19 September 2015 14:19:48 IST

The magic elixir of life, and what we are doing with it

The interlinking of India’s rivers to create a massive water-grid will bring significant benefits

It is an idea knocking around since the 1970s. It is a monstrously huge project and, when complete, will stand tall as the world’s biggest project of its kind. It is in India, and it is finally beginning to happen.

I’m talking of the interlinking of India’s rivers, to create an unthinkably large water-grid. Here is a quick, graphic gist of it:

Bill : Rs 50,000 crore

Benefits :

Impounding 170 million acre-feet of water which would otherwise go waste; Additional 350,000 sq kilometres (a little bigger than Maharashtra or more than twice the size of Andhra Pradesh) under irrigation

Generation of 40 million kW of electricity and, above all – here’s the unseen big thing…

Flood control , a major necessity when the climate warms and the Himalayan glaciers melt

Considering that this idea got serious backing during the Vajpayee government of 2000-2004, it should not surprise anybody that the Modi government lost no time in pulling it off the shelf where it had lain since 2005.

Just look at the speed with which action has taken place on this project:

On July 14, 2014, within two months of the new government taking over, a Cabinet Note was prepared; and Cabinet approved it ten days later.

On September 23, 2014, a Special Committee on Interlinking of Rivers (SC on ILR) was formed. Between October 2014 and July 2015, this committee met as many as five times. In the meantime, one project was taken up – linking of the Ken river of Uttar Pradesh with the Betwa in Madhya Pradesh – and two public hearings were held in December 2014.

In April 2015, a Task Force was formed — it is a committee of experts.

And now, the Ken-Betwa project is at the very cusp of getting clearances and the first spade-stroke on The Great ILR project could hit the ground by the end of this year.

Two components

The project has been divided into two components — linking of Himalayan rivers and linking of peninsular rivers. The latter has been further divided into four segments.

The Ministry of Water Resources has identified 14 links under the Himalayan Rivers component and 16 under the Peninsular River component. Just so you know to what extent the project has progressed, feasibility reports for two of the former and 14 of the latter have been prepared.

And then there are intra-State segments, which are easier to do because they don’t involve two (often fighting) State governments. With forty-six proposals on the anvil — till March, pre-feasibility reports for 35 of them were completed by the National Water Development Authority.

Get an idea of the whole thing? Now, let us look at why this figures in a ‘Cleantech’ column.

Water wars

In recent times, many people have observed that the next wars between countries will be fought over water. The kind of human development that has taken place over the centuries has made water scarce, though three-fourths of the planet is covered by the stuff.

India is particularly vulnerable to water scarcities; today, in Chennai, you can see long queues of people with plastic pots waiting to get their fill from the public tanker. Water lorries are all over the place, as the elixir of life has to be ferried in trucks over long distances from various sources to the city. Ugly.

Flood control

Global warming is going to exacerbate the problem. The Himalayan glacial system is one of the most fragile on this planet and there is a very strong likelihood of glaciers retreating, which means more water down the rivers — implying floods in some areas, drought in others.

You need to control floods, and, if you don’t want to fall at China’s feet begging it to let more water down the rivers in the North East, you have to make sure you don’t waste water that is given to you.

To be able to impound 170 million acre-feet of water is a huge gain. To put it in a perspective, India has 600 storage dams and the total water they can hold is 130 million acre-feet. An estimated 85 per cent of the rains falling on India during the monsoons go waste into the sea.

The naysayers

As always, there are people who like the project, and those who don’t.

Some environmentalists are against the project, on the grounds that it might cause displacement of people, affect flora and fauna (as feared in the Ken-Betwa project).

Others, like me, say it is better to re-settle people rather than leave them to die of hunger and thirst.

Students of today, whose future the ILR project will greatly impact, will have to decide on which side of the divide they are.