The interlinking of rivers project is facing some hurdles in BJP-ruled states. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The interlinking of rivers project is facing some hurdles in BJP-ruled states. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Are major faultlines within the BJP leadership coming in the way of the implementation of the grand interlinking of rivers (ILR) project? While misconceptions and genuine doubts persist over the feasibility of the project and its impact on the lives of those it would impact directly or indirectly, Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti’s fervent appeal to the states, including those ruled by the BJP, to expedite the clearances of the ILR projects indicated that getting it off the ground is proving to be a major challenge.

The need for the project has never been felt more than it is now as parts of the country are dealing with severe droughts, coupled with one of the hottest summers in over a century. The proponents of the ILR scheme argue that since the country receives rain only for three months in a year, there is a need to store water adequately for the rest of the year.

It is also ironic that while about 40 million hectares of the country’s area experiences periodic flood, with about 1500 human lives and one lakh cattle lost to it every year, the country is not able to divert or store much of this water. On the other hand, about a third of the total population resides in areas that are drought prone, spread over nearly 108 million hectares.

It was in light of this dichotomy that the Supreme Court had on February 27, 2012, directed the Centre and concerned states governments to implement the ambitious ILR project in a timely manner, and had also asked the Centre to appoint a high-powered committee for the planning and implementation of the project.

The project was, however, not devoid of shortcomings. Many experts feared that diverting water would lead to newer problems, deprive the Adivasi and other tribal communities of their land holdings and may even cause flooding and soil erosion problems.

Some like Eklavya Prasad of Megh Pyne Abhiyan, which has been working in the field of drinking water and sanitation in flood-prone north Bihar where the ILR is expected to first cover the districts of Khagaria, Samastipur and Begusarai, questioned how can one expect much from it when the Kosi canal system built by the British was not able to  prevent misery from floods.

But the Centre is moving ahead as the gains or the reduction in pain due to the ILR far outweighs any negative consequences. Far too many lives are being lost each year to floods and droughts and the economic cost of these too is prohibitive.

Realising that the misconceptions and political opposition is holding the project back, at the ninth meeting of the special committee for ILR, Bharti said the drought had necessitated the need for the removal of the misgivings and the quick implementation of the ILR. The interlinking of rivers can prove effective in dealing with such situations, she said.

“Inter-linking of rivers will not affect flow of sweet water in the rivers. We are not stopping the flow of sweet water of the rivers, but will only be transferring the extra water of these rivers which comes during monsoon and floods to those rivers which have less water. This will not affect the flow of water of any river in the country,” she assured.

Many states like Odisha have raised doubts about the project. Referring to it, Bharti said there were many misconceptions about the Mahanadi-Godavari link in Odisha. “People used to believe that Mahanadi does not have sufficient water and even then its water is being transferred to Godavari. But when it was explained to them that first extra water will be brought to Mahanadi through Subern Rekha-Mahanadi link, it helped in removing their misconceptions about the Mahanadi-Godavari link,” she said.

Similarly, referring to the Ken-Batwa link as the first project to go onstream, Bharti expressed the hope that work on the first phase will start within three months. However, she urged the government of Madhya Pradesh to provide necessary forest clearance at the earliest so that work on the first phase of the project could begin soon. That she had to make the appeal showed that Shivraj Singh Chauhan, who had succeeded Bharti as the chief minister of the state, has not facilitated her dream project in any way.

That the water resources minister has also not received adequate support from the other BJP-ruled states of Gujarat and Maharashtra became clear when Bharti urged these governments to provide their clearance to the Daman Ganga-Pinjal and Par-Tapi-Narmada link projects.

The Daman Ganga-Pinjal link would enhance the supply of water to Mumbai. From Pinjal dam, this link would carry 3,741 million litres per day of water. Now compare this with each of the two water trains that were sent to Maharashtra recently. They carried just 2.5 million litres of water each. The link would supply nearly 1500 train-loads of water daily..

Bharti said she would discuss the two projects with Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis in Mumbai on May 3. The minister acknowledged that as issues pertaining to tribal areas are coming in the way, she would visit the affected areas and sit with officials of both states to resolve them.

Director General of National Water Development Agency (NWDA) Masood Husain said the National Institute of Hydrology, Roorkee, has submitted the draft report on a water balance study of the Mahandi-Gadavari link project to the Odisha government and after obtaining its views will submit a final report to the special committee.

Status of intra-state link projects 

Husain also provided the status of the intra-state link projects. He said 46 proposals for such links have been received from nine states, namely Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Odisha, Bihar, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Chhattisgarh. “The pre-feasibility report (PFRs) of 35 intra-state links have been completed. The DPR of two intra-state links for Burhi Gandak-Ganga and Kosi-Mechi received from Bihar are under consideration with Central Water Commission.”

However, the delay at the end of the Central Water Commission was highlighted by the representative of the Bihar government who charged that the proposals has been pending with the Commission for over two years.

For the ILR programme, which seeks to ensure greater equity in the distribution of water by enhancing its availability in drought-prone and rainfed area through interlinking of rivers, 14 links have been identified under the Himalayan rivers component and 16 links under peninsular rivers component for inter-basin transfer of water. These links have been identified on the basis of field surveys, investigation and detailed studies.

Twenty one months have passed since the union cabinet approved the constitution of a special committee on the ILR to expedite the projects, but progress has been slow. And if Bharti is to be believed, the BJP’s own state governments can remove many of the obstacles coming in the way of the project.