The History of Interlinking Rivers

Floods and severe water shortage

Update: 2022-02-08 11:58 GMT

In view of the Union Budget 2022 giving prominence to interlinking rivers (ILR), it becomes necessary to take an overview of ILR.

A characteristic of the Gangetic rivers is monsoon flood which annually affects large areas of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, just as Brahmaputra river does in Assam. It is well argued that flood is a natural feature of India’s rivers, and that flood intensity is mitigated by upstream forest cover and vegetation. However, in past decades, mountain and hill deforestation – especially in Uttarakhand, which has suffered severe social and environmental repercussions, most recently, Chamoli – has resulted in larger volumes of flood water arriving in shorter durations in the plains.

Engineering interventions like embankments (“flood control” structures), especially when breached, trap flood water and prevent it from returning to the river channel. This water stagnates for weeks together, causing devastation by serious loss of livelihoods and social disruption. Flood disasters are, to that extent, man-made.

Further, as in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, while large areas are devastated by floods, there are large areas a mere 5 to 10-km distant, which suffer from severe water shortage. Thus the concept of “water-surplus” regions supplying water by canals to “water-deficit” regions thousands of kilometres away, is a misconception sold as a social good to justify ILR.

Linking distant rivers by canals on a grand scale was proposed even as far back as 1972. Dr.K.L.Rao had proposed the “Ganga-Cauvery link canal”, which the Government rejected as being too expensive. In 1977 airlines Capt Dastur proposed a “national garland canal” scheme, which was rejected as “technically faulty”.

However, government engineers and administrators deliberated on how to handle the annually recurring disasters of flood and drought occurring in river basins thousands of miles apart.

In August 1980, the Ministry of Irrigation (later MoWR) had formulated a plan called “National Perspectives for Water Development”. This led to establishment in 1982, of the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), a Government of India Society under MoWR, to study basin-wide surpluses and deficits, and explore the possibilities for storage, links, and transfers of water. Accordingly, MoWR technocrats conceived the deceptively attractive idea of mitigation of both flood and drought by canal-based mass-transport of water from “water-surplus” areas of the Brahmaputra and Ganga basins to the “water-deficit” areas in peninsular India. Thus was ILR as a system of canals, conceived.

NWDA's dormant idea was resuscitated when President Dr.A.P.J.Abdul Kalam, stated in his 2002 pre-Independence Day speech, that interlinking of rivers was inescapable to solve India's flood and drought problems. Taking a cue from this, Advocate Ranjit Kumar (amicus curiae in another matter) filed a short application in September 2002, praying that Supreme Court should direct government to take up this project.

CJI Justice B.N.Kirpal accordingly issued Notices to the States and the Centre. The matter came up for hearing on the day before Justice Kirpal was to retire. In the absence of response from all states but one, CJI presumed that states have no objection to ILR, and passed an order to the union government to take up and complete the ILR project in the shortest possible time. The ILR project conceived in the 1980s, was thus born in 2002, without proper application of mind by the learned judge, without a study of alternatives, without discussion in Parliament, without scrutiny by the Planning Commission, and without public consultation.

With unseemly haste, by-passing established planning procedures and checks for major projects, the Vajpayee-led NDA-1 government kick-started the ILR project, with MoWR engineers’ estimate at Rs.5.6-lakh-crores. Government constituted a high-profile Task Force for ILR, on 13 December 2002. The ILR project envisaged large canals linking 30 major rivers – 14 Himalayan and 16 Peninsular canals – of 14,900-km total length, without mentioning dams.

This was a huge boost for the heavy engineering, construction and banking industries, and an attractive opportunity for wielders of political and economic power in the States and Centre. FICCI and CII enthusiastically supported ILR, and Government set 31 December 2016 as target completion date. The bases for system-project design, cost estimate and target date were never made public. Plans were approved, to spend humongous public funds for a project which had by-passed all established social, economic/financial and technical planning processes.

An idea proposed in August 2002 led to a judicial decision in September 2002, and ILR became an approved project in December 2002, with 14-years completion period ending December 31, 2016.

ILR promoted

Scientists, engineers, social scientists, grassroots and civil society activists and others, raised cogent objections and arguments opposing ILR. However, governments resorted to studied intransparency and in-built unaccountability by stone-wallng, ignoring, or side-stepping by directing dissenters to the wholly inadequate ILR TF website.

The most fundamental opposition to ILR was that the mega-project was ill-conceived. It was a case of reverse planning logic, that without consideration of all alternatives to solve the problem of water availability, government decided a priori that ILR was a solution, and proceeded to address the modalities of its implementation.

Eventually, on-the-ground country-wide resistance from thousands of people who would be affected by various components of the ILR project, combined with well-argued objections against ILR, resulted in Government winding up ILR TF on 29 December 2004, and creating a low-profile Special Cell in MoWR, to continue the work, and prepare DPRs under guidance of NWDA senior technocrats.

On 25 November 2008, the Supreme Court asked Government, why not even a single link out of the thirty planned links was underway. Government responded that the consensus between States had not yet been worked out, and in cases where it was done, the signatures of the State governments had not been obtained. “The Pioneer” (November 26, 2008) reported that the Bench directed the Centre to file a detailed status report by January 2009, indicating the proposed dates for completion of the Feasibility Reports.

