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River interlinking plan to threaten livelihood of millions: Expert tells Venkaiah Naidu

Vice-President at Tungabhadra dam on Aug 20, 2021
By Shankar Sharma* 

Letter to M Venkaiah Naidu, Vice-President of India:
Greetings from Sagara, Western Ghats, Karnataka.
May I draw your kind attention to a representation by the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (YJA) over the issue of the planned inter-linking of rivers (ILR) in the country?
While fully endorsing the overall message of the above said representation, I would like to bring to your kind consideration very many associated concerns, which need a diligent discussion at the national level, but which seem to have been completely ignored by or escaped the attention of the concerned bureaucrats / advisers/ political leaders.
These concerns, which are critically important to be effectively addressed in the associated policy decisions, seem so obvious to a common man like me that it is rather shocking and disappointing that none of the govt. agencies have deemed it necessary to provide the much-needed clarifications on them to the larger civil society, whose support/ cooperation is essential for the successful implementation of any such nation-wide scheme.
You may kindly consider reflecting on the genuine concerns of a large number of people and civil society organisations (CSOs), which are similarly concerned about the way our rivers and fresh water bodies are being treated by the successive governments. The proposal to undertake a number of ILR projects is the latest and most serious concern threatening the livelihood of millions of people at a time when our natural resources are already under severe threat, and when the phenomenon of Climate Change has acquired the status of global climate emergency.
May I request that suitable instructions are issued to all the concerned agencies to undertake due diligence processes in deliberating on each one of these concerns, thoroughly review the very concept of ILR, and provide satisfactory clarifications to the people of this country?
  • It is a well-established scientific fact that the overall protection of a river is feasible only when it is allowed to flow freely without any human intervention/ obstruction. However, in this larger context, a river’s bounty needs to be harnessed by the humanity for its survival and continued welfare. As should be evident from these two scientific facts, such harnessing of a river’s wealth must be sustainable over hundreds, if not thousands, of years to keep it in an acceptable healthy condition. The sustainable practices, as adopted by our ancestors over thousands of years, without which the present generation would not have seen most of the present-day rivers, should be our primary guiding lights. Can we say that all or most of these guiding lights are being followed in out treatment of rivers, especially in the planned ILR proposals?
  • The different kinds of obstructions to the free flow of a river, such as dams /barrages/ diversions etc. are planned/ implemented on the general assumption that such a river has surplus waters flowing, and that the utilisation of such surplus waters outside or far away the river valley will not result in any damages to the main river itself. Are there any credible scientific papers, which have focused on the correct management of rivers, providing credence to such assumptions? Can there be any notion of ‘surplus/excess’ waters in any river, or for that matter, can there be any notion of any kind of ‘surplus/excess’ in nature? Whereas, any notion of ‘surplus/excess’ may appear in a river temporarily in one or more stretches, can we assume/ expect such ‘surplus/excess’ in a river at all times and in all of its stretches? If there is any ‘surplus/excess’, how can we judge it, and how to measure the same? Is there any universal yardstick for measuring the same, and if so, what is the yardstick that is applicable to the rivers in India
  • Another set of general assumptions amongst the bureaucrats and political leaders is that the water flowing to the sea/ ocean is a waste, and that every drop of water in the river should be utilised by humans. These assumptions cannot be credible at all for the following reasons: (i) if every river in the planet is stopped from reaching sea/ ocean the chemical and biological composition of sea/ ocean will undergo drastic change, similar to the one at dead sea, and the ocean creatures may face extinction; (ii) flora, fauna and people who have been depending on the riverine environment near to the tail end of the river for thousands of years will face life threatening changes; (iii) insufficient flow in the river at the delta will lead to the collapse of the delta region, and will result in a massive ingress of sea water into the river valley, thereby rendering infertile the lands surrounding the river. Even a considerably reduced river flow can result in all these impacts. Have there been any authentic reports to alleviate such fears in the care of our rivers?
  • Have there been credible studies on social, environmental and economic impacts of such exploitation of rivers, of major/ minor dams/ barrages, or of ILR anywhere in the world, or in India? Have there been rational analysis of costs and benefits to the larger society from such projects either in India or elsewhere; and have these studies established, beyond reasonable doubts, that the total benefits to the society is clearly more than the total costs?
  • Neither the report of the World Commission on Dams (“Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making”), nor the report by International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) has been in blind support of large dams. Both these reports have strongly advised extreme caution and thorough consultations with all the stake holders before taking decision to build dams. Can we say that these advises have been effectively heeded to in our country? Have our policy makers done due diligence as to why a large number of dams are being decommissioned in the US and Europe? The consultations with the stakeholders /public in India, in all such cases, has either been absent or just farcical. Effective public consultations will be able to address most of the concerns, minimise the costs/ risks associated with the projects, and ensure active participation of the stakeholders in effective implementation of the projects.
  • The large-scale diversions of/ obstructions to the rivers are generally done with the stated objective of providing water for those who live away from the river banks. Since every one of such projects has enormous costs to the riverine ecology and to the larger society itself, should not our societies focus on maximising the usage efficiency of water already available to our communities? Can we say that the various sources of fresh water (from rainfall, ponds, wells, lakes, rivers and ground water table etc.) are being utilised with highest efficiency possible? Official estimates indicate that the level of efficiency of water usage at the country level has been unbelievably low. In view of the growing threats of Climate Change, existing scarcity, and growing demands, shall we not mobilise our resources to otpimise the usage of all these available resources before embarking on high cost/ high risk projects such as ILRs?
  • As has been reiterated repeatedly by a number of credible global agencies, such as UNEP, UNFCCC, WHO, FAO etc., unless our society makes concerted efforts to harness every one of our natural resources, especially the rivers and forests, with utmost care and accountability, the looming threats associated with Climate Change will overwhelm our communities within a short span of time. When we objectively consider the impacts of any of the ILR projects, it should become obvious that the overall result will be akin to ‘robbing Paul to pay Peter’. Every geographic/ climatic region of the country has their specific advantages/ disadvantages, and our ancestors have chosen to settle and live sustainably in these habitats by depending just on the resources available locally. The overall costs/ risks to the entire country from the perspective of sustainably harnessing our natural resources will be minimal, if and only if, every community adopts sustainable life style based on optimisation of locally available resources. Not only will thousands of hectares of forest and agricultural lands will be submerged /diverted, but also many millions of people may have to be forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands. There can also be a tremendous additional burden on the electricity sector to pump massive quantities of water from lower elevations to higher elevation. Seen from any perspective, the concept of ILR cannot be sustainable even in a vague sense.
In this larger context, may I request once again, that the concerned agencies be mandated to diligently review the very concept of ILR, taking into account the various associated experiences from different parts of the world, and through effective public consultation processes?
If the hon’ble Vice President desires so, a group of people from the civil society who have been studying the associated issues for years, will feel privileged to be able to make a detailed presentation.
---
*Power & Climate Policy Analyst

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