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Why inter-linking of rivers is a threat to India’s national integration, besides being an unmitigated ecological and economic disaster

Why inter-linking of rivers is a threat to India’s national integration, besides being an unmitigated ecological and economic disaster

By Chandra Vikash

May 2014

Rivers have been cradle of many a civilization around the world. In a landmark agreement in modern times of rampant ecological destruction, a river has been endowed with legal rights.  Over a hundred years of advocacy by the Whanganui iwi, an indigenous community with a long history of reliance on the river and its bountiful natural resources, bore fruit when the Whanganui River in New Zealand was accorded a legal voice. (1)

Back in India, where more than a hundred million of indigenous people rely on the River Ganga and many share a deep cultural bond with the river, the call for according it rights (2) go unheeded. It continues to bear the scourge of untreated sewage and industrial waste, and has been maimed and mutilated by numerous dams and barrages. The same fate hangs for several of other rivers which indigenous people rely on and has great cultural significance for them since ages.


Even as organizations that work to protect the rights of indigenous communities worldwide are celebrating the Whanganui River agreement as an affirmation of the inextricable relationship between indigenous communities and natural ecosystems, the continued apathy and disregard by the government in India spells gloom and doom for the Indian rivers.

The most devastating blow to India’s rivers is likely to come from the Indian River Linking Project or IRLP. This got the sanction of the Supreme Court of India, based on highly misleading claims of 1:54 multiples of cost to benefits, (3)  that set aside reservations of geologists, water experts, enviroment experts, grassroots activists and affected people.

In its judgement the Court said: “The NCAER report clearly opines that the interlinking of river projects will prove fruitful for the nation as a whole and would serve a greater purpose by allowing higher returns from the agricultural sector for the benefit of the entire economy. This would also result in providing varied benefits like control of floods, providing water to [the] drought-prone States, providing water to a larger part of agricultural land and even power generation. Besides … benefits to the country, it will help the countries like Nepal etc., uplifting India’s international role. Importantly, they also point to a very important facet of interlinking of rivers, i.e., it may result in reduction of some diseases due to the supply of safe drinking water, and thus serve a greater purpose for humanity.” (4)

Indian River-linking Project – Boon or bane ?

This entire river linking project is divided into two components- The Himalayan Component and The Peninsular Component.

In the Himalayan Component, Ganga and Brahmaputra Rivers will be linked together. The northern component would consist of a series of dams built along the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers in India, Nepal and Bhutan for the purposes of storage. Canals would be built to transfer surplus water from the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the west. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries would be linked with the Ganga and the Ganga with the Mahanadi river.

In the southern Peninsular River Development component four phases are planned. First, the Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri rivers would all be linked by canals. Extra water storage dams would be built along the course of these rivers. The purpose of this would be to transfer surplus water from the Mahanadi and Godavari rivers to the south of India.

Second, those rivers that flow west to the north of Mumbai and the south of Tapi would be linked. (5) There is also a proposal for a 2640 kilometer long link between the Ganges and Kaveri rivers that was first foated in 1972 by the then Minister for Irrigation K. L. Rao.

This program is estimated to cost a hefty INR 8,64,500 crores.

The change in elevation (a minimum of 100 m, generally increases towards the south) from the plains of northern India to the Vindhya and Satpura ranges and the Deccan Plateau beyond them, pose a major challenge to the project; as the water would have to travel upwards in order to reach Maharashtra and southern India. The average water lift to cross the Vindhya mountains is 500 meters which needs 162 billion units of electricity (20% of total India’s electricity consumption in the year 2012) to pump 100 billion cubic meters (bcm) in a year. (5)

There are several other concerns regarding technical difficulties of creating water storage in the Gangetic plains, failure to factor in impact of climate change, as well as failure to exlpore alternatives of water conservation.

The “first-ever river linking project of the country” linking the Shipra and Narmada rivers, which was inaugurated recently is already showing how divisive and counter-productive the river linking program can be, even within a state on a very small scale.

About 5 cusecs of water has been lifted from the Onkareshwar dam on Narmada river and is pipelined to Shipra river. The environmental guidelines have been bypassed for this project by exploiting a loophole for drinking water supply to cities, villages even as lots of this water is to be diverted for industrial use. Some water that will reach the highly polluted Shipra River will hardly be useful. This will involve  lifting Narmada water to 350 metres to Kshipra. The drinking water supply will cost many times more than current charges. Moreover, this water which was earlier meant for Nimar region is being diverted to the Malwa region. (6) This creates the potential for divisiveness within the state. Similar issues mar another river diversion project in the state of Karnataka on the Nethravathi river. (7)

Himanshu Thakkar, Co-ordinator of the South Asian network of Dams, Rivers and People rips apart the empty claims made by the Madhya Pradesh Government. He cites how other alternatives have been overlooked in the process. He cites the precedence set by the Bhagirath Krishak Abhiyan in the Malwa region.