“The Indian Express” (December 2, 2009) reported that UPA-2’s MoWR minister P.K.Bansal told the Lok Sabha that interlinking Himalayan with Peninsular rivers (re-estimated at Rs.4,44,000 crores by National Council of Applied Economic Research) was unaffordable, but Himalayan and peninsular rivers would be linked separately. Notably, UPA-2's MoEF minister Jairam Ramesh declared the ILR project would be a “human, ecological and economic disaster for the country”, though smaller inter-basin transfers could go on.

In October 2011, questioning whether the ILR project would require land acquisition, the Supreme Court said that it might not favour the project if it meant a huge financial burden on government. “My concern is only on what is the financial liability of the project. We want to make it clear that we would not pass order on it if it causes huge financial burden,” observed a three-judge Bench, headed by CJI Justice S.H.Kapadia. The Bench also directed amicus curiae Advocate Ranjit Kumar to file a report on the financial viability of the project in a month’s time, and scheduled the next hearing for January 2012.

Clearly, apart from the political compulsions of not endorsing a proposal made by the predecessor NDA-1 government, there was considerable confusion in government circles on the financial, economic and environmental viability of ILR as a system. As clear, is the unusual interest evinced by Supreme Court over the years, in promoting the ILR project.

Thereafter, two writ petitions on ILR dating back to 2002 were disposed off by Supreme Court's judgment of 27 February 2012. It directed Government to implement the ILR project by setting up a special committee, whose decisions would take precedence over administrative bodies created under the orders of the Supreme Court or otherwise. It directed the union cabinet to take all final and appropriate decisions, and laid down a “preferable” time limit of 30 days for such decision-making. It also granted “liberty to the learned amicus curiae to file contempt petition in the Supreme Court, in the event of default or non-compliance of the directions contained in its order”.

Here was a clear case of judicial over-reach into executive (UPA-2 government) function. The attractive possibilities implicit in the huge expenditures which the ILR project entailed, were doubtless the reason for government raising no objection to judicial encroachment.

With the BJP-led NDA-2 government coming to power in May 2014, MoWR minister Uma Bharti vigorously revived NDA-1 government's original ILR proposal, without reference to, leave alone resolution of substantive objections raised. Thus, the ILR project, at humongous social, environmental/ecological and financial/economic cost, continued to be promoted without proper application of the judicial mind, and without consideration of alternatives. The hand of the politician-bureaucrat-corporate nexus in furthering its neoliberal economic agenda was plain as daylight.

The foregoing 12-years time-line of ILR demonstrates how different members of the Apex judiciary and different parties and politicians of the executive – legislators in Parliament/Assemblies, failed to discuss ILR for obvious reasons – have by-passed established planning practices in promoting and pressing a ruinously expensive national mega-project of doubtful utility, that entails huge displacement of populations. With NWDA's unsubstantiated assurances of irrigation or power-generation advantages, these constitutional authorities were only concerned with time and cost issues. They failed to consider how much land was required and how many families would be negatively impacted by ILR – for successive governments, people were rarely, if ever, a consideration, except for elections.

The ILR system

ILR is a dam-canal system connecting high-discharge, fast-flowing Himalayan-source rivers, with the seasonal rivers of Peninsular India, to transfer water between river basins. The most publicised part of ILR was the Ganga-Cauvery canals – with two pumped lifts – with water flowing southwards. Although government’s decision on the Himalayan links is unclear, the Ganga-Cauvery link emotively promises Ganga water across the valleys of Subarnarekha, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Pennar, and Palar.

The functional basis of the system is NWDA’s “exchange concept”. Brahmaputra and Ganga are primary sources of “surplus” water, because they are only donor basins, according to NWDA. The concept is that with the exception of the Brahmaputra and the Ganga, every river basin donates its “surplus” water to another river basin, in exchange for the water it receives.

Thus, if a (recipient) river basin does not receive water from another (donor) river basin for any reason whatever, it cannot feed water (as a donor) into the next link-canal in the system. For water to reach Cauvery, all the links have to function together as a system.

The concept of “surplus” water, is one on which different states have different perceptions, and the quantification of “surplus” is even more contentious. Water reaching Cauvery is dependent on the reliable and uninterrupted flow of water in the supply chain of links to its north.

Interruption of flow in one or more links because of farmers’ agitations, structural/operational failures or hitches, political compulsions, natural disasters, sabotage, etc., can cause local damage and stoppage of flow, with weeks of down time and expense for the system to normalise.

MoWR officials and engineers appear to view the mega-project as a problem in hydrology and hydraulics, to the exclusion of its social, environmental, economic and geopolitical consequences.

ILR is a complex system with conceptual and planning shortcomings, and definable technical, operating, social, environmental, legal, economic, security and political vulnerabilities. Assessment of the viability of the system-as-a-whole, needs the most careful planning and consideration. There is no evidence to indicate that such considerations were involved in the planning of the system. Notwithstanding, planning and execution of individual links are proceeding, with allocations in Union Budget 2022, as the most recent impetus.

