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3. Assessment of the Justifications for the Interlinking project

As mentioned above, for the understanding of the pros and cons of the interlinking proposal, a crucial gap is created by the complete absence from the public domain, of any scientific and technical information on what is the proposal for interlinking of rivers, beyond lines on the map of the country. Technical information on the flows, the storages, link canals, the barrages and the associated engineering structures, the ecological impacts on downstream areas of the basins, extent of involuntary displacement, likely costs and benefits of the proposal, etc. is simply not being made public by the Ministry of Water Resources. Not from the data presented by the engineers but from the lectures by politicians, everyone is made to believe that there will be a lot of water to transfer. However, there is no open scientific data to establish where are those volumes of water, if available; whether there are sustainable and economic ways to store and transfer them, if transferred, whether it will solve the thirsts of the drier areas in the periods of scarcity. Quite naturally, this follows from the age-old tradition of the information on mega projects on water resources being guarded against for any transparent and professional assessment (Bandyopadhyay, 2003). The importance of the people is limited to paying the final bill of these projects with dubious justifications.

Projects on transfer of large volumes of water have usually been justified by considering only the direct cost of construction and operation of the engineering structures. Careful analysis and evaluation of all costs (intrinsic social, economic and environmental costs) therefore, becomes a sine qua non for a more informed decision making. On the basis of the very general description of the proposal as available in the public domain, what can be undertaken is merely an assessment of the justifications given for the investment and how the proposal for interlinking stands against the other available option for providing the claimed benefits.

This section examines some of the important justifications, believed to be the pillars on which the very costly project of interlinking of the rivers in our country is being placed. The identified questions are:

  • Will the proposed interlinking of rivers offer a permanent solution to the scarcity of domestic water supplies in the drier parts of the country?
  • Does India’s food security depend on the proposed interlinking of rivers?
  • Who would bridge the knowledge gap in the Himalayan component?

3.1 Will the Proposed Interlinking of Rivers Offer a Permanent Solution to the Scarcity of Domestic Water Supplies in the Drier Parts of the Country?

The spatial and temporal variations in the precipitation over India lead to various forms of human sufferings. They range from scarcity of drinking water, inundation of agricultural lands, failure of crops, damage to cattle, etc. There is no doubt that the satisfaction of the domestic needs of water should be seen as a part of human rights (Gleick, 1999; McCaffrey, 1992) and this should receive the highest priority in our water policy. Further, protection of food production from variations in the precipitation, especially long spells of droughts, should be an equally important and high priority objective in India's water policy. It will be interesting to examine how much the proposal for interlinking the rivers provides a permanent solution to these.

The problem of scarcity gets further compounded by the fact that droughts and floods are hurriedly declared as ‘disasters’, providing reasons for obtaining funds for relief. Thus, the examination of whether the ‘disasters’ are results of natural extremes or human induced processes, does not get analysed.
Domestic water requirements, although very important in terms of priority, account for a very small part of the total national water requirements. The official method for the identification of 'surplus' or 'deficit' river basins, surprisingly, removes this prioritisation and clubs together all the various water requirements. Such computations create an anomalous situation. If the objective of providing domestic water security is given the highest priority, and not clubbed with the irrigation or industrial requirements, not many areas in India would come out as water deficit in a systematic water balance study. Case studies had been undertaken by the group of international experts in a few areas of the country known as water scarce areas. The study makes it clear that if the precipitation within the concerned watersheds or sub-basins is harvested and conserved properly, satisfaction of domestic water needs will not be a problem in most parts of the country (Nigam et al., 1997). In fact, water conservation is an appealing option compared to developing new storage and diversion facilities, as these often carry high financial, social and ecological costs (World Commission on Dams, 2000). This observation is completely in consonance with the result of numerous community initiatives for water harvesting, whether in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Tamilnadu, Uttaranchal or anywhere else in the country.

The problem of scarcity gets further compounded by the fact that droughts and floods are hurriedly declared as ‘disasters’, providing reasons for obtaining funds for relief. Thus, the examination of whether the ‘disasters’ are results of natural extremes or human induced processes, does not get analysed (Bandyopadhyay, 1989). Though identified as extreme events, droughts and floods are, however, quite expected events under climatic conditions dominated by the Monsoon. Moreover, though fluctuations in the precipitation cause one form of drought, there are many other forms of drought, which lead to the generation of water scarcity. The distinctions of diverse forms of drought given by Bandyopadhyay (1989) get reconfirmed by Kelkar (Businessworld, 2001), when he warns that:

If the rainfall over a given region is more than 25% below normal, meteorologists call it a drought. However, this does not always bring out the true picture since crops could still survive if they get enough rain at the critical growth stages. On the other hand, a statistically normal rainfall but with a few spells of very heavy rain interspersed with long dry spells can cause agricultural drought as opposed to a meteorological drought.

