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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

A garland of rivers across India

Inter-linking of rivers is an idea that should not be ignored any longer

Inter-linking the great rivers of India is a dream that has been around for a while. Many problems that confound the country—flood control, irrigation, limiting droughts and boosting farm output—can be sorted out by linking the country’s rivers in two big garlands. This requires a massive amount of political and financial capital, both scarce commodities. There are signs that the Narendra Modi government may be willing to invest both.

Viewed dispassionately, it is a miracle that India’s irrigation potential rose from 22.6 million hectares (mha) at independence to 113 mha by the end of the 11th five-year plan. This is not enough. As the country’s population grows, the need for better irrigated farmland will only increase. In this context, there are limits to what small and medium irrigation projects can do. While these projects are important for conserving water, their returns from investment are low and their potential is somewhat limited. Beyond a point, India’s geography dictates what needs to be done in this area.

While India boasts of some impressive irrigation projects—including the Bhakra Nangal and Narmada dams—a look at the map of the country shows the strong correlation between water-stressed regions and the distribution of water resources. Most of the water available for irrigation—from rivers, perennial and rain-fed—is to be found in the southwestern and northeastern regions. In contrast, the demand for water is largely in northern India and the eastern part of peninsular India. Local irrigation projects cannot do much unless innovative projects—such as the inter-linking of rivers—are carried out.

Here, by fortuitous circumstance, geography favours plans. A north to south inter-linking of rivers is physically not possible: the barrier imposed by the Vindhya mountains makes it prohibitively expensive to lift water along the north and south axis. It is also unnecessary. The river-water linking plan—one for peninsular India and the other for linking rivers from the east to the north—is an ideal solution for what India needs.

Between 2003 and now, precious little has been done for implementing the project. In the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, a task force on inter-linking of rivers was created under Suresh Prabhu, the current railways minister; nothing much took place beyond the detailed project reports on individual river linking projects. In April, the second NDA government once again created another task force for inter-linking of rivers. The issue now is to move forward instead of replicating the same experience once again. There are plenty of issues to resolve, ones that need political attention.

For one, building consensus among states is essential if these projects are to take off. There are dozens of links in the overall inter-linking plan. One does not need to imagine hard what is required to get those projects started. States have to be convinced of the benefits—even if they are well known. For another some bit of environmental assessment is necessary in case of a project of this magnitude. This need not be of the destructive variety that is designed to derail projects. What is needed is a careful scientific assessment of the project and its impact on the environment, one that is best carried out by academicians.

The other—yet unclear—issue is one of finding the financial and other resources for the task. River inter-linking is an expensive business: from building the link canals to the monitoring and maintenance infrastructure needed requires a tidy sum. Annual budgetary outlays will not do the trick. If one is to create innovative financial schemes required—such as bonds—then investors will need a credible answer on returns to their investment and credible guarantees they want.

None of these issues have been sorted as of now. Playing committee games is an interesting sport but it does precious little for Indians wanting access to water and irrigation. The government needs to get cracking if this project is to succeed at all.

Can India link its rivers successfully? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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