Citizens voice alarm over recent Supreme Court judgement on interlinking of rivers

The Supreme Court of India has in its judgment of 27 February 2012 on the interlinking of rivers project, given categorical directions to the Executive Government to implement the ‘project’ as a whole in a time bound manner and has also asked the Centre to appoint a Special Committee to work out the modalities and oversee the implementation of the project. Prominent experts, concerned citizens and neighboring countries have raised concerns over the recent judgement and have urged the Supreme Court to put this order on hold and reconsider the matter. 

The larger context and the history of this grand project proposal has remained controversial ever since it was conceived. 

Peninsular River Component of the National Perspective Plan; Source: National Water Development Agency

Historical development of India's river linking plan

The notion of interlinking of rivers in the subcontinent is an old one and way back in the 19th Century, Sir Arthur Cotton had devised a plan to link south Indian rivers for inland navigation. The idea was implemented only partially and did not thrive. 

The earliest suggestions for developing a national water grid to transfer the surplus water available in an area to water deficit areas was proposed by Dr K L Rao in 1972. It comprised of a 2640 km long Ganga-Cauvery link as its main component and involved large scale pumping over a head of 550 m. This was essentially irrigation cum hydropower project and did not have flood control benefits.

The power requirement for lifting the water was estimated to be between 5000 to 7000 MW, and the additional area to be irrigated was around 4 million hectares. At 2002 price level, the project would have cost about Rs. 1,50,000 crores. The Central Water Commission had rejected the proposal on grounds of gross underestimation and for being economically prohibitive.

The other proposal which attracted considerable attention was the “Garland Canal” put forth by Captain Dastur in 1977. It proposed the construction of two canals (a) Himalayan Canal of 4200 km along the foot of the Himalayas from Ravi in the West to the Brahmaputra and beyond in the east; and (b) Garland Canal of 9300 km spanning the central and southern parts of India, with both the canals integrated with numerous lakes and interconnected with pipelines at two points, Delhi and Patna. The cost would have worked out to around 70 million crores at 2002 price levels.

The proposal was rejected by two Committees of Experts (composed of experts from Central Water Commission, State Governments, Indian Institute of Technology, Geological Survey of India and Indian Meteorological Department) on grounds of technical infeasibility. 

In 1980, the Ministry of Water Resources formulated a National Perspective Plan for water resources development by transferring water from water surplus basins to water deficit basins/regions by interlinking of rivers and the National Water Development Agency was subsequently set up in 1982 to carry out surveys of the links and undertake feasibility studies.

The National Perspective Plan had two main components i.e. the Himalayan Rivers Development and Peninsular Rivers Development. The National Water Development Agency has, after carrying out detailed studies, identified 30 links (14 Himalayan rivers in the north and 16 peninsular rivers in the south) for preparation of feasibility reports and has prepared feasibility reports of 6 such links.

The benefit of this scheme was pegged at “addition of 35-37 million hectares of irrigated land, generation of 34,000 million kilowatts of electricity and increased navigational efficiency apart from controlling floods and eliminating chances of drought.” (Avinash Kalla, River linking, South Asian, 2004)

"This initiative to link many of India’s domestic and transnational rivers follows from the official interest in pursuing big projects for big solutions, a continuation of the canal-dam/food-power paradigm that began in colonial irrigation schemes and continued through twentieth century development projects."(Kelly D Alley, India's river linking plan: History and debates, 2008)

Focus on river basins instead of a vision of a national water grid

The National Commission on Integrated Water Resource Development had on the other hand in its report in 1999 observed that optimal utilization of land and water should be aimed at fully exploiting intra-basin surpluses before considering inter-basin transfers.

“The Commission had after a careful examination of the water balances in the various basins, observed that there was no imperative need for massive water transfers. The assessed needs could be met with more efficient utilization of intra-basin resources, except in case of Cauvery and Vaigai basins where limited water transfers could take place by transferring water from Godavari River.” ( Vandana Asthana, A C Shukla, Anatomy of interlinking rivers in India: A decision in doubt, ACDIS Occasional Paper, 2008).

Tehri Dam; Source:

Emerging water nationalism

The project was resurrected by the Government in 2002 after lying in cold storage for several years when the Supreme Court converted an application for a mandamus on the subject of interlinking of rivers into a writ petition for the purpose of delivering a judgement.

The Bench headed by the then Chief Justice B N Kirpal had made an ‘observation’ on October 31, 2002 that the Government may take steps on interlinking certain major rivers of the country by the year 2012. “Common people are taught to accept the verdict of the court as ultimate, conscientious, constitutional, legal, and beyond question. The river interlinking project therefore became a fait accompli.” (ibid)

Despite the National Commission on Integrated Water Resource Development’s report political pressures gave a fillip to the interlinking proposal. "Today, the river-linking plan responds directly to opportunities available through global financing to design large-scale projects that address large-scale problems." (Kelly D Alley, India's river linking plan: History and debates, 2008)

With a view to bringing about a consensus among the States and to provide guidance on norms of appraisal of individual projects and modalities for project funding etc., the Central Government set up a Task Force headed by Suresh Prabhu to expedite matters in 2002.

Critics point out problems with the plan

This sparked a national debate and civil society groups pointed out the grave ecological consequences and the economic imprudence (estimated to cost Rs 5,60,000 crores) of this much hyped gargantuan exercise. The various basin States expressed divergent views about the studies and feasibility reports prepared by National Water Development Agency.

The hydrologic viability and the very concept of surplus and deficit rivers was challenged by environmentalists like Vandana Shiva. Questions were also raised regarding the feasibility of the scheme under the current constitutional set up.

“The scheme has the potential to cause large and irreparable damage on a scale that is unimaginable. There would be loss of biodiversity, reduction in downstream flows, damage to fisheries and wildlife, displacement of people, conflicts over water sharing and pressure created on land by cubic tonnes of water that might cause seismic tremors.” (Avinash Kalla, 2004)

According to a paper by SANDRP "Interlinking of rivers in India: Dimensions of social impact" the most elaborate estimates on displacement due to interlinking of rivers is by Rainer Horig. His estimates are based on the assumption that interlinking of rivers has 60 large dams; these dams would displace between 7.93 to 22.25 lakh people and will submerge 5875 to 15375 sq km land. (Water Management on a Grand Scale: India’s Programme of Interlinking of Rivers, Reuters Foundation Paper No. 260, July 2005)

Furthermore, the plan will need 20 lakh hectares for the canal network and will need at least 1.04 lakh hectares of forest land. [2007 figures, pers comm with Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP]

SANDRP pointed out in the paper that “there is sufficient case to show that interlinking of rivers is neither desirable, nor necessary and we have less expensive options for taking care of justifiable water needs of the 21st century.”

In the face of opposition from the States and the citizenry the project did not find much favour with the current regime and the grand idea remained dormant for a while. However it acquired prominence from time to time, particularly in the context of the Cauvery dispute. The Government in the meanwhile continued the work on individual cases of interlinking often without socio-economic and environmental impacts study.

Interestingly, newspaper reports of October 2009 suggest that the Centre was considering shelving the river-linking project [Centre to shelve river-linking project]. The Union Minister of State for Environment and Forest, Jairam Ramesh had declared that the project would be a “human, ecological and economic disaster for the country”.

So what is the new Supreme Court judgement, and what does the debate around it indicate?

In the current, and final, judgement on interlinking of rivers, the Supreme Court has issued clear and firm directions to go ahead with the project. A number of eminent people/civil society groups have written both against as well as in favour of the judgement. An attempt has been made in the section below to present the contrasting views on the topic. 

The judgement is based on a report of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the recommendations of a Standing Committee of Parliament. 