Based on this idea, the determination of actual water needs in an area makes it possible to allocate just the amount needed for satisfactory living, rather than making ad hoc amounts available almost free of cost that encourages a practice of irrigation, which is wasteful of scarce water. The supporters of the proposed interlinking of rivers, by projecting an impression that, it has all the solution to the problem of water scarcity in India, has diverted public attention away from taking up local level steps for harvesting and conservation of water. A dangerous psyche has been created that there is enough water in the ‘surplus’ rivers to cater to all the needs of all. What is to be done is only to transfer water from one basin to another. That is how, when a more than average rain falls on water scarce Rajasthan, as was the case in the Monsoon months of 2003, no steps were taken for harvesting the excess rainwater that fell on Rajasthan.

Whilst the economic efficacy and optimality of the proven technology of community based harvesting and conservation in providing domestic water security has been proven repeatedly, the interlinking project proposes to supply domestic water in the drier areas through collection at far away points and distribution through inefficient long canals or existing riverbeds. The problem of water scarcity is more clearly present in the uplands and areas away from the rivers. The task of providing domestic water supplies to rural areas in exceedingly dry parts of the country will nonetheless still remain largely unsolved, even if the interlinking project is completed. As Lundqvist (1998) has commented:

In an era, when technological progress has been extraordinary, it has been easy to abandon the old association between water and a humbleness towards Nature; an association that springs from the observation that water always seeks the lowest position on Earth

In the background of this review, one can cite Verghese (2003) who pointed out that:

The Interlinking project is not a single stand-alone panacea for the country’s water problems but the apex of a progression of integrated micro to mega measures in an overall but unarticulated national water strategy.

What follows is that there is a clear danger in believing that the interlinking project is the last word and the first choice for solving the problem of domestic water security all over the country. The supply of domestic water needs in the case of India may soon become more economic through desalination plants, the cost of which process is going down significantly. It may be a cruel joke on the protagonists of the interlinking of rivers, if the water so transferred does not find any taker, when pitted against supplies from desalination plants.

3.2 Does India’s Food Security Depend on the Proposed Interlinking of Rivers?

According to projections, the growth of the population in India will continue for some more decades and is expected to flatten towards the middle of the present century. Food requirements will generally follow the same trend. Food production is a matter of area under agriculture and yield. Food consumption is a matter of per capita consumption and the total population. India has the largest irrigation network and second largest arable area in the world. Forgetting about the factor of distribution or low purchasing power, per capita availability of food is the most visible indicator of food security. Recent agricultural statistics reveal that with improvements in farming technologies and plant genetics, we have achieved a record food grain production of 211.32 million tonnes in 2001-2, which is 15.40 million tonnes more than that of the previous year (MOA, 2003). Between 1950 and 2000 annual cereal production per capita rose from 121.5 to 191.0 kg (Hanchate and Dyson, 2004:229). Food security is, however, a matter of food production and equity in distribution or purchasing power. For guaranteeing food security, both the quantitative availability and an equitable distribution system is essential. Following which, despite the huge buffer stock of food grains in India, an estimated 200 million people are underfed and 50 million are reportedly cringing below starvation (Goyal, 2002).

3.2.1 How much foodgrain will India need in future?

In spite of the above, the proposed interlinking of rivers is being projected as necessary for food security of India. No scientific justification for this has been given separately by the NWDA or the Task Force on Interlinking of Rivers. Accordingly, once again someone interested in examining the scientific status of such justifications has to refer to the Report of the NCIWRDP (1999a). Based on population projections, socio-economic and demographic changes and assumed changes in the pattern of food consumption, the NCIWRDP had estimated the total food grain demand for 2010, 2026 and 2050 high and low growth rates. These projections were made on the basis of an unpublished work of Ravi (1998), which presents a great increase in the food grain demand. While, according to the estimates of the NCIWRDP, the food grain demand for India (direct and indirect) for 2010 under the low and high demand scenario are 245 and 247 million tons, Hanchate and Dyson (2004:241) in a systematic review of the past work, undertaken for the London School of Economics say that:

…this analysis suggests that in 2026 direct cereal demand will be roughly 220 mmt, with another 30 mmt being needed for other uses, giving a ‘ball- park’ total of 250 mmt

In this way, the estimates of food requirement by the NCIWRDP for 2010, is same as that of the LSE study for 2026. Indeed, this is a large discrepancy that can not be ignored, especially when the basis of the whole proposal for interlinking the rivers is based on such contested figures. In examining the inconsistency, once again the clear preference of the MoWR for unpublished work comes to the fore when the NCIWRDP writes:

In view of the recent trends in food consumption and considering socio-economic factors, the Commission has accepted the food and feed demand projected by Ravi with yearly growth rate of 4.5 per cent per capita expenditure. This amounts to 194, 218 and 284 kg of foodgrains per head per year for the years 2010, 2025 and 2050 respectively.

