Interlinking of Rivers Programme: Necessity, Benefits and Challenges

Though the interlinking of river programme is the most ambitious anti-poverty measure ever conceptualised by the Indian Government, it has attracted a lot of criticism due to a wide of range of social, political, economic and environmental costs associated with it.

Created On: Jan 10, 2017 18:47 IST

India is one of the few countries in the world gifted with considerable water resources. Being a monsoon country, the land frequently witnesses’ erratic rainfall causing considerable damage to social, economic, ecological and political fabric of the nation. Recent tensions between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over sharing of Cauvery River waters, Sutlej Yamuna Link Canal issue between Punjab and Haryana better illustrate this trend.

Drought & Flood

Similarly, in the 2015-16 season alone, while 10 major states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh were hardly hit by drought, cities like Srinagar, Chennai and Hyderabad were under ‘submergence’ due to flash floods.

Against this backdrop, the Interlinking of Rivers Programme has been given a big push by the NDA Government in order to address twin problems of floods and droughts.

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What is Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) Programme?

• The ILR Programme seeks to transfer water from surplus areas to deficit areas in the country.

• Its vision is to ensure greater equity in the distribution of water by enhancing the availability of water in drought prone and rainfed areas.

• The ILR seeks to deliver 173 billion cubic meters of water through a 12,500 km of canal network to irrigate 34 million hectares.

• It will also supply drinking water to 101 districts and five metro cities.

• The programme is divided into two components – HRC and PRC. The National Perspective Plan (NPP) prepared by Ministry of Water Resources identified 14 links under Himalayan Rivers Component (HRC) and 16 links under Peninsular Rivers Component (PRC) for inter basin transfer of water.

• In 2005, National Water Development Agency (NWDA) has included the intra-state rivers linking as the third component in the NPP.

• So far, NWDA has received 46 proposals of intra-state links from 9 States viz. Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Orissa, Bihar, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh.


River Interlinking project

Some of the important projects under the ILR Programme are

i. Ken – Betwa Link Project

ii. Damanganga – Pinjal Link Project

iii. Par – Tapi – Narmada Link Project

iv. Mahanadi – Godavari Link Project

v. Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganga Link Project

Why is it necessary?

Meteorological reasons: The average rainfall in India is about 4,000 billion cubic meters. However, most of it comes over a 4-month period – June through September.

• The spatial distribution of rainfall is also uneven which ranges from 12 cm in Rajasthan to more than 250 cm in Meghalaya.

• Besides, the Himalayan and Peninsular drainage systems vary considerably in terms of their flow volumes across season.

• While Himalayan Rivers are perennial in nature, flows in Peninsular Rivers are much dependent on rainfall.

• Coupled with the above factors, disturbances in the monsoon cycle due to the ‘external’ factors such as El Nino, La Nino and Climate Change made rainfall distribution inconsistent over the years leading to simultaneous occurrence of floods and droughts.

• This geographical and time variance in availability of natural water versus the year round demand for irrigation, drinking, and industrial water creates a demand-supply gap.

• If interlinking of rivers is implemented by connecting through canals, then such uneven water flow in different river basins will get balanced.

• Moreover, around 65% of the flow in the rivers is untapped and goes to sea every year. Hence, it is necessary to interlink the rivers of the north with that of south.

Food security: We need to produce around 450 million tonnes of food grains per annum to cater to the nutrition requirements of over 1.5 billion in 2050.

• To meet this challenge, irrigation potential should be expanded to 160 million hectares. It will not be possible without interlinking of rivers.

What are the legal provisions?

• The Constitution of India envisages a greater role for States in matters relating to rivers.

• Entry 17 of List II in the Schedule VII authorizes the States to make law for water, subject to the provisions of entry 56 of List I.

• List I, Entry 56 authorizes the Union Government to make law for regulation and development of inter-State rivers and river valleys to the extent to which such regulation and development under the control of the Union is declared by Parliament in the public interest.

• Article 262 of the Constitution, empowers the Parliament to make law on disputes relating to waters of inter State Rivers or river valleys.

• The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (CLNNUIW) in 1997.

• The convention is related to the use and conservation of all waters that cross international boundaries.

• However, the convention is not yet ratified. India, the USA, China, Canada and Australia are major opponents of the CLNNUIW.

What were the associated developments in recent past?

During the colonial period, British engineer Sir Arthur Cotton had sought to link the Ganga and the Cauvery to improve connectivity for navigation purposes. However, the idea was shelved due to the increased railway connectivity in the proposed areas.

In independent India, though demands for the execution of the project were raised intermittently, the establishment of NWDA is considered as a first concrete step towards realization of ILR.

