More than half-a-dozen pre-feasibility reports are being prepared by the National Water Development Agency on the controversial river link scheme in India which, at 2002 prices, is estimated to cost Rs.560,000 crore or US $120 billion - or a quarter of the country's current GDP.
The gargantuan project envisages the linking of rivers in the Himalayan region, and similarly connecting those in peninsular India, so that excess water from the north can be transferred south with link canals during the monsoon. The Supreme Court last year ordered the government to look into this project, following a petition by some farmers from South India.
The President, APJ Abdul Kalam, also lent his weight to the scheme, prompting Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to order officials to carry out preliminary studies. A task force was set up under former Environment and Industries Minister Suresh Prabhu, most of whose current members are advocates of large-scale technologies to harness water and power.
"Inter-basin transfer of water is quite common," says Chetan Pandit, Chief Engineer in the Water Resources Ministry in New Delhi, which is spearheading the move to launch this project. "It has been done in the US, Canada and China. Even within India, the Beas and Sutlej rivers have been linked and the Indira Gandhi Canal has brought water from the Sutlej (in Punjab) in the Bhakra canal to Rajasthan."
However, when the Soviet Union diverted rivers, it devastated the Aral Sea.
Making out a case that the project would increase irrigation and generate power to solve the country's major problems, Pandit recalled the time half a century ago when India went with a begging bowl to seek food aid. "We don't want to go back to those days," he said, claiming this (the river link scheme) was for him personally, like a "directive principle" (of the Indian Constitution).
Addressing a group of South Asian journalists at a workshop on "Water and Sanitation for the Poor" in Hyderabad last week, Pandit said the river linking scheme would irrigate 22 million hectares and generate 30 million units (kWh) of electricity. The workshop was organized by the Geneva-based Water Supply and Sanitation Council and the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India.
Dr Jayanta Bandhopadhyay of the Centre for Development and Environment Policy at the Indian Institute of Management (Kolkata) questioned these official views. An internationally respected water expert, Dr Bandhopadhyay challenged the concept of "surplus" water, and its transfer in this manner, and that it was going "wastefully" to the sea. "Engineering alone is not enough to address these problems," he maintained. "There is no such concept of surplus in nature."
According to him, arresting the natural flow of rivers on this gigantic scale could spell "the death knell" of mangroves in the delta region of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Mangroves require the steady rise and fall of the sea level so that their roots can breathe. Once this process is disrupted, the world could "lose the richest fisheries in South Asia". Salinity would also make inroads into the region, affecting thousands of hectares of arable land.
Dr Bandhopadhyay also wondered if the proponents of the scheme had factored in the cost of compensating millions of fisher folk in both countries.
"There's no free lunch when you divert water in this manner," Dr Bandhopadhyay maintained. "If you take out water, you pay for it." The link scheme did not envisage carrying water to some of the most deprived sections of the population, including tribals and those living in the highlands.
While advocates of the scheme speak of the Three Gorges dam in China, one of the world's biggest, Dr Bandhopadhyay emphasizes that China produces as much as 4.6 tonnes of cereal per hectare, while India produces only 2.1 tonnes. And that China has less arable land per head than India does.
In India, due to the political clout exerted by rich farmers, irrigation - which accounts for 70 to 80 per cent of the total water consumed - is often wasteful, since there is no metering of usage and farmers simply flood their fields. The country could increase food availability by greater efficiency without increasing irrigation, Dr Bandopadhyay maintained.
He made a strong case for putting all initial reports as well as other reports in the public domain so that scientists could assess the pros and cons of the project. Suresh Prabhu had agreed to do this (though no longer a minister in the Union Cabinet, he still heads the task force). But up until now, the public is not even aware of what studies are being commissioned and who is conducting them. "Science needs open assessment," Dr Bandhopadhyay observed. All too often, the government conducts studies, after which it argues that it has spent so much on these that it has to go ahead with project.
Reacting to concerns that Bangladesh and Nepal had not been consulted although these countries, along with China, would be affected by the project, Pandit countered by likening critics who have not seen the studies to someone asking whether a patient was going to live or not before taking an X-ray. He promised to ask his ministry to put up the executive summaries of the reports on the web.
Dr Bandhopadhyay also spoke of a Bangalore company that was providing desalinated water at about Rs 5 (US 9 cents) per liter, as against an international price of $1-$1.25 per kilolitre, which works out to be roughly similar. He said this could, in time, prove a boon to those living in coastal areas.
Prabhu recently sought to allay the fears of critics by saying that the river link scheme was only a proposal at this stage, not a project. He also promised to form a standing committee of NGOs, whose views would be taken into account before going ahead.
However, critics believe that water development agencies - which champion large dams and other capital-intensive schemes and have in recent years been sidelined - are using this opportunity to conduct very expensive studies. Even if the project ultimately collapses on account of its staggering costs - as in all probability it will - they will have promoted themselves for some time.