The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) had conducted a study on the economic impact of interlinking of rivers programme in 2008. The conclusions/ recommendations include various benefits of interlinking of river programme such as additional benefits of irrigation & power, increase in growth rate of agriculture, growth of direct & indirect employment, improvement in the quality of life of people in rural areas and mitigation of floods & drought.

The recommendations also include certain action points like setting up National Commission for Basin Management, improving cost recovery from irrigation projects & formation of Water Users Association.

The Minister of State for Water Resources, Vincent H Pala had in written reply to a question on the NCAER report in the Lok Sabha in September 2011 stated that “At present, no interlinking project under National Perspective Plan (NPP) is under implementation. Therefore, the stage has not come for taking decision on the action points suggested in the report.” [View NCAER report here

Also, the report of the Standing Committee on Water Resources that deals with the action taken by the Government on the recommendations and observations contained in their Eleventh Report on “Interlinking of rivers” was presented to Lok Sabha in October 2008. The Committee suggested a time-bound programme for completion of the detailed project proposals of the identified links.

The Committee also stated that it would like to be informed of the status of proposed establishment of the Irrigation and Water Resources Finance Corporation (IWRFC) and its role in funding the projects under interlinking of rivers. The Committee reiterated its earlier recommendation that the Government should ask the IWRFC to raise funds through issue of bonds or other suitable instruments for the projects under interlinking of rivers so that the benefits expected from the interlinking programme accrue at the earliest. [View report here]

Interlinking of rivers project: A boon

Radhey Shyam Goel, the National Convener of the Coordination Committee on Water and Hydropower related National Professional Societies in an article titled “Challenges, prospects and conflict management for vitally needed inter-linking of rivers in India - Critical review of basic objectives, controversies, social & ecological impacts” in India Water Portal makes a case for interlinking of rivers by discussing how social tensions, political instability and street fights are already being experienced in India, on account of fast deteriorating situation of availability of quality water in adequate quantity. He then presents a critical review of basic objectives, controversies, social & ecological impacts besides concrete suggestions to overcome the blockades in interlinking of rivers. 

Ranjit Kumar, Senior Advocate and the amicus curiae in the case in an interview in Frontline clarifies many of the concerns voiced by experts about the Supreme Court's judgment in the interlinking of rivers case. According to him the Court "in paragraphs 50, 52, and 63, says that these are matters of national interest and national problems should be viewed with 'greater objectivity, rationality and spirit of service' to the nation". [View interview here]

Speaking in favour of the judgement, strategic writer, Brahma Chellaney in an article titled “Linking rivers” laments that “In India, government plans for mammoth water projects do not jibe with the grassroots empowerment and the rise of influential civil society groups. NGOs funded by international donors and domestic sources are ever ready to take up the cause of local residents facing potential dislodgement from homes located in project areas. The power of these organizations to organize grassroots protests has been demonstrated in several dam projects.” 

Feasibility Study: Almatti-Pennar Link; Source: National Water Development Agency

Interlinking of rivers project: A bane

A lot of people have voiced their concerns regarding the Supreme Court judgement. A public statement has been issued by concerned citizens, expressing serious concerns. The statement endorsed by more than sixty eminent persons has urged the Supreme Court to put this order on hold and reconsider the matter. It first states the concerns relating to the propriety of the apex court making this specific order, and then proceeds to utter the concerns relating to the project itself. The statement considers the proposal a reckless and major redesigning of the geography of the country.

The project is at variance with the growing recognition that it is necessary to move away from the long-standing engineering tradition of a supply-side response to a projected or imagined demand, and towards restraining the growth of competitive unsustainable demand for water in all uses. Careful, economical, conflict-free and sustainable intra-basin management should come first, and bringing water from elsewhere should be the last recourse. [View statement here]

Hasty judgement encroaches into the Executive domain

In an EPW article titled “Interlinking of rivers project: A disquieting judgement - Ramaswamy Iyer's perspective in the EPW on the recent Supreme Court decision”, the author questions the decision to implement the river interlinking project through a Special Committee which will take precedence over all other administrative bodies. He explains why this backing of a 'potentially disastrous' project is disturbing (a) It encroaches into the executive domain (b) The various controversies about the project have not been considered and (c) It supports a project that many citizens fear will have disastrous consequences.

