Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Wednesday, Nov 10, 2004
Inter-linking of rivers Untested hype, unresolved issues
B. S. Raghavan
On the other is the delectable dream of somehow pooling, by whatever means and at whatever cost, the supposedly huge surpluses of rivers such as the Brahmaputra, the Ganga, the Mahanadi and the Godavari which are now being fruitlessly emptied into the sea, besides causing untold damage to life and property from floods along their course.
And why not convert the dream into reality? Has not the President, Mr A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, been putting all his weight behind it, declaring without a trace of self-doubt that "it will change the face of India"? Has not China embarked upon the world's largest water diversion project and biggest engineering venture to link the Yangtze river in the south to stave off the water famine of the country's northern region?
So, what is wrong if India also thinks big and launches an equally massive project to link at a cost of Rs 5,60,000 crore as many as six major rivers, 27 medium-sized ones and their many tributaries through a network of canals of a total length of 5000 km criss-crossing almost all the States to divert water from the north to the drought-prone southern and eastern states, with the attendant prospect of irrigating an additional 35 million hectares, creating 40,000 km of inland waterways, and generating 34,000 MW or more of clean hydro-electric power?
Activity without action
Thus it was that the government set up the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) in 1982, to examine the pros and cons of the concept and give its advice. Since then, the NWDA has carried out a number of simulation exercises and feasibility studies, pointing prima facie to the practicability of implementing the project by splitting it into Himalayan and Peninsular components. On the basis of this tentative finding, the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government gave an undertaking to the Supreme Court, hearing a public interest litigation on the subject in 2002, that it would take up the project and complete it by stages between 2004 and 2016. Pursuant to the commitment, it constituted a composite Task Force, chaired by its Minister for Environment, Mr Suresh Prabhu, to work out the details.
That should have led to the long-awaited happy ending, but it did not. For one thing, the Task Force soon predictably got sucked into the quicksand of mutually-conflicting approaches propounded by different groups of engineers, academics, environmentalists and concerned public persons in the course of seemingly endless and purposeless consultations. While the Task Force was in the grip of this typically Indian affliction of activity without action, the election to the Lok Sabha in May 2004 supervened, displacing the NDA Government by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA).
Despite the latter continuing to make soothing noises about the project, it will not be surprising if, the President and the Supreme Court notwithstanding, true to the Indian `democratic' tradition of a successor government cold-shouldering even the worthwhile initiatives of the predecessor regime of political opponents, the project were to be put on the back-burner (as the Golden Quadrilateral has apparently been).
Even if willing, the project promises to remain bedevilled for a considerable time by unresolved engineering, operational and financial issues. For starters, there is no agreement among technical experts themselves on the best engineering model. The one reportedly favoured by the NWDA is countered by other schools of thought with alternative propositions which they claim are more cost-effective and less time-consuming. It is learnt that the Task Force had been lobbied by as many as six different groups. As of this moment, no definitive conclusion has emerged.
Spanner into the works
Any impartial assessment has been made difficult by the non-availability to any impartial body outside the government of the full documentation and data gathered by the NWDA.
They are being kept under wraps ostensibly on the ground that everything pertaining to the water system of the Himalayan region, closely watched as it is by India's suspicious neighbours of China, Bangladesh, Myanmar (Burma), Nepal and Bhutan, are confidential. The unsettling, if slightly comical, fact is that the contending technical lobbies are pleading the relative merits of their approaches purely based on theoretical assumptions on the contents of the NWDA's feasibility study.
The case made out by the NWDA and the passionate official and non-official votaries of the project has been undermined by another creature of the government, the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development, throwing yet another spanner into the works.
After taking account of the average potential of all the rivers in India, the ultimately utilisable flow, the growth in population as well as norms for better standards of living, and the estimated and projected water demand for India by 2050 for all conceivable purposes, the Commission has asseverated that this demand can be fully met from available surface and ground water resources with appropriate measures for development and management without the need for any large-scale inter-basin transfer. What it all amounts to is that paralysis by analysis having set in, the possibility of reconciling the engineering aspects of the project any time soon seems remote.
There is no agreement on the cost estimate either. The amount of Rs 5,60,000 crore given to the Supreme Court as a ball-park figure is forbiddingly awesome. It pales into insignificance before another computation made by a team in the Institute of Engineers. According to its report, factoring the capital recovery cost, interest and inflation during the long 20-year period of construction, it will cost precisely Rs 20,17,468 crore, coming roughly to Rs 1 lakh crore a year. The team has worked out the annual capital recovery cost of electricity alone at 7 per cent interest over 50 years to be Rs 13.3 per watt. The computation may or may not merit acceptance, but it makes out a case for realistic financial scrutiny which has been wanting.
The political class and public opinion too are divided on the proposal to link rivers as between water-starved and (supposedly) -surplus States. States through which major perennial rivers flow are in no mood to allow diversion of any quantity as, in their view, the water is inadequate even to meet their own projected future requirements. Just to mention the modest 51-km Pampa-Achenkoil-Vaippar link which will submerge only an inconsequential area of 1700 hectares and involve no displacement of people, only the other day, the Kerala Chief Minister flatly ruled it out, saying that the two rivers originated and joined the sea well within the State's boundaries and were therefore its own property. When such is the possessiveness of States within the same country, it is going to be tough to assuage the genuine concerns of Nepal, China, Bhutan and Bangladesh with regard to the Ganga and the Brahmaputra which have upper catchments in those countries and over whose waters they strongly feel they have a stake and a say.
Going ahead will also mean taking on the vociferous environmentalist and human rights outfits which are worried over the disturbance of the eco-systems of river basis and displacement of large numbers of people.
It is clear that the project bristles with too many assumptions and loose ends. On present showing, as the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development sums it up, "There seems to be no imperative necessity for massive water transfers. The assessed needs of the basins could be met from full development and efficient utilisation of intra-basin resources except in the case of the Cauvery and the Vaigai basins. Therefore, it is felt that limited water transfer from the Godavari at Ichampalli and Polavaram towards the south would take care of the deficit in the Cauvery and the Vaigai basins."
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