Resuscitating a failed idea - Notes from Bihar – A paper in Economic and Political Weekly

This article questions the logic behind the implementing of the river interlinking project by using dams, embankments and canals, which have failed in Bihar to control floods

This article by Dinesh Kumar Mishra, Convenor of the Barh Mukti Abhiyan (movement for freedom from floods), Bihar in the Economic and Political Weekly 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. The article then questions the enthusiasm for this failed idea.

Tracing the history of the idea and the state’s response to it the author states that “following the Supreme Court Judgement of 2002 on riverlinking, a meeting was called by the Government of Bihar (GoB) to discuss the implications on the water resources of Bihar, a so-called surplus state, in Patna in 2003.” The problem was, in the manner in which “surplus” was defined by Supreme Court.

According to the Report of the Second ­Bihar State Irrigation Commission (1994) only 19 per cent of water that passes through north Bihar is generated locally while 81 per cent comes from other states or countries. Further, it states that 70 per cent of the flow of the Ganga during the non-monsoon months is contributed by rivers coming from Nepal. If Bihar lays its claim over the water, the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and now Jharkhand also will stake their claims, along with ­Nepal, over that water.

An expert committee of senior engineers to study all the technical ­components of the National Water Deve­lopment Agency (NWDA) proposal so that the interests of the state could be protected in 2003 noted that “…Interlinking of rivers is the last big effort by the nation to harness water resources of the country for equitable distribution. Hence Bihar must not miss the bus at this stage and must ensure that the seasonal water requirements of its various sub-zones are fulfilled before transferring water to other parts of the country.”

But, it also said that the general belief that, “there is huge quantity of water available which can be transferred to southern and western parts of the country” should be dispelled. The committee was concerned that most of the transfer of water is envisaged from the storage, though transfer of water from run-of-the river during monsoon is also proposed. But such transfer of water will not have significant impact on flood moderation.

It recommendedThe NWDA schemes do not at all show ­concern over the flood problem of Bihar, which must be given full priority… Bihar must be associated from the very beginning with the planning, execution and operation of the reservoirs on the rivers flowing through Bihar.”

It will be unfair to assume that everything is wrong with a surplus source state like Bihar. The story may be the same elsewhere too. Otherwise the flood affected area of the country would not have doubled from 25 million hectares in 1952 to about 50 million hectares today.  

This clearly indicates that the present strategy of investment in flood control through dams and embankments is doing more harm than good. The net irrigated area by canals all over the country was 17.79 million ha in 1991-92 but has been consistently falling since then. 

It is this incompetent and corrupt water establishment which is expected to implement the river interlinking project. After all these failures of the water establishment of the country, what reason do people have to believe that this same establishment’s pipe dream of national river interlinking will solve all their water problems? Given the gargantuan amounts of money involved, one wonders where does the people’s money go and who controls such decisions.

It appears that the entire river interlinking proposal is a cover-up to hide the failure of this hydrological bureaucracy so that people, with carrots of river interlinking dangled before them, do not ask inconvenient questions which these departments find hard to answer.

Much has been said about up-scaling water rates but not a word if the department fails to provide the promised irrigation water. The farmer would be charged water rate but how about the impact of waterlogging? Will it not be necessary for the department which charges water rates from the farmers and takes credit for it to compensate the farmers in case their fields get waterlogged?

Further, the Himalayan component of the river linking project depends heavily on cooperation with Nepal and Bangladesh. There has been no appreciable progress about the dams proposed there on the Kosi (first proposed in 1937), Nunthar on the Bagmati (1953) and the Chisapani dam on the Kamala (1956). The Pancheshwar dam, despite a treaty signed in 1996, remains a non-starter.

How can one think of a time-bound schedule and for the project to be “completed effectively and judiciously and without any default”, as the learned judges of the Supreme Court have demanded? Let the past performance of ­India’s hydrological bureau­cracy be evaluated first, the author states. Taking up river linking project without such an evaluation and in the absence of any popular consensus will actually turn it into a “final solution” to our ­water problems.

Download the paper here –

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