Following the discussions on the propriety of the judicial judgement and on the project, the author hopes that some doubt has been planted among the concerned judges, which will cause them to put the order on hold. 

Irrational project on economic, ecological and justice grounds

SANDRP has in its March 2012 issue of Dams, River and People questioned the rationale for these interlinking of rivers schemes. The concept is justified on the grounds that some river basins have a surplus and others have a deficit in terms of water availability.

SANDRP counters this as “one can arrive at such a conclusion only if one does complete options assessment including rainwater harvesting, watershed development, groundwater recharge, local water systems, optimum use of existing water infrastructure, improving water use efficiency, optimising cropping patterns, optimizing cropping methods, demand side measurements, recycling where feasible… But none of the National Water Development Agency's water balance studies involve such an exercise for a single basin or sub-basin in India. In fact the Union or any of the State Ministry of Water Resources has never done such a study for any basin or sub basin in India.” [Download the issue of Dams, River and People here]

Jayanta Bandyopadhyay in an EPW article titled “Water science in India: Hydrological obscurantism” discusses how the proposal for addressing the twin problems of floods and water scarcity by interlinking rivers is based on an outdated and dangerous idea of surplus river basins from which water can be drawn at will. Global experience shows how damaging such plans of large-scale water transfer are to the environment, economy and livelihoods of the people. Such plans have also proved a failure to either prevent floods or provide water on a sustainable basis. It is unfortunate that water policy in India remains a prisoner to such obsolete ideas.  

V Venkatesan in an article “Mission impossible” in Frontline states that while the judgement has raised the hopes of people living in drought- and flood-prone areas, critics of the project warn that there is no consensus among the States to link rivers and that it will be a huge waste to spend precious resources on a project whose feasibility and benefits have not been studied thoroughly.

An article in Frontline by T K Rajalakshmi “Building on sand” is of the view that the “last word on river-linking is yet to be said. There are more unknowns than knowns. With so many arguments, each making out a case against river-linking in technical, financial and ecological terms, a review of the proposal needs to be considered.”

The article "Flawed vision" by Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashata in Frontline deals with how studies like the one by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) show that while it may sound really good on paper, interlinking of rivers is technically implausible. The CSE says the challenge is to complete the existing irrigation projects rather than have grand ideas like river-linking and make optimum use of local water resources, which are constantly under threat from polluting industries. 

Dinesh Kumar Mishra in an EPW article “Resuscitating a failed idea: Notes from Bihar” states that the idea of a national interlinking of rivers needs to base itself on the past six decades’ experience of river and flood control measures. The contribution from Bihar shows that not only is the state’s “surplus water” tag a bit incorrect, the very structures – dams, canals and embankments – which are proposed to implement the river interlinking project have been a big failure. Then what explains the enthusiasm for this failed idea? 

R Krishnakumar in an article titled “Fragile ecosystems” in Frontline states how Kerala's rivers are part of unique, sensitive ecosystems, which would be disturbed by the river-linking project. 

An article in Frontline by Venkitesh Ramakrishnan traces the political divide on the issue and how the political class by and large sees the court order on interlinking rivers as unduly hasty. [View article here

Ramaswamy Iyer in an interview in the Frontline "Listen to experts" mentions that the failure to intervene and bring these concerns while the case was being heard in the Supreme Court, to the Court's attention by groups and individuals like him opposing the project is unfortunate. 