China faces foodgrain related problems similar to those of India, probably in a more acute manner. It has a larger population to feed, with much less arable land. However, as Swaminathan (1999:73) has pointed out, China produces 13 percent more foodgrains per capita than India.
It is quite relevant to point out that the basis for such a drastic increase in the annual per capita foodgrain requirement is probably rooted less in reality and more in the use of income demand elasticity for estimating future foodgrain demands. Firstly, this approach is not very helpful. Secondly, it conflicts with the field level data like those of the National Sample Survey (NSS). However, the disadvantage for the world of transparent professionalism is that unpublished work can not be openly questioned. However, a comparison of the data so produced can be made with those of other estimates. According to the Asian Productivity Organisation (APO, 1996) for India “in the last 20 years, there have been no significant changes in average daily food consumption”. In addition, the work of Hanchate and Dyson (2004:233-5) does not indicate any support to the large changes as projected by Ravi (1998) when they write:

According to the NSS annual consumption of all cereals combined fell from 175 kg per person during 1972-3 to about 147 kg during 1999-2000. The FBS (FAO) figures, however, suggest that consumption rose slightly from around 153 kg in 1972-3 to about 157 kg in 1993-4, before increasing to 164 kg in 1999-2000……The NSS data on per capita food consumption underpin the projections because they provide the only state level figures.

It is indeed quite surprising that there is very little support in the published literature to make a professional analyst accept the 46 percent rise in the annual per capita foodgrain consumption between 2010 and 2050, as projected by the NCIWRDP on the basis of the work of Ravi (1998) In fact, in the published literature, while making projections of cereal demand for India in 2026, Hanchate and Dyson (2004:237) accept that:

Accordingly, here we have simply assumed that for the rural and urban populations of each state, levels of per capita consumption will remain constant, as in 1993-4. For all India, this corresponds to annual consumption of 154 kg per person – a figure which is almost identical to the average of the NSS and FBS estimates for 1999-2000.

The gross mismatch of the vital data of the per capita foodgrain requirement presented in the unpublished work of Ravi (1998) with the published works (APO, 1996; Hanchate and Dyson, 2004) has resulted in an equally gross over-assessment of the food and irrigation water requirement, as presented by the NCIWRDP (1999a:59). This calculation has been used as the basis of the justification that the proposed interlinking of rivers is needed for India’s food security. This contested assessment is a matter of national importance and is worthy of an open professional re-examination. As of now, there is no scientific reason to accept the claim that India’s food security depends on the interlinking of rivers.

3.2.2 Food security and low yield of foodgrains in india

The other factor related to food security is the yield. In spite of the availability of good water and land, our agricultural productivity stands at a very low level when compared with other countries of the world. Food security in India has, somehow, got almost uniquely tied with the expansion of flood irrigation, at the cost of other factors. China faces foodgrain related problems similar to those of India, probably in a more acute manner. It has a larger population to feed, with much less arable land. However, as Swaminathan (1999:73) has pointed out, China produces 13 percent more foodgrains per capita than India. Data from the FAO (CWC, 1998:223-4) indicates that while the cereal yield for India stood at 2134 Kg per ha in 1995, the same for China stood at 4664 Kg per ha (Figure 3).

Agricultural scientists in India are foreseeing great technological breakthroughs that would push agricultural productivity very much upwards in the coming years. The NCIWRDP (1999a:57) has pointed out that the yield of wheat in experimental farms in India has already exceeded 6000 kg per hectare. However, the calculations of India's food production in the coming decades, made for showing the interlinking project as an essential step for food security, are based on the assumption that even after 50 years from now, India will attain field-level yield levels that are only two-thirds of what has already been achieved in the experimental farms. The NCIWRDP (1999a:57) has assumed yield levels of 4000 kg per hectare in irrigated land, as the basis for making projection for food crop production in 2050. Similarly, in the rain fed land, NCIWRDP has projected that the food crop yield is expected to grow from the present 1000 kg per ha to 1500 kg per ha only in half a century. However, Singh (Singh, B. 2003) takes the view that India is "already producing enough food; production can be further increased by at least 25 percent from existing irrigated area itself by improved inputs and agricultural technology”. Carruthers and Morrison (1994) reiterate this view, when they say that:

We do not anticipate or call for an increased rate of capital intensive investment in irrigation infrastructure but we do need to see that more is achieved with what is presently developed.

