Lack of Data Continues to Cast Centre's River-Linking Plans in Poor Light

The data on which rivers are running low and which are carrying surpluses is not publicly available. There is also no conceptual clarity of the indicators needed for defining 'deficit' and 'surplus'.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.

At a time when efforts are being stepped up to drum up support for the controversial river-linking project, people need to become more aware about some important aspects of this project. In several ways, it seeks to change not just the flow of many of our rivers but to some extent the country’s geography as well.

Such large-scale and irreversible changes should not take place without a broad-based, sincere and well-informed debate among the citizens of the country. However, this is precisely what is not happening, as the authorities have been trying to bulldoze ahead with clearance for one sub-project after another, trying to muzzle all objections voiced by many affected people, eminent persons and independent experts.

The National River Linking (NLR) Project involves the linking of 37 rivers using 30 river-links and a vast network of dams and 15,000 km of canals. The authorities claim that this will increase irrigation and domestic water supply significantly, while also making substantial additions to hydel power generation. The addition of 34 GW of power and 34 million hectares of irrigation have been promised. According to recent official estimates, the project’s cost now stands at Rs 11 lakh crore. This estimate is likely to escalate rapidly with the passage of time, as has been the case with most dam and river projects.

To raise this money, the government has been eyeing the PPP mode, getting the private sector involved in a big way.

The first project, the Ken-Betwa link in Bundelkhand region, is expected to be completed in seven years. The Daman Ganga-Pinjal, Par-Tapi Narmada and Chambal-Kalsind projects, are expected to finish in about about the same period. For the other projects, the Centre is still in the process of convincing states and completing review studies – but the official line is that they will be completed in the next two decades.

Taken together, the projects promise a bonanza for construction companies as far as dams and other riparian infrastructure are concerned.

But what often goes unsaid is that such a project – ostensibly undertaken for the benefit of millions – will involve the large-scale displacement of people (the government candidly admitted that the number of people who will be displaced is not known yet). While voicing their objections, activists have mentioned a figure of 1.5 million people, together with 27.66 lakh hectares of land. But the Centre has remained mum on these issues even as it moves ahead with its plans.

Without even displacement data, there is not much room – or sense – in asking for the comprehensive social and environmental impacts.

The project-planning also has some issues. The data on which rivers are running low and which are carrying surpluses is not publicly available. There is also no conceptual clarity of the indicators needed for defining ‘deficit’ and ‘surplus’.

There is a distinction between the natural confluence of rivers and human-made linkages. The natural confluence of various rivers evolved over many millennia, together with regional geographic and topographic changes. The biodiversity of the river and nearby areas is well adjusted to the way things currently are. But changing the natural flow for forced linkages can play havoc with human habitations, riparian forest areas and the biodiversity of both rivers. The availability of water, including its recharge, will be impacted. The rivers themselves may resist the changes and unleash more destructure floods.

Consider the Ken-Betwa river link project in Bundelkhand. The government plans to cut nearly 1.8 million trees to implement this link. The viability and desirability of the proposed aim – transferring water from Ken to Betwa using a dam and 250-km-long canal has been – has been questioned from the start. The link will displace people in several villages and endanger the habitats of several animals and birds including, tigers, gharial and vultures (the project will submerge the Panna Tiger Reserve).

On May 2, 2017, a letter signed by 30 experts and activists was sent to Anil Dave, the minister of state for the environment ministry, registering their protest against the project and the arbitrariness involved in its implementation. It read, “The project has been plagued by sloppy, intentionally misleading and inadequate impact assessments, procedural violations and misinformation at every step of the way.”

The signatories to this letter include Bhartendu Prakash, the author of two extensive studies on the water-resources of Bundelkhand region, and Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People, who has written innumerable reports and letters on the issue of river-links. The signatories also include Amita Baviskar, former member of the Forest Advisory Committee, and E.A.S. Sarma, a former bureaucrat.

The letter goes on to decry the lack of data relevant to the project being made available to the people whose lives will be affected by it. It is notable that the Centre claims the link will help the people of Bundelkhand; however, the link will transfer water out of Bundelkhand to the upper Betwa region. The Centre also appears to be ignoring the link’s adverse impact on groundwater recharge in the downstream areas of Bundelkhand.

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