Concerns of neighbouring countries

The implementation of the interlinking of rivers project has raised Bangladeshi concerns. The “issue requires an understanding of the hydrology, ecology, environment, and socio-political ramification for all stakeholders in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin… The Indian Supreme Court’s recent verdict to implement the interlinking of rivers project has added an additional element to the list of unresolved issues between India and Bangladesh with regard to water resources management in shared rivers. The people of Bangladesh have expressed their disappointment in various news media over the proposed Tipaimukh dam, lack of Teesta water sharing treaty, and the failure to implement the Ganges Treaty over the last 15 years. This new development (or re-surfacing of the old concept from 2002) on interlinking of river project in India is a matter of concern.” (Md. Khalequzzaman, 2012) [View article here

An article in EPW “Teesta, Tipaimukh and river linking: Danger to Bangladesh-India relations” by Imtiaz Ahmed also resonates a similar viewpoint “The Supreme Court’s verdict directing the Government of India to implement the interlinking of rivers seems to have overlooked the regional and international implications of what the Indian Court strangely considers “the rivers of the country”. Just Bangladesh shares 54 rivers with India. Any unilateral action by India on any of its international rivers will degrade its relations with its neighbours while also adversely affecting its ecology, economy and society."  

As we can see above, the project remains highly controversial. Do you think that the proposal on interlinking of rivers will be successful in addressing water issues in India? Please let us know your reactions and suggestions by leaving a message in the comments section below



Avinash Kalla (2004), On the waterfront: River linking project could be an environmental nightmare, South Asian

Kelly D Alley (2008), India's river linking plan: History and debates

Vandana Asthana, A C Shukla (2008), Anatomy of interlinking rivers in India: A decision in doubt, ACDIS Occasional Paper

SANDRP (2007), Interlinking of rivers in India: Dimensions of social impact 

Rainer Horing (2005), Water Management on a Grand Scale: India’s Programme of Interlinking of Rivers, Reuters Foundation Paper No. 260

Centre to shelve river-linking project, Assam Tribune, 2009 

Radhey Shyam Goel (2012), Challenges, prospects and conflict management for vitally needed inter-linking of rivers in India - Critical review of basic objectives, controversies, social & ecological impacts, India Water Portal

Brahma Chellaney (2012), Linking Rivers, Jagran Post

Ramaswamy Iyer (2012), Interlinking of rivers project: A disquieting judgement - Ramaswamy Iyer's perspective in the EPW on the recent Supreme Court decision,  EPW VolXLVII No.16

Dams, River and People (March 2012 issue), SANDRP 

Jayanta Bandyopadhyay (2012), Water Science in India: Hydrological Obscurantism, EPW VolXLVII No.16

V Venkatesan (2012), Mission Impossible, Frontline, Volume 29 - Issue 07

T K Rajalakshmi (2012), Building on sand, Frontline, Volume 29 - Issue 07

Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashashta (2012), Flawed vision, Frontline, Volume 29 - Issue 07 

Dinesh Kumar Mishra (2012), Resuscitating a Failed Idea: Notes from Bihar, EPW VolXLVII No.16

R Krishnakumar (2012), Fragile ecosystems, Frontline, Volume 29 - Issue 07  

V Venkatesan (2012), Listen to experts, Frontline, Volume 29 - Issue 07 

Imtiaz Ahmed (2012), Teesta, Tipaimukh and River Linking: Danger to Bangladesh-India Relations, EPW VolXLVII No.16 

NCAER (2008), Economic impact of interlinking of rivers programme 

Lok Sabha Secretariat (2010), Interlinking of rivers - Third report of the Standing Committee on Water Resources (2009-1010) 

V Venkatesan (2012), Gigantic challenge, Frontline, Volume 29 - Issue 07  

Supreme Court order on interlinking of rivers project - A statement and an appeal by concerned citizens (2012)

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan (2012), Political divide, Frontline, Volume 29 - Issue 07  

Md. Khalequzzaman (2012), Implementation of the interlinking of rivers project and Bangladeshi concerns, India Water Portal

Post By: Amita Bhaduri