“The Bhagirath Krishak Abhiyan work was simple: Create farm ponds in Dewas district villages in Malwa that will harvest rainwater and provide source for groundwater recharge, irrigation and drinking water. The scheme started on a slow note, but has picked up over the years and has led to construction of over 4500 ponds, recharging groundwater, increasing water and food security and making the people so confident that they say they will never have water shortage. The biodiversity in the area has increased, with lots of birds and some wild animals too coming to the area. While there could be some questions about the claims of the district collector and other government officials, there is little doubt that if such works are implemented with honesty and participation, they can bring significant change.” (6)

Sahana Singh, international water expert, in an email response, points out the controversy surrounding a similar dragonian river linking program in China. Look at what is happening in China, she says, with the South-North Water Diversion project. “Let’s not forget that according to climate models, after a few decades, there will not be much water flowing in Indian rivers. Rainfall is going to become pretty erratic. Even today many canals are running empty and are silted up. Let’s not build something huge and let it rot after a few decades.” She suggests more study of the climate models.

The South-North Water Diversion project, a $62 billion investment designed to channel water from southern China to the arid north through three canal systems has come under intense scrutiny because of its high cost, environmental impact and massive displacement of local population. (8)

The need to adapt with nature

“The simplistic concept of inter-linking of rivers to address water resources issues is a cause of great concern in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basins, avers Dr. Md. Khalequzzaman, Professor of Geology at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania. According to him:

“The natural flow of rivers is essential for economic well-being of the people living in the watersheds and for diverse riverine ecosystems that exist in the basins.

Flooding of rivers is a natural process. Most rivers reach their bankfull stage once every 2 to 3 years. ..Slow-flowing flood-water on a floodplain performs very important functions – it deposits sediments and renews the fertility of croplands. Flood water looks murky, because it is loaded with sediments. …In essence, the rivers are doing what they are supposed to do, but humans got in their way. Flooding of land is lot more desirable than not having floods. We need to get accustomed to this natural phenomenon, and plan our livelihood accordingly.”

Another important point that Dr. Khalequzzaman mentions is the role of sedimentation to maintain the natural gradient of the river basins and the sea level to keep the rising sea at bay, in a scenario of climate change that will increase sea levels. The frequency and intensity of flooding is also likely to rise in a warming world.

Therefore, he points out the devastating impact of the Indian River Linking Project on the natural balance of water flow and sedimentation process  and how it will inundate most of the coastal areas, destroying eco-systems including the mangrove forest and on agriculture, industry, navigation, fisheries etc. through salinity intrusion. The amount of sediments carried by all rivers in downstream Bangladesh has declined from 2 billion tons per year in the 1970s to 1 billion tons per year in recent years, which is insufficient to withstand the projected rise in sea-level. Apart from millions of habitats and livelihoods displaced, the Sundarban, the largest mangrove forest in the world and a world heritage site, will probably be further destroyed.

He instead recommends the need to share real-time data on river levels and flow conditions at various points along the rivers in the entire basin to better forecast flood stage. An integrated plan to manage water resources in various river basins in South Asia can help us achieve the goal, he says. (9)

Secondly, as Sahana points out, many of India’s rivers are actually carrying nothing but sewage since the water from rivers has mostly been diverted to canals. According to her, if we control the water used by homes, factories and farms, there will be less sewage entering rivers and more storage space for real water coming from rains and snowmelt. “The spread of sediments is very important. Before anything we need models of how sediment-distribution will be impacted by any construction on rivers,” she says.


Rights of Nature – A New Global Meme

In 2008, Ecuador became the first nation in the world to recognize the legal rights of its mountains, rivers, and land.

Frustrated by the exploitation of the Amazon and the Andes by multinational mining and oil corporations, delegates in Ecuador turned to the Pennsylvania-based Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to help rewrite the country’s constitution. The delegates wanted to provide legal protection for Ecuador’s environment and its resources. The Legal Defense Fund helped them include a “Rights of Nature” framework in their constitution that allows people to sue on behalf of an ecosystem.

“The recognition of the personhood of the Whanganui River represents a landmark moment in legal history,” Suzanne Benally, the Executive Director of Cultural Survival. “Nature cannot be seen solely as a resource to be owned, exploited and profited from; it is a living and sustaining force that needs to be honored, respected, and protected by all of us.” (1)

It is ironical that India and China, two countries with a long history of river basin civilization, are faltering (10), where the world is leaping forward. By according rights to the rivers and the river-basin eco-system, they can not only protect them, they can continue to reap benefits from their natural flow in a sensible manner and preserve these precious cultural heritage.


