The Water Tussle
Will environmental concerns force the Supreme Court to revise its decision to interlink all national rivers?
An order issued by the Indian Supreme Court last February to the Government of India, to implement in a time-bound manner the interlinking of all national rivers starting with the Ganges in the Himalayas to Cauvery in the south, has received heated criticism. Jurists say that it is a clear case of judicial overreach. Experts argue that it is unworkable and financially unviable. Environmentalists state that it will be an ecological disaster as millions will be displaced and flora and fauna will be endangered.
Others wonder why the court, which was not inclined to interfere at one stage in the dispute between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka on the sharing of the Cauvery water, has now usurped the power of the executive by issuing a directive to the Union of India on a much more complicated question of the networking of rivers.
Analysts argue that the court has not looked into the international ramifications stemming from such a project as India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal are all geographically inter-linked with the river system.
The apex court alone is not to blame for its extraordinary judgment. It was led by an affidavit by the Union Government, when a writ petition was filed in 2002. In its affidavit, the Centre told the court that the networking of rivers had been considered with great seriousness after the then Union Water Resources Minister proposed the linking of the Ganga and the Cauvery in 1972. The report was consequently given a quiet burial as the National Water Development Agency termed it as unworkable.
The NWDA said that the Rao proposal envisaged a 2,640 km-long Ganga-Cauvery link as its main component and involved large-scale pumping of 550 meters that would require 5,000 to 7,000 MW. Even if such a link was established at such a cost, it would irrigate only an additional four million hectares. The scheme also did not include any flood control measures. The
Central Water Commission found the proposal to be grossly underestimated and economically prohibitive.
In 1977, Capt. Dastur proposed the construction of two canals – the first, a 4,200 km Himalayan Canal at the foot of the Himalayan slopes running from the Ravi in the west to the Brahmaputra and beyond in the east, and the second, a 9,300 km-Garland Canal covering the central and southern parts. Both the canals would be integrated with numerous lakes and interconnected with pipelines at two points, Delhi and Patna. The proposal was then examined by two committees of experts who concluded that it was technically unfeasible.
Despite such reports, a writ petition was filed in the Supreme Court in 2002 after President Abdul Kalam spoke in favor of the networking of rivers to address the recurring problem of floods in one region and drought in another. The Supreme Court recorded that the National Water Development Agency had said in May 2000 that peninsular rivers could be linked by 2035 and the Himalayan rivers by 2043. The Court frowned upon such a long delay and said the project should be completed in the next few years. That was in 2002.
The Supreme Court took another ten years to firm its position following the National Council of Applied Economic Research report of 2008 that argued that the project would yield higher returns from agriculture, would control floods, provide water to drought-prone states, ensure safe drinking water to people and even help with power generation. Relying solely on this one report, the bench on Feb 27 “directed” the Centre to constitute a “special committee.” It said that the committee should submit a bi-annual report to the Union Cabinet that would then consider the report and take decisions.
Critics have argued that the court’s reference to “the unanimous view of all experts” that the project is “in the national interest” is patently untrue, because there is a substantial body of expert opinion that is highly critical of the project. Such a serious error would not have occurred if there had been consultations with scholars of various disciplines. The Court fails to take note of, or treats lightly, the strong dissent on the part of several State Governments.
In a joint statement, 60 prominent citizens requested the Supreme Court to reconsider as “the judgment gives categorical directions to the Government on a matter which is clearly in the executive domain, namely the implementation of a particular project.” By declaring the project to be in the national interest, the court not only anticipates the result of the examination but also makes it extremely difficult for governmental agencies and Ministries to undertake an objective examination.
The project itself is flawed. Instead of starting from the identification of the needs of water-scarce areas and finding area-specific answers, the project starts by looking at a map of India, decides a priori that the rivers of India can and should be linked, and then proceeds to consider the modalities of doing so. “This is a reckless and major redesigning of the geography of the country,” prominent citizens have said. Pointing out that “rivers are not pipelines” they argue that “the grand design consisting of 30 projects involving upwards of 80 dams is bound to have major environmental/ecological consequences.”
“The idea of transferring flood waters to arid or drought-prone areas is flawed because there will be hardly any flood-moderation and this project will be of no use at all to drylands and uplands of the country.” The idea of transferring water from surplus to deficit basins is equally flawed be- cause the very notions of ‘surplus’ and ‘deficit’ are highly problematic. The idea of a ‘surplus’ river ignores the multiple purposes that it serves as it flows and joins the sea. The notion of a ‘deficit’ river is based on ‘demands’ on its waters derived from wasteful uses of water.
Eminent jurist and former Supreme Court judge, V. R. Krishna Iyer has also said that the matter is more technical and judges cannot decide on the course of rivers, whether they should be linked or not, and if at all, how they should be linked. A matter of such capacity can have adverse geographical and political ramifications and a national debate involving, especially river engineers, is essential before a project such as this can be undertaken. The project also entails regional dimensions. Both Nepal and Bangladesh have already expressed serious apprehensions.
Regardless of the Supreme Court’s diktat, the project cannot take off without the consent of numerous States, all of which have stakes in the project. The judgment itself admits that Karnataka, Bihar, Punjab, Assam and Sikkim have given a kind of “qualified approval” with definite reservations with regard to environmental and financial implications, and socioeconomic and international aspects. Assam, Sikkim and Kerala have said that they should have the exclusive right to use their water resources and that such a transfer should not affect their rights.
With geopolitics at play and domestic concerns elevating, it will take a long time for the project to take a concrete shape, if at all.