River water disputes

Since the ILR project is all about inter-State, inter-basin mass-transport of water, it is moot to consider water disputes. There have been several inter-State, intra-State and inter-basin water-sharing disputes, which remain mostly unresolved despite judicial (Supreme Court) interventions.

In the inter-State context, the decades-long Cauvery water dispute between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, is a typical example of states disputing water-sharing of the same river basin,. Another typical example is the decades-long SYL canal dispute of Punjab and Haryana, concerning inter-basin (Sutlej and Yamuna) water sharing, with Punjab enacting a law not to share its water with Haryana, and the Supreme Court striking down that law as “unconstitutional”. In both these and other cases, there has been public violence and social unrest.

In the international context, India's disputes on water are with Pakistan (Indus water) and Bangladesh (Ganga and Brahmaputra water), again involving the foregoing contestations. India's dispute with China on Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) water is nascent so far, but the ILR project has been objected to by Bangladesh and Nepal.

These examples adequately illustrate that every state wants water, and no state admits that it has “surplus” water to share, especially in circumstances of scarcity. This is because every state government is mandated to look after the needs of its own populations. Thus, in the past, central government orders have been challenged by states, with increased animosity between neighbouring states. Sometimes, judicial decisions on water disputes have nearly precipitated constitutional crises. Changing “Water” from a state subject to a concurrent or central subject by constitutional amendment cannot solve on-the-ground, real-time thirst/need/demand for water, regardless of Executives’ or Judiciarys’ diktats.

As scarce water is increasingly cause for conflict at all levels of society, it passes understanding how, over the years, successive central governments, spurred by a succession of learned Supreme Court judges, are unable to comprehend that pursuing the ILR project will only intensify existing legal-social disputes/conflicts or create fresh conflicts/disputes between people on-the-ground, and between governments. This can only weaken the nation’s federal structure, and diminish judicial status.


The cumulative environmental impacts of the component projects of the ILR project are of concern. In a situation of growing environmental degradation due to uncontrolled extraction of natural resources in the neoliberal political economy, combined with galloping climate change, the stress on water resources is growing. India, with 16% of global population (and increasing) but only 4% of global fresh water (and reducing), is already seriously water-stressed, and ILR cannot mitigate it.

To observe the environmental issues involved in ILR, it is instructive to consider the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP) between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The ILR TF placed Feasibility Reports of some of the ILR projects in the public domain in 2005, only after it was forced to do so by Supreme Court's directive following public petitions demanding official transparency. The Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) was pressured to obtain clearance from National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) after MoWR minister Uma Bharti declared in June 2016 that delay in clearance to KBLP was a “national crime”, and threatened to go on a hunger strike. Accordingly, allowing environmental concerns to become victim to political pressure, NBWL gave its clearance to KBLP in September 2016.

The KBLP example is sufficient to demonstrate how governments' motivation for pressing ahead with project execution overrides social-environmental concerns, and that governments value short-term economic gains over long-term survival issues.

In the foregoing, property and livelihood loss and social disruption due to mass displacement of populations has not been discussed. People’s lives and livelihoods are an on-going, burning problem all over the country, epitomised by the decades-long peaceful resistance to dams in the Narmada Valley. Since 1950, over 50 million people have already been displaced, many twice, due to dam-canal projects. Besides the suffering of project-affected families and downstream generational-social effects, there is social disruption and unrest as PAFs move to new places, where they are not welcome among people who are themselves already economically stressed. ILR has created large-scale social malcontents. These issues are not addressed at all by successive governments.

In January 2002, in the context of water conservation and availability, PM Vajpayee wisely recommended: “Catch every raindrop where it falls”. His no-conflict, low-cost and practical idea of watershed management, was summarily pushed aside on 14 August 2002 when President Kalam promoted NWDA's high-cost ILR scheme. Strangely, PM Vajpayee remained silent.

The ILR project is an egregious combination of inexplicable judicial haste, motivated executive hubris, and inexcusable apathy of unquestioning legislatures. It is an unmitigated mockery of established planning processes, and of the checks and balances of constitutional governance, by successive governments. It is a precise, unrivalled example of how a national project should not be planned.

ILR is an ill-conceived, ruinously expensive, technically questionable, ecologically devastating and socially disruptive, national project. The three pillars of the Constitution have failed the People.

The hand of the politician-bureaucrat-corporate-contractor nexus in promoting ILR across successive governments since 2002, is plain as daylight. There is eminent possibility of ILR accelerating the on-going social, environmental, economic and political downturn.

The Government of India needs to scrap the ILR concept and project permanently, and instead invest in intra-basin watershed management for realistic people’s development. Central and State governments need to enforce water conservation by a combination of suitable, region-specific, tried and tested methods, and review agricultural and industrial water-use policy.

Government needs to focus on mitigating the effects of increased water-stress due to global warming and climate change. Failure to do this may result in unmanageable social unrest, irrecoverable economic loss, and catastrophe.

Major General S.G.Vombatkere, VSM, holds a PhD from I.I.T, Madras, in Civil Structural Engineering.

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