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An impending disaster The idea of interlinking of rivers is grand, but is also fraught with severe ecological consequences. Karnataka has three major projects which can cumulatively spell disaster, writes Subir Ghosh


he spectre of an ecologically devastating river-linking project never seems to go away. For more than 40 years now the grand idea has been buried by a number of governments at the Centre and resurrected as many times. With assembly elections round the corner, there’s always the possibility of some political party in Karnataka raking up the issue once again. The Janata Dal (S) leader HD Kumaraswamy has time and again asserted that he will implement the controversial GS Paramashivaiah report on river diversion if he and his party are chosen at the hustings. The present Jagadish Shettar government is all in for implementation of the report. Shettar has in the recent past promised action based on the Paramashivaiah report. One of the ostensible reasons cited by him in august las year was that of tackling floods in the Bennihalla and the Don rivers in north Karnataka. In any case last year, the government had at its disposal three proposals to supply water to dry districts. These were diversion of the Netravati, supplying water from Yettinahole to dry areas, and the diversion of Bhadra to Chitradurga. The state government was slightly hesitant in wanting to divert the Netravati because of environmental concerns. The state budget for 2011-12, however, made an allocation of Rs 200 crore for taking up the Yettinahole project. The money earmarked for the project has not been used till now. “If the Yettinahole project is not affecting environment, the Western Ghats region and coastal districts, we can think of that project,” then chief minister DV Sadananda Gowda had remarked at the time. It is not that the subsequent dispensation wished it away. There are sporadic protests in Chickballapur, Bangalore Rural, Kolar and Ramanagaram districts off and on seeking implementation of the Paramashivaiah report, which recommends providing irrigation facilities to the parched Central Karnataka districts by drawing water from the west-flowing rivers such as the Netravati. Every time water scarcity makes life miserable for people in these districts, the Paramashivaiah issue makes it to the news. The Paramashivaiah report had come at a time when the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was planning a river-linking project across the country. The plans had to be shelved in the face of stiff opposition by environmentalists over the possible ecologically disastrous consequences. The Paramashivaiah, submitted in 2002, too fell by the wayside. But with the Supreme Court having given a go-ahead to the project last year and the question of water being a perennial issue in Karnataka, river-linking proposals are set to mark a return to the centrestage. Maybe with a vengeance. The Karnataka-specific links of the Indian Rivers Inter-link project are Krishna (Almatti)-Pennar, Bedti-Varda and Netravati-Hemavati. These last two links have been facing strong opposition, so much so that the National Water Development Authority (NWDA), set up in 1982 to study and implement the project to first link peninsular rivers and then Himalayan rivers, has not even been able to complete the feasibility report (FR), even though it has completed FR for all the remaining Peninsular links. The national inter-link is to consist of two parts — a northern Himalayan River Development component and a southern Peninsular River Development component. The southern development project would consist of four main parts. First, the

Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri rivers would be linked by canals. Extra water storage dams would be built along their course. The purpose would be to transfer surplus water from the Mahanadi and Godavari to the south of India. Second, those rivers that flow west to the north of Mumbai and the south of Tapi would be linked. Third, the Ken and Chambal rivers would be linked in order to provide better water facilities for Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Last, a number of westflowing rivers along the Western Ghats, which simply discharge into the Arabian Sea, would be diverted for irrigation purposes. The Peninsular part of the project would provide additional irrigation to 130,000 sq km and generation an additional 4 gigawatts of power. This is where Karnataka enters the picture. “The Krishna-Pennar link is currently a non-starter since Krishna is a deficit basin and this link can go ahead only when water is transferred from the Godavari to Krishna, and before that water is transferred from Ganga, Mananadi and so on down to Godavari,” says Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). “The Godavari Krishna (Polavaram) link work is sought to be taken up by Andhra Pradesh (not as ILR project but as a state project), but there are Supreme Court and High Court (Andhra and Odisha) cases pending, the project does not have final environmental clearance since public hearings in affected areas of Chhattsigarh and Odