New Delhi: Reviving a utopian scheme last proposed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in 2002 (it was first mooted in independent India in the 1970s), the Supreme Court (SC) on Monday cleared the way for the interlinking of India’s major rivers to combat water scarcity in some parts by putting in place an all-powerful committee to gradually implement the mammoth project.

“It is easy to join rivers on paper. It has to be examined—what is its environmental impact, how many people get displaced, what is the condition of farmers, etc.," said Congress spokesperson Renuka Chowdhary, and added that its environmental viability ought to be assessed by “today’s standards".

A three-judge bench led by Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia said the Centre and the state governments concerned ought to implement the project under a high-powered committee comprising the Union minister for water resources, its secretary, the secretary of the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) and four expert members appointed by the water resources ministry, the finance ministry, the Planning Commission and MoEF. Representatives from state governments, two social activists and senior advocate Ranjit Kumar, who has been assisting the court in the case, will also be members of the committee.

“It is directed that the committee shall take firm steps and fix a definite time frame to lay down the guidelines for completion of feasibility reports or other reports, and shall ensure the completion of projects so that the benefits accrue within reasonable time and cost," SC said.

The court had taken up the case on the basis of an 18 July 1994 Hindustan Times article. Later, based on several discussions over the need for improved and better access to water, amicus curiae (friend of the court) Kumar filed an application to examine the possibility of river interlinking.

In 2002, Kumar made an application to the court in the Yamuna case based on the speech of then president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on how India could possibly better manage its water resources.

The court converted Kumar’s application into a full-scale petition and heard it out separately.

The river interlinking project was popular with the NDA government, and in October 2002, then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, following a Supreme Court recommendation, formed a task force to look at the modalities of river linking—the country had suffered an acute drought that year.

The task force concluded that the linking of rivers in the country would raise India’s irrigation potential to 160 million hectares (ha) for all types of crops by 2050, compared with a maximum of about 140 million ha that could be generated through conventional sources of irrigation, as well as generate 34 gigawatts of power, nearly one-sixth of the current installed power capacity.

Conceptually, the project is the largest of its kind anywhere in the world and will handle four times more water than the Three Gorges Dam in China, five times all inter-basin water transfers completed in the US, and more than six times the total transfer of the six inter-basin water transfer projects already operational in India, namely Sarda-Sahayak, Beas-Sutlej, the Madhopur-Beas link, the Kurnool-Cudappa canal, the Periyar Vegai link and the Telugu Ganga link.

The scheme essentially aims to channel the relatively munificent water of the river basins in east India to the drier west and peninsular parts of the country. Thus, waters from the Ganga and the Brahmaputra rivers will be siphoned to the Mahanadi basin and from there relayed to the Godavari, Krishna, Pennar and Cauvery basins.

However, several interstate disputes, such as over the sharing of the Cauvery waters between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, will have to be resolved ahead of implementing the project. The project also necessitates water-sharing arrangements with Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh—all hurdles that have cumulatively rendered the 5 trillion project a non-starter.

Ashok Jaitley, who heads the water resources division at the Energy and Resources Institute, an environmental research body, said there were challenges such as land acquisition, and the environmental impact of large dams that may make such an exercise unviable.

“There are serious questions of livelihoods, land and environmental concerns that are associated with such projects," he said. “Think of the enormous displacement that the Three Gorges Dam project in China effected."

Prakash Javadekar of the Bharatiya Janata Party saw the move as a positive. “This is a vindication of the NDA government’s vision and the only reason for its failure was mismanagement by the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government."

In a separate order on the 1994 Yamuna pollution case, the Supreme Court asked the governments of Delhi, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh about the steps they had taken to prevent pollution of the Himalayan river.

The court has placed the case for final hearings in April.

jacob.k@livemint.com

Appu Esthose Suresh, Anuja, and PTI contributed to this story.

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