Fifteen years after it created widespread debate and discussion, the river interlinking project has made a comeback in Tamil Nadu's political discourse. The latest proponent of the programme is none other than DMK Working President MK Stalin, who has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, demanding that the project be expedited.
In his letter, Stalin has claimed that inter-state river linking would benefit farmers across the country. The initiative, he writes, would solve farmers' issues, address inter-state water disputes and bring about complete harmony in relations among neighbouring states.
Stalin's statement comes at a time when Tamil Nadu is facing its worst drought in 140 years. The state has reportedly lost close to 50% of its crop and farmers have been pushed to the brink of despair. Reservoirs have run dry and even water for domestic purposes is fast depleting.
The DMK has now dug into a decade old discussion to reignite the river interlinking debate with the justification: "This will further strengthen national integration, national development and national economy."
While Stalin may attempt to come off as altruistic with this idealistic letter, what he truly is, according to experts, is ignorant.
To make matters worse, he is not the first public figure to pander to this school of thought in the last three months. Less than 10 days ago, superstar Rajinikanth met farmers who belong to the National South Indian Rivers Inter-Linking Farmers Association and assured them support. The actor in fact, even offered to write them a cheque of Rs 1 crore for the project, based on a promise he had made 15 years ago, when the issue was a raging debate.
"People like Stalin are looking for temporary political gains. They have no long-term vision," says MG Devasahayam, a retired IAS officer. "The cost of such a project will cost the government trillions of rupees. Does Rajinikanth think his one crore will make a difference? This just shows how our politicians have no understanding of ecology, nature or even politics for that matter," he adds.
It was in 2002, that the then President Abdul Kalam proposed river linking as a solution to India's water woes. Following this, an application was filed in the Supreme Court and was later converted into a writ petition. The court ordered the Central Government to then initiate work on inter-linking major rivers of the country.
"The Supreme Court intervening in the matter is by itself problematic," says Devasahayam. "This is something the Parliament must decide. It is not in the SC's jurisdiction," he adds.
But in the same year, a task force was appointed and a deadline of 2016 was set to complete the entire project. This was supposed to link over 30 rivers but nothing happened for close to a decade. Following this, the apex court stepped in again and reportedly ordered the constitution of a 'Special Committee for Interlinking of Rivers'. This was supposed to be headed by the Water Resources Minister.
While the UPA Government did not support the programme, the NDA Government did. In the 2014-15 Budget, according to reports, it earmarked Rs 100 crore to get a Detailed Project Report for the programme.
Except they failed to understand that the core basis of the project, which terms the river either 'surplus' or 'deficit', by itself is illogical.
There are three main problems that arise when you talk about the river linking project. The first is ecological, the second financial and the third is political.
To begin with, environmentalists unanimously agree that the project would be an ecological disaster. "There is no such thing as surplus water for a river," says Nityanand, an environmentalist. "The water in it is not just meant for irrigation and drinking water purposes," he adds.
According to experts, the proposal is based on an ecological myth that water which drains into the sea is wasted. "When rivers wind through forested, cultivated, and settled lands, they carry with them large amounts of silt. This silt is deposited along the way, enhancing the productivity of the surrounding lands, and finally of the coastal waters. This is the basis of the rich agriculture of the plains of India, and of the rich fisheries off our coasts. The river also pushes out the sea, which would otherwise invade deep into the land, and erode the coast," said Ashish Kothari from Kalpavriksh, a non-profit organisation to indiawaterport
"There is so much that needs to be done to conserve the existing water bodies in Tamil Nadu," says Shwetha Narayan, an environmentalist. "Rivers and lakes are polluted with sewage and industrial waste. If our politicians can't stop that, what is the point of linking more water bodies," she asks.
According to experts, efforts to change the natural flow of a waterbody will not only damage the environment but also the bring the country's finances to shambles.
"Water flows according to how gravity pulls it. If you want to change its course that would require an immense amount of energy," says Nityanand. "Where is the money for that? The one crore that Rajini is ready to give is not even enough to link two tanks" he adds.
According to reports, the total cost of implementation for the project would be Rs 5,60,000 crore at 2002 price levels with an annual outlay of Rs 16,000 crore over 35 years.
This cost reportedly consists of three components. It includes Rs 1,06,000 crore for the peninsular component, Rs 1,85,000 crore for the Himalayan component and Rs 2,69,000 crore for the hydroelectric component (infrastructure to harness energy from the flow of water).
S Ranganathan, general secretary of the Cauvery Delta Farmers' Welfare Association too points out that the solution is not feasible for farmers. "Such a task is not possible for the next 1000 years because it goes against the nature of these rivers," he claims. "Our best bet now is it grow crops according to the condition of soil and the availability of water," he adds.
The third problem and first hurdle this project will face is lack of political consensus.
"We are already begging for water from Karnataka," says Ranganathan. "Does it even seem likely that they will agree to link their river and share water with the rest of the country?" he asks.
India already has its share of disputes over water sharing. Right from the Ravi-Beas Water issue between Punjab-Haryana-Rajasthan to the Cauvery Water issue between Kerala-Karnataka-Tamil Nadu-Puduchery. Even at the international level, the sharing of Indus water with Pakistan, Teesta with Bangladesh and Brahmaputra with China, continue to daunt the country.
Demanding that states all give in to this project would be an infringement of their right. In addition to this people would get displaced, lands submerged and even forests destroyed by this move.
"This entire debate being brought up again is just an effort by politicians to divert attention from the real issue," says Devasahayam. "Tamil Nadu is one of the worst states when it comes to water management. We have polluted our water bodies knowingly and ruined our own water sources. And now we want to link other rivers to these polluted water bodies?" he asks.