India to Link Rivers

Contentious project gets court green light

Environmentalists in Bangladesh fear it would spell disaster

Daily Star Bangladesh article – February 28, 2012, Project Gets Green Light

The Indian Supreme Court yesterday ordered the government to implement an ambitious project to link the major rivers of the region in a “time-bound manner”. The court also appointed a high-powered committee to plan and put into action the Rs 5,00,000 crore scheme. The river-linking project was first devised in 1980 and has been under discussion ever since, reports BBC. Bangladesh has been opposing the plan since 2002 as the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee formed a task force to get the project going against the backdrop of the acute drought that year. Vajpayee then said the scheme would “free India from the curse of floods and droughts”.

The project that aims to link 30 major rivers and divert the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers was also opposed by other neighboring countries and environmentalists. Bangladesh maintains that a diversion of water from these rivers will harm its interests while environmentalists say the project will cause an ecological disaster, BBC writes. Ainun Nishat, a water expert, yesterday told The Daily Star the Bangladesh-India Joint Communiqué issued during Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s New Delhi visit in 2010 called for mutual understanding in managing the common rivers.

But the river link project was initiated without any consent from Bangladesh. The diversion of the Brahmaputra will have a serious impact on Bangladesh that gets about two-thirds of its dry season water from the river, he added.

The Bangladesh Paribesh Andolon, an environmental organization, handed over a memorandum to Hasina last September when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited Dhaka. It expressed concern that under the river link plan the flows of the Brahmaputra and the Ganges will be redirected towards the southern and western parts of India, depriving Bangladesh of water. The project requires the construction of large dams in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, besides requiring international agreements with these countries. Environmentalists say large dams would flood forests and cultivated areas, and cause compulsory resettlement of people, according to a BBC report.

The biodiversity of Bangladesh greatly depends on rivers. The country is already bearing the brunt of a diversion of water of the Ganges and Teesta rivers by India. The taskforce that Vajpayee formed in October 2002 recommended dividing the project into Peninsular and Himalayan components. The Peninsular component that involved rivers in southern India envisaged developing a “Southern Water Grid” with 16 linkages. It included the diversion of surplus water of Mahanadi and Godavari rivers to Pennar, Krishna, Vaigai, and Cauvery rivers.

The taskforce also mooted a diversion of the rivers of Kerala and Karnataka to the east, and interlinking of small rivers flowing along the west coast, south of Tapi and north of Mumbai and of the southern tributaries of Jamuna. The Himalayan component envisaged building reservoirs on the Ganges and the Brahmaputra and their main tributaries in India and Nepal to conserve water during the monsoon for irrigation and hydro-power generation. The task force had identified 14 links, including Kosi-Ghagra, Kosi-Mech, Ghagra-Jamuna, Gandak-Ganges, Jamuna-Rajasthan, Rajasthan-Sabarmati, Sarda-Jamuna, Farakka-Sundarbans, Brahmaputra-Ganges, Subernarekha-Mahanadi, and Ganges-Damodar-Subernarekha. The task force said the linking of rivers in India would raise irrigation potential to 160 million hectares for all types of crops by 2050.

The project proposes linkages between the major rivers by the year 2016. Yesterday, observing that the project had already been delayed, resulting in cost rise, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice SH Kapadia said the central Indian government and the states concerned should participate for its “effective” implementation “in a time-bound manner”. The bench appointed a high-powered committee comprising the Indian water resources minister, its secretary, secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF), and four experts appointed by water resources ministry, finance ministry, planning commission, and MoEF. Representatives from state governments, two social activists, and senior lawyer Ranjit Kumar, who has been assisting the court in the case, will also be in the committee as members.