Figure 3: Country Wise Yield of Cereals (in Kg/Ha)
(Source: Water and Related Statistics, Central Water Commission, 1998]

Moreover, in the projected plans for irrigation, there is a provision of 30 percent of the irrigation water going for non-food crops. Thus, serious questions can be raised on whether the additional irrigation for foodgrain production as proposed under the interlinking of rivers, is at all related to the food security of the country.

It is important to note that China, with only half as much arable land per capita as India, today is not thinking in terms of drastically increasing the volume of water in agriculture but increasing the water use efficiency in the existing irrigated areas. Wang (2002:15,110), the Water Resource Minister of China, writes that:

Irrigation is no longer 'watering the land' but supplying water for growth of crops …At present, the average agricultural water use efficiency is 0.43 in China. If water saving irrigation is extended to raise the figure up to 0.55 (some experts consider 0.6), food security can be guaranteed when the population increases to 1.6 billion in 2030 without increase of total agricultural water use.

In the case of India, blessed with more arable land and more irrigation potential, while similar figures for the improvement in the efficiency of the use of irrigation water (from 0.35 at present to 0.60 in 2050) have been projected on paper (NCIWRDP, 1999a:58), there is no clear policy perspective for achieving higher water use efficiency and reach the declared targets. The lack of interest in end-use efficiency in irrigation will push the farmers to the soft but costly solution offered by the interlinking of rivers. Swaminathan (1999:93) has thus cautioned that:

The inefficient and negligent use of water in agriculture is one of the most serious barriers to sustainable expansion of agricultural production. Public policy regarding the cost of water supplied by major irrigation projects and low-cost or free distribution of power for pumping underground water aggravate the problem……Water consumption can be reduced radically, by as much as five-to-ten fold, at the same time as significantly increasing crop yields.

Vaidyanathan (2003), who has examined the methodology and estimates in the NCIWRDP Report, questions the very concept of this efficiency underlying the measures. He says that:

The present available efficiency of surface irrigation, according to the figures cited in the report, ranges between 30 and 50 percent.…...The concept of efficiency not being specified, their relation to projections cannot be verified without comparable estimates of current and future water balances and irrigation efficiencies overall for the two major sources separately.

The World Bank Irrigation Sector Report on India takes a similar view on irrigation and takes the position that "from the past heavy emphasis on physical expansion, effort now needs to turn to a much greater emphasis on productivity enhancement" (World Bank, 1999:11). It is clear that the further physical expansion of irrigation is neither needed nor is it the most cost-effective option for maintaining India’s food security.

The above makes it clear that the proposed interlinking of rivers in India is not essential for India’s food security. There are many other ways to sustain food security, of which the proposed interlinking is surely the most costly one. All the available options need to be seriously explored before thinking of the interlinking of rivers. Hence, before jumping into such a gigantic and expensive project, it is a national imperative that the costs for maintaining food security along all possible technological options, are examined. Particular attention should be given to the removal of the obstacles to technological changes in agriculture, because even after 50 long years, future yield from India's irrigated fields has been assumed to be only two-thirds of what has already been achieved in experimental farms (6000 kg per ha).

In addition to this, before the decision for further physical expansion of irrigation is cleared, there is a case for the review of the use of the irrigation potential already created. Till the end of the 9th Plan, the irrigation potential created and utilisation achieved in India was reported as 106.6 Mha and 93.4 Mha respectively (NCIWRDP, 1999a:79). The reasons for taking the figure of 77 Mha as the projected irrigated cropped area as far away in future, as in 2010 needs to be examined from the point whether it is a conservative figure. It is quite logical for the country to expect that the irrigation potential already created be realised with the projected high level of efficiency. In such a situation, there will not be any need for the proposed interlinking of rivers. Does the expenditure of US$ 200 bn seem justified for such a questionable proposal?

Though the main declared justification of the interlinking project comes from its claim about providing additional 173 BCM of water, reportedly for irrigation to ensure India's food security, much less expensive and smaller scale options are available for ensuring the same.
Of course, there is another side to all this. The ready availability of additional water transferred in the name of food security, in the absence of any legal control on the way it would be priced or used, would promote water intensive industries and commercial crops in the dry areas, that should have been located in the better water endowed areas. This is a rather wasteful way of looking at hydrological equity within the country. In place of transferring huge volumes of water over a long distance through an expensive process, transportation of “virtual water’ to the water scarce areas would be more efficient, economically, socially and environmentally. If at all, the transfer of water from the 'surplus' basins to the 'deficit' basins has to be undertaken for such industrial and commercial purposes, a proper pricing mechanism should be in place. In this way, inter-state water markets can flourish in which any possible transfer would be worked out through the market. If such a market gets established, that may be the beginning of mutually agreed inter basin transfers between the states, making the very expensive and centrally promoted interlinking project redundant.

