India’s proposed river-linking mega- project Bangladesh

by Barrister Harun ur Rashid | March 11, 2012 9:59 pm

It is reported that on 27th February, the Indian Supreme Court has ordered the government to implement the rivers-linking scheme in a “time-bound manner”. The court also directed the Centre to constitute a ‘special committee’ forthwith for inter-linking of rivers for the benefit of the entire nation..

The Bench said: “This is a matter of national benefit and progress. We see no reason why any state should lag behind in contributing its bit to bringing the inter-linking river programme to a success, thus saving the people living in drought-prone zones from hunger and people living in flood-prone areas from the destruction caused by floods.”
With the order of the apex court, the river-linking mega-project is alive again. However Chief Minister of Kerala Chandy reportedly made it clear that the apex court order was not applicable to Kerala as it was “harmful” to the state’s interest and it was relevant only to those States that had agreed on a river-linking scheme.
Soon after independence in 1947, Dr K.L.Rao, an eminent engineer who happened to be in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet as Irrigation Minister had reportedly prepared a scheme to connect all the major rivers/lakes as part of water management.

It is noted the river-linking project has been under discussion under successive governments and was revived in 1980. . In 2003 the former Prime Minister Vajpayee constituted a task force to get the project going and he said that the scheme would “free India from the curse of floods and droughts.”

Many Indian experts on water resources management expressed strong reservations on the inter-linking project on serious technical and environmental grounds. It is reported that people in West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, Karnataka and Kerala states of India came out vigorously against the project.

India has three major river systems and they are:
• The Himalayan Rivers,
• The Indus Rivers
• The Peninsular Rivers

The first two are trans-boundary river systems while the peninsular river system originates in Central India.

The Indus River system consists of the Indus and five of its tributaries-Beas, Sutlej, Chenab, Jhelum and Ravi. They pass through India and Pakistan before it meets the Arabian Ocean.
The Himalayan Rivers pass through Nepal, India and Bangladesh before they meet the Bay of Bengal. In Bangladesh the Padma/the Ganges, Jamuna /Brahmaputra and Meghna are part of the Himalayan River system.

Peninsular rivers originate in Chattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh states. Out of six major peninsular rivers, four– Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery– flow eastwards and meets the Bay of Bengal while two rivers, like Narmada and Tapti, flow toward West and meet the Arabian Sea.

The river- linking mega project involves both the Himalayan and Peninsular rivers. It is a gigantic project reportedly costing about US$ 1,000 billion, (about Rs.5,00,000 crore). According to the Indian Water Resources Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, it is reported out of 30 proposed links, 16 are in the Himalayan component and 14 are the peninsular component.

India kept officially Bangladesh in the dark about the river-linking scheme and Bangladesh knew of it through Indian media in 2003. Naturally it caused grave concern to Bangladesh because under the scheme of the Himalayan component, all the major sources of rivers in Bangladesh would be subject to unilateral diversion by India.

The diversion will result in severe adverse impact on the country. Water experts say the country will not get two-thirds of its dry season water from the Brahmaputra River. Agriculture and industry of the Ganges Dependant Area and parts of Meghna River will be badly hit.

The impact assessment carried five years ago in Bangladesh presents not only a grim picture of ecological disaster in Bangladesh including ruination of the Sunderbans and but also of damaging farm lands and inland fisheries due to saline intrusion inside the country. Another media report says that at least 117 rivers in the country have died due to obstructions and withdrawal of water in their upper reaches.

It is significant to note that an Indian Professor R. Jagadiswara Rao, of Sri Venkateswara University, Triputi, of Andhra Pradesh, wrote: “Bangladesh located in the deltaic region of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) international river basin is faced with multitude of water problems including extensive floods, sever water shortages and high arsenic at harmful levels in ground water of Holocene formations of large spatial extent. The water problems of the country would get further aggravated if the recent attempts by the Indian government to interlink rivers for massive transfers from north to south fructify.” ( Documents of the Regional Cooperation on Trans-boundary Rivers: Impact of the Indian River-Linking Project” held in Dhaka on 17-19 December 2004:: page 46).

When Bangladesh’s serious concern was conveyed to India, the then India’s Minister for Water Resources made a statement in March 2005 that India would not implement river-linking projects in the Eastern Zone to avoid any dent in relationship with Bangladesh.(DS/March 9, 2005).

Since then Bangladesh-India relations have opened a new horizon of cooperative partnership and were strengthened by bilateral understandings and agreements.

The plan of linking trans-boundary Himalayan rivers (a) goes against the 2010 Bangladesh-India joint communiqué and the Framework Agreement on Cooperation and Development signed on 6th September, 2011, (b) is contrary to Article 9 of the 1996 Indo-Bangladesh Ganges Water Treaty and the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Furthermore, turning the riverine country eventually into a desert constitutes an existential threat to Bangladesh and may arguably come within the extended meaning of “aggression” as described in the 1974 General Assembly resolution 3314.

In the backdrop of the order of the Supreme Court and the Himalayan component of the scheme, what is needed is an ironclad assurance from India that the river-linking project would not involve the Himalayan Rivers.

It is argued that if India proceeds with river-linking of peninsular rivers without linking the Himalayan Rivers, the scheme will be considered as India’s internal matter between the states and the Centre to comply with the order of the Supreme Court.

By Harun ur Rashid
Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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