India’s river-linking program highlights costs, opportunities of large-scale water infrastructure projects

Udisha Saklani and Cecilia Tortajada

OOSKAnews | November 2, 2015

India’s river-linking proposal was first discussed in the 1970s, in line with a shift in the country’s development trajectory that emphasized self-reliance and self-sufficiency in food production. Decades later, the matter was pursued by the center-right National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition, even though several academics and water experts had raised concerns regarding the viability of such an expensive program.

The plan has two main components — the Himalayan Rivers Development Component, with 14 inter-basin water transfer links, and the Peninsular Rivers Development Component, with 16 links — that will bring water from the potentially water-surplus Himalayan rivers to the water-scarce river basins of western and peninsular India.

The National Water Development Authority conducted several studies on the plan between 1982 and 2002. However, it was only in 2002 that the project received political approval. After then-President Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam referenced river-linking in a speech delivered on the eve of Independence Day, the Supreme Court of India issued a directive to the government to complete the National River Linking Project by 2016.

A taskforce was created to oversee the feasibility and implementation of the Himalayan and Peninsular links, and a number of committees were subsequently formed, comprising several of the country’s experts, specialist institutions and organizations, to conduct studies on issues related to wildlife and environment, rehabilitation, resettlement and other social issues, finance and economics, international dimensions, and institutional arrangements.

In line with the broader socio-economic goals of reducing regional water scarcity, managing adverse impacts of droughts and floods and meeting grain production targets, the National River Linking Program aims to add 35 million hectares of irrigated land and 34 gigawatts of hydropower potential, with the additional benefits of mitigating droughts and floods, groundwater recharge, and improving internal navigation and fisheries, by managing 178 billion cubic meters of water.

On completion, the project will become the largest infrastructure initiative ever undertaken in the world. According to some estimates, it could cost up to $123 billion USD, three times more than China’s South-to-North water transfer project.

Some costs, such as those of land acquisition and resettlement and rehabilitation of displaced populations, can only be assessed after completion of the Detailed Project Reports. Since only the Feasibility Reports have been prepared, the actual cost of the water transfer program can only be estimated at this point.

When current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government assumed power in 2014, there was a renewed gusto for implementing the water transfer project. On September 16, the Godavari-Krishna linkage in Andhra Pradesh, which connect India’s second- and fourth-longest rivers through the Polavaram Right Main Canal and the Pattiseema Lift Irrigation project, was officially launched. In addition, the Ken-Betwa river project, estimated to cost $1.7 billion USD, is currently under development and is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Globally, better water management through infrastructure building has added immense value to a nation’s economic and social welfare. Deciding against planned investment in construction or modernization of public infrastructure is a drastic step that ignores needs that have to be met for a rapidly expanding population. However, efforts to address food and energy security challenges must also take into consideration social and environmental concerns such as population displacement and water quality deterioration, respectively, as they also have a major impact on development.

The go-ahead for the national river-linking plan offers a window of opportunity to revisit India’s rehabilitation and resettlement policy for affected communities, which continues to suffer from procedural gaps when implemented on the ground. Proper evaluation of social costs and timely compensation for affected communities, enforced by a transparent, accountable regulatory body, are necessary steps in the process of commissioning a large-scale infrastructure project. It also provides a major opportunity to address water quality deterioration and related public health concerns.

Undertaking physical infrastructure development projects that are socially and environmentally sustainable is a challenging but entirely plausible task that fosters long-term economic competitiveness and greater social inclusion. Innovation and political will are key to meeting the demand for high-level infrastructure investments in a way that ensures public safety, financial soundness and environmentally sustainable protection.

In spite of its enormous complexity, properly planned and implemented, the river-linking program has the potential to improve the quality of life of millions of people. However, it requires that numerous demand and water resources management programs also be put in place. Otherwise, the water transferred will never be enough, and the river-linking will offer only a temporary solution with very high economic, social and environmental costs that will not deliver the promised improvements to the country and its people.

Udisha Saklani and Cecilia Tortajada, Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.