Food production should be protected from the variations in the Monsoon. From the above analysis, it becomes clear that though the main declared justification of the interlinking project comes from its claim about providing additional 173 BCM of water, reportedly for irrigation to ensure India's food security, much less expensive and smaller scale options are available for ensuring the same. It is imperative that comparative costs of all the possible paths to food security like introduction of qualitative changes in agriculture, technological improvements including more efficient use of water in irrigated areas, be assessed and only then appropriate decision taken. Otherwise, as Postel (1999) has cautioned:

It is not enough to meet a short-term goal of feeding the global population. If we do so by consuming so much land and water that ecosystems cease to function, we will have, not a claim to victory, but a recipe for economic and social decline.

However, ignoring all the scientific questions raised about the promoted justifications of the proposed interlinking project, it may still be carried on, ignoring all professional criticisms and being guided by unpublished papers and hydrological data made confidential by the officials. In that event, several more serious questions will come to the fore. Much of these questions relates to the lack of a comprehensive knowledge base for even making the technical designs, and part, to the social and economic conflicts, inherent in the idea. As and when the project starts to be implemented, these unanswered questions will generate popular oppositions.

3.3 Who Would Bridge the Knowledge Gap in the Himalayan Component?

It is anticipated that the construction of storage dams as proposed would greatly reduce the severity of floods and flood damages. When transferred to other basins, this will reduce the regional imbalance in the availability of water in the country. However, dams are often not planned with flood moderation as the primary aim and even when they are - the competing claims of irrigation and power generation often override the flood moderation function. This is what happened in the case of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC), which was planned for multiple functions (flood moderation, power generation, irrigation and the general development of the area), but the planned flood moderation was never achieved. Where in the past, structural measures have failed to ensure protection against floods and have aggravated the situation in many areas, one is tempted to cite that around 96 percent of the 4291 dams in the country cater to the irrigation requirements, whereas less than 0.5 percent only meets flow-regulation objectives (Sengupta et al., 2000).

Construction of dams on the Himalayan rivers as component of the Interbasin transfer proposal cannot ignore vital questions on the uncertainty associated with taking a mechanical and traditional view of development of the Himalayan rivers (Ives and Messerli, 1989). The approximations and assumptions, inherent in the standardized mathematical models of hydraulic engineering, have so far slighted and undermined the basic dynamics of sediment generation, discharge and deposition characteristics in the Himalayan rivers, known to carry one of the highest sediment loads in the world (Bandyopadhyay and Gyawali, 1994). Due to the verticality and the consequent fragility of the Himalaya, large dams on the Himalayan rivers will be exposed to severe seismic hazards (Bandyopadhyay, 2002). The potential for earthquakes at the plate boundary all along the Himalayan foothills is well known and widely accepted (Khattri, 1987). Past evidences of seismic activities (Chakrabarti, 2003) have not received serious attention and concern. The knowledge base required for making professionally comprehensive assessment of such projects is in a state of infancy. To any professional informed of the complexity of the Himalayan rivers, it is clear that development of systematic knowledge needed for making credible impact assessment of the proposed dams and canals would need extensive field observations over decades. This needs to be seen in the background of the period of 12 years given by the Supreme Court as the time limit for the completion of the proposed interlinking.

Further, even if such a knowledge base gets generated in an open and professional manner, in all probability, many of the proposed projects may prove to be technically and economically unfeasible. Recognising the seriousness of the gaps in knowledge mentioned above, the NCIWRDP (1999a:187-8) took the wise view that:

The Himalayan component would require more detailed study using systems analysis techniques. Actual implementation is unlikely to be undertaken in the immediate coming decades.

One example of the significance of the knowledge gap is related to the declared benefits of 'flood control' from the interlinking project. Floods in the Himalayan foothills and the adjoining plains are the result of a complex ecological process involving movement of enormous volumes of water and solids. Simplistic engineering claims about projects that will control floods in the Himalayan rivers are not new, and have been made over decades. The only thing missing is a good scientific support to the claims because the observations do not substantiate the claims. Floods in the Himalayan rivers have changed in form and not declined over the years. There is a clear need for an open and professional examination of the claims of 'flood control' by the proposed interlinking of rivers.