Inbox: A Resource for Profit or Te Awa Tupua?
The natural resources in Aotearoa are often viewed through two different lenses: Maori and non-Maori. Honorable Peter Sharples, noted Maori academic and cabinet minister, describes these competing views best: “Holding a title to property, whether Crown or private, establishes a regime of rights—to capture, to exclude, to develop, to keep. Rangatiratanga (Maori sovereignty or absolute chieftainship) is asserted through the collective exercise of responsibilities— to protect, to conserve, to augment, and to enhance over time for the security of future generations. Both seek to increase value, but the question is, how do you value the resource? [By] the profit you can make? Or the taonga (treasure’s) contribution to the survival of the group?”

The answer, in this case, is the latter: the Whanganui River will be defined and governed by the Maori view of the river. Whanganui Iwi, the Indigenous people that possess rangatiratanga
over the Whanganui River, and the river itself will be considered a living, integrated whole, or Te Awa Tupua. This view encompasses more than chieftainship, however. As explained by the late Niko Tangaroa, a Maori elder, Whanganui Iwi have an interdependent relationship with the river: “The river and the land and its people are inseparable. And so if one is affected the other is affected also. The river is the heartbeat, the pulse of our people. . . . [If the river] dies, we die as a people. Ka mate te Awa, ka mate tatou te Iwi.” This unique relationship is not a concept that can be easily understood by non-Maori because its value exists outside of the profit generating notions of property. (11)



A threat to India’s National Integration

A remarkable insight on the indigenous culture and traditions of India comes from deeply knowledgeable local people who see this as a threat to India’s national integration.

They believe that India  was  never such a big country in the past. It had several kings who had their own flags and had their own currency. However , from Afghanistan to Burma, diverse regions of India shared a common socio-economic system and was called as Bharat Khand . These far apart and independant states shared a common bond of their relation to pilgrimages or teerths.  These teerths were for everyone . Every person would visit them in their lifetime. If there was any danger to these teerths, all kings would unite to protect it against outside invasion.

When it comes to inter-linking of rivers , they fear that it will destroy the sanctity of the teerths. That’s because the natural flow of the rivers have a special significance. Teerth exist at points where any river turns northwards, their usual flow being from North to South and from East to West. The river Ganga turns northwards in Varanasi. Or, teerths exist at the confluence of two or more rivers. Triveni at Prayag, Allahabad, is where two visible rivers – Ganga and Yamuna – meet with a third invisible river – Saraswati. With the inter-linking of rivers, these teerths will lose their cultural significance.

For  thousands of years, we have shared the bonds of this common cultural heritage . Why else would someone travel from deep south to Varanasi from where they would carry the sacred water of Ganga ? Or, someone from far north would travel to Rameswaram, from where they would carry sacred sand, they ask. The area around the teerth sthal had their own administration where no king could assert their rule.

Perhaps, the powerful cultural significance of these teerths emerged out of a deep understanding of the need to preserve the natural flow of these various rivers eco-systems that criss-cross the entire length and breadth of this geographical region. This not only showered economic bounty on the people over thousands of years, this was also pivotal for its national integration.

Linking them artificially for short-term exigencies will be like killing the goose that lays golden eggs. If at all, we need to adapt our habitats to the natural flow of these rivers and the periodic flooding and droughts, which incidentally are likely to be erratic in a warming world because of human interference with the natural environment.

The Maoris of New Zealand have won their long standing battle against short-term exigencies of economic growth and profit-making. Can the indigenous people of the Indian sub-continent succeed in guarding the rights of their rivers ?



  1. New Zealand’s Whanganui River Gains A Legal Voice , 09/18/2012

  1. The Ganga Rights Act: Recognizing the Rights of the Ganga River Basin

  1. India’s first river-linking project: Bad science on a grand scale? Feb 8, 2014

  1. Set up special panel on linking of rivers forthwith, Supreme Court tells Centre

  1. Indian Rivers Inter-link

  1. Hype vs Reality of Narmada Kshipra Pipeline Project February 24, 2014

  1. Nethravati activists call for bandh on Monday February 27, 2014

  1. Chinese Minister Speaks Out Against South-North Water Diversion Project 2/20/2014

  1. The Indian River-linking Project: A Geologic, Ecological and Socio-economic Perspective by Dr. Md. Khalequzzaman, Professor of Geology at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.

  1. More than 400 hydroelectric schemes are planned in the mountain region, which could be a disaster for the environment

  1. I Am the River and the River is Me: The Implications of a River Receiving Personhood Status CSQ Issue: 36-4 Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (December 2012)


About the Author: Chandra Vikash (42) is a social activist and management consultant. His key interest is in sustainability and post-carbon future. He is alumnus of IIT Kharagpur and IIM Calcutta.