, particularly for ores and food grains.

It remains a fact that one of the main reasons for the rapid development of the continents of North America and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries has been the cheap transport available from navigable rivers, canals and lakes. Rivers like Rhine, Seine, Thames, Mississippi, Missouri and lakes like the Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie, Ontario) and some canals in Europe have uplifted the economies of USA, Canada, England, France, Germany, etc. for centuries. Also, navigation on rivers and lakes in Europe and North America has led to the development of the immense revenue generating cruise industry/tourism.

South America and African continents which have a rough terrain and non-navigable rivers (due to the presence of waterfalls, elevation, etc.) have been slow in growth in comparison.

The Indian subcontinent does not have the problems of South America and Africa. Though, the peninsular part of India is indeed rocky and difficult to cut through for linking, still the potential for the ILR Project is huge. It could take the burden off Indian Railways for transport of goods and make inter and intra-state transportation dirt cheap.

4. Current reserves and loss in groundwater level

India’s worsening water problem – critical groundwater levels. India currently stores only 30 days of rainfall, while developed nations strategically store 900 days worth of water demand in arid areas river basins and reservoirs. India’s dam reservoirs store only 200 cubic meters per person. India also relies excessively on groundwater, which accounts for over 50 percent of irrigated area with 20 million tube wells installed. About 15 percent of India’s food is being produced using rapidly depleting groundwater. The end of the era of massive expansion in groundwater use, is going to demand greater reliance on surface water supply systems. Proponents of the project suggest India’s water situation is already critical, and it needs sustainable development and management of surface water and groundwater usage
 
Roadblocks in implementation of the ILR Project
  • The previous Congress-led governments at the Centre have not shown any interest in this grand project mainly due to the fact that many environmentalists are concerned about the repercussions this project could have on the environment, ecology, biodiversity, geology, hydrology.
  • But another reason for non-acceptance by Congress could also be that the project was first conceptualized on a serious level by the BJP in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure and progressing on that front could have meant acceptance of BJP’s ideas by the Congress. So we see, how regional and national politics has also hindered this project for too long.
  • Socio-economic concerns include the humungous number of people who will be displaced by the project, river diversion may bring significant changes in the physical and chemical compositions of the sediment load, river morphology, and shape of  the delta formed at the basin. Water-related diseases such as Malaria can spread through stagnant or slow-moving water in the irrigation command area. 
  • Inter-state cooperation is a big issue in this project. Ideally, no state wants to forego its surplus water reserves and wants adequate compensation for its costs incurred in terms of losing the resource(in this case: water).

Way Forward

The present  government is already making rapid progress on the implementation of this project. The government has constituted high-level committees and working groups (for each interlinking river project for each component) that are looking into the concerns outlined above and working on solutions. The committees of experts elaborate on these concerns and possible solutions in their DPRs and FRs (Detailed Project Reports and Feasibility Reports).

The government should ponder over every worst case scenario and then arrive at a solution. Appropriate policies for the rehabilitation of people who are going to be displaced should be framed and their proper implementation should be supervised from the highest levels of the government. Multilateral discussions and consultations with all the stakeholders should be undertaken regularly to eliminate all misconceptions and apprehensions and to expand participation. This is a project of national interest and the quality of lives of all citizens are at stake, as either the project can spread prosperity or miscalculated developments could lead to serious problems. The core concern of water security should be not be forgotten at any cost.

-Ribhu V.

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