Environment

It Won’t Be Smooth Sailing for Government’s Waterways Plan

India lags behind on developing its waterways and the government has moved swiftly to overcome the first legal hurdle before it.

The government intends to invite private participation also. Credit: PTI/File Photo

The government intends to invite private participation also. Credit: PTI/File Photo

In March, the National Waterways Act, 2016, came into being with the Rajya Sabha giving its nod to the legislation. It paved the way for the union government to turn 111 rivers across India into national waterways.

The upper house saw a lively debate on the bill with most members, including some from the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, expressing concerns on three counts: the law’s impact on the already drying rivers, the rights of people and the power of the states to regulate the economy along the banks of these rivers.

However, the government had anticipated this. The environmental and livelihood concerns over running ships and trade on these rivers were temporarily assuaged with the commitment that feasibility and environmental impact studies would be carried out later.

The advantage emanating from the law is simple: transport by shipping is far more cost-efficient than that by road or railways. India lags behind on developing its waterways and the NDA government has moved swiftly to overcome the first legal hurdle before it – converting the river stretches into national waterways.

But the trade-offs involved in running navigable river systems through the year – and there are plenty – have again been treated by the government as a “clearance issue” that would be dealt with on a “project” basis. That isn’t new.

What does making a navigable waterway require? It requires constant and steady water flow at a set minimal limit depending on the tonnage of weight to be shipped. This has to be managed artificially. The river has to operate like a canal.

Nachiket Kelkar, an expert in river and water ecologies, in an article for environment advocacy group South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, puts it this way: “This will involve the construction of locking barrages to hold water for vessel movement, concretisation and building of embankments to create port terminals, and regular (high-intensity) capital dredging of river sediment deposition along channel bottoms and margins.”

Besides, for funding such large scale operations, the government intends to invite private participation .

The operations of a navigable river promise to alter the economics and ecology of the riverine system inalienably. At the most basic level, it sets up competing demands on the stressed water levels with existing users, particularly farmers who need water for irrigation.

During deliberations in the parliamentary standing committee, the two involved ministries – water resources and environment – took differing approaches on these issues raised in the parliament. In its reply, the environment ministry dealt with it as a “clearance issue” and stated that it had “agreed in writing to support the bill”. It said that the waterways “would be dealt with on a case-to-case basis” for clearances. When asked if the ministry had conducted a river-to-river study, the ministry said it had so far received three proposals on which the terms of references had been issued to the Inland Waterways Authority of India. It also clarified that an entire river in one go will not be a case for environment clearance.

The environment ministry has on occasions been asked to look at the impact of thermal power and hydropower plants or mining on particular river basins in a holistic manner but the reports have often been heavily critiqued and never binding on the government.

The environmental laws do not require a holistic review of a project that promises to overhaul the entire scape of a river. Such integrated projects can secure clearance for each component separately over a period of time.

NAVIGATING INDIA’S RIVERS
  • National Waterway Act, 2016, covers 111 river stretches
  • Transport on waterways is more cost-efficient than road or railways
  • India lags behind other countries in building waterways
  • Environmental feasibility of each stretch will be taken up only after detailed project reports are ready
  • With rivers drying up, artificially maintaining water levels in river canals will be challenging on many stretches
  • Will compete with increasing and existing irrigation and drinking water demands on rivers
  • There is no need for cumulative river impact assessment at present
  • Environment ministry can give piece-meal clearances to parts of a larger integrated project
  • Water resources minister is concerned about the project’s impact on interlinking of rivers

Overlooking details
Consequently, a policy with wide-ranging ecological and economic impacts (both good and bad) would face its first test against these parameters only when detailed project reports have been prepared. This is the same fait accompli situation that governments thought would propel hydropower projects in the Himalayas.

The idea, however, failed. Early “potential” studies claimed more than 75,000 Mw was to be unlocked through several hundred dams. Very little of that has materialised over the previous few decades with issues related to environment, livelihood and corruption, playing a central role in limiting the progress. Most of the hydropower projects that have come up for clearances have secured environment approvals only to face resistance and legal challenges later.

At the time the Himalayan hydropower plans were proposed, the awareness about environment among people was much lower. That excuse doesn’t exist today.

In fact, the competing demands have only increased with other mega-plans of the government. The water resources ministry told the parliamentary standing committee that the inland waterway plans would have to respect the inter-linking of river plans too. “There is a need to estimate quantum of water required on a week/10-days basis throughout the year to maintain the minimum depth of water in the proposed river stretches/ canals for navigability in order to ensure that drinking, irrigation and other demands of water do not get impaired,” it adds. And then it asked for “technical feasibility in consultation with this ministry may first be established before preparing detailed project reports or undertaking any works in any river or river stretches.”

The law and policy for inland waterways end up treating the question of environmental and economic sustainability just as governments have previously dealt with questions over exploitation of natural resources- an issue to be overcome when the time arises.

Take the case of coal block auctions and allocations. The Supreme Court judgement gave the NDA opportunity to account for environmental concerns while auctioning and apportioning the blocks anew. That did not happen. Instead, maximising the revenue potential became the focus and now many blocks are caught yet again in issues of rights and environment. The inland waterways mega-project could go that way too.

During deliberations on the bill, many parliament members raised concerns over the state of the rivers being proposed for the inland waterways. By the time the plan takes off to create 111 inland waterways, the postponed answers shall be back to haunt the river stretches.

This article originally appeared in Business Standard