Some of the related developments in post-independence period are -

1982: The National Water Development Agency (NWDA) was formed as an autonomous body to carry out the water balance and feasibility studies of the ILR.

December 2002: A Task Force on Interlinking of Rivers was constituted under the Chairmanship of Suresh Prabhu. The Task Force submitted its report in April 2004.

• Acting on its recommendations, a tri-partite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed between the Union Government, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh for the execution of Ken-Betwa link project.

2012: The Supreme Court directed the Union Government to constitute an experts committee to pursue the matter with state governments. However, it left the implementation of project on centre’s discretion citing it to be the executive’s purview.

April 2015: The Union Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation has constituted the Task Force for Interlinking of Rivers to look into issues relating to Inter linking of Rivers (ILR).

March 2016: The Government of Andhra Pradesh dedicated the Pattiseema Lift Irrigation Project to people. The project seeks to link the two major rivers of the state – Godavari and Krishna – to benefit farmers of Krishna and Guntur districts.

December 2016: The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) gave environmental clearance to the Ken-Betwa Inter-Linking of Rivers (ILR) project. This project is the first ever inter-state river linking project in India.

What are the advantages of ILR?

• As per an estimate, around 12% (40 million hectare) of land in India is prone to floods and around 68% of India’s total area is prone to drought.

• The programme primarily solves this problem of simultaneous occurrence of floods and droughts in various parts of the country.

• The interlinking of rivers programme is expected to create 35 million hectares irrigation facility in water-scarce western and peninsular regions.

• The additional irrigation facilities will ensure achieving the government’s goal of doubling farm income by 2022 through enhanced production and productivity.

• The ILR will give boost to allied sectors of the agriculture like fisheries leading to gains in employment, export earnings and social and economic infrastructure development.

• The construction of small, medium and large-scale dams is expected to generate 34000 MW of cumulative hydro power.

• The successful completion of the programme will ease pressure on ground water resources and lead to sustainable development of water-deficit areas.

• Using the resultant network of rivers, the untapped inland water navigation facilities will be utilised to provide affordable and clean freight and passenger transport infrastructure.

• The ILR will address development needs of backward regions and inter-state and intra-state social and economic disparities will be ameliorated to a great extent.

• For example, interlinking of Godavari and Krishna rivers in Andhra Pradesh will lead to better irrigation facilities in the Rayalseema, which is one of the most backward regions in the country.

• The ILR will prevent flow of fresh river water into sea and increase India’s utilizable surface water by 25%.

What are the challenges?

Though the interlinking of river programme is the most ambitious anti-poverty measure ever conceptualised by the Indian Government, it has attracted a lot of criticism due to a wide of range of social, political, economic and environmental costs associated with it. Some of them are -

• As per an estimate, the project needs an investment to the tune of Rs 11 lakh crore (9% of Gross National Income) over a period of ten years. This huge investment can’t be met by the government without cutting on social sector spending and increase in taxes.

• Further, the Union Government and State Governments will be in a tussle over expenditure share threatening federal polity.

• The recent disagreement between the NITI Aayog and the Union Ministry of Water Resources over the share of Madhya Pradesh in the execution of Rs 10000 crore Ken-Betwa river linkage project better illustrate this situation.

• The feasibility of the project has not been studied in detail, nor have its economic, social and ecological implications. Majorly, there is no social impact assessment done on the displaced people.

• There is a disagreement within the expert community over deciding the “surplus” and “deficit” criteria.

• Another major issue vis-a-vis river linking is that water is a state subject. States that have surplus water are not ready to forego their water resources due to political and administrative reasons.

• The Himalayan Rivers are cross-border in nature. The Ganga, Brahmaputra and Indus river systems of Himalayas belong to China, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

• Hence, any changes made by India to these natural river courses will be met with stiff resistance from the neighbouring countries.

What is the way forward?

Water is the essence of life. It is something that cannot be created by man. Therefore, the management of available water resources is essential to meet the demands of growing population. Towards this endeavour, the government has initiated the ILR Programme.

For its timely implementation, the following aspects should be taken care of -

• As pointed out by the Draft National Water Framework Bill, 2016, equity component of access to water should be given prime importance while choosing the beneficiaries of the programme.

• There is a considerable disagreement between the states on the ILR. While Tamil Nadu is in its favour, Assam, Kerala and Sikkim may oppose it due to the loss of water resources.

• Hence, it is the responsibility of the Union Government to build consensus on the programme in order to avoid strains in federal relations. For this, the Parliament is the most appropriate platform.

• Principles of surplus should be laid down instead of legal definition of surplus which has different perspective among stakeholders and environmentalists.

• Necessary legal framework should be prepared in the form of MoUs and agreements to ensure cooperation of neighbouring countries that have sovereign rights over the Himalayan river waters.

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