There has been a great surge of united actions by tribal communities against the Par-Tapi-Narmada River Link Project following which the central government and the Gujarat state government have suspended the project for the time-being. Apart from protests by tribal communities, the fact that the Congress party has extended its support to the opposition of this river-link project and that assembly elections are due in the near future must have also weighed with the governments while suspending work on this project.
Under this project three rivers are to be linked—the Par, the Tapi and the Narmada, using 7 dams, three diversion weirs, two tunnels and a 395 km. long canal. Six dams are to be constructed in Gujarat and one in Maharashtra.
However the most reported aspect of this project recently has been the the big and united opposition by tribal communities who have formed struggle committees for various dams and regions. They have asserted that they want a more real commitment from the union and the state government ( Gujarat) that the project will not be taken up in future at all. The Congress party has taken a similar stand.
Behind this demand of the tribal communities of Gujarat is a history of much suffering caused by displacement and other problems, loss of home, forests and farmland, related to several projects in the past. Apart from displacement, there is the longer-term contentious issue of what changes river-links will bring. There is a tendency on the part of the authorities to rush ahead without going deeper into the almost irreversible problems they may be unleashing. In this context the entire thinking about the entire river-link project is deeply problematic. The Tapi-Par-Narmada or the Ken-Betwa link projects are after all only sub-projects of the giant national river-links project which is going ahead with redrawing the river geography of India without giving much thought at all to a comprehensive understanding of how harmful in almost irreversible ways this may be to ecology, people, biodiversity and various habitats. The reasons why such projects are being rushed also need to be discussed.
In the present context of Par-Tapi-Narmada link again the transfer of water to water deficit areas of Saurashtra and Kutch is being discussed. But did we not hear this at the time of the Sardar Sarovar project also, which involved such huge submergence, displacement as well as other ecological and social costs. Surely the transfer of water achieved by this gigantic water project should have been adequate, but no, there is this other project too within a short period. So someone should explain very clearly what are the overall water needs of this deficit area, what was provided by Sardar Sarovar and what is sought from the new project. Very inconvenient questions are likely to be raised in the process of seeking an honest answer to this question. Secondly, what about the surplus water region from where the water is to be transferred? Are the people here satisfied that they have surplus water to transfer?
In the first river-link project known as the Ken-Betwa project these questions have been discussed and debated over a longer time-span and some very inconvenient truths about the total confusion in official thinking regarding what is surplus and deficit have been revealed. A river (Ken) which has been much harmed by sand mining and other factors over the recent years and which is badly depleted during the lean season to a considerable extent is being identified in this project as the surplus river from whom water is sought to be transferred. In fact the entire question is also related not just to water flows per se but also to the extent of the exploitation of water resources. An area which has gone in a big way for industry and commercial water-intensive farming can be shown to be deficit or needing more water, while an area which has been cautious about not overexploiting its water resources can be shown to be more abundant in terms of water resources. So with huge water transfer and river link schemes are we set on rewarding over-exploiters at the expense of cautious users. Then there is the question of who will suffer from all the adverse impacts of dams, not just displacement. Are the impacts on fish and other life-forms in rivers and river-bank areas even being considered? A project like Sardar Sarovar was constructed in the name of augmenting water supply, but in coastal areas it can lead to push-in or ingress of salinity, in turn reducing water for drinking and other essential needs. The Ken-Betwa link is being pushed in the name of removing water scarcity, but it will start with axing more than 2.3 million trees, and each tree as we all know is a valuable conserver of water.
The more money we waste on these dubious, highly questionable but very costly water projects such as the river link sub-projects, the less resources we have for smaller scale, low-costs genuine water conservation work taken up with close involvement of people which does not have any adverse impacts but makes highly cost-effective, employment generating, livelihood protecting contribution to protecting and enhancing water resources. So clearly there is a need to question the way the authorities are going ahead in water projects and the tribal communities of Gujarat have done well to bring a highly questionable project to a halt.
Bharat Dogra is Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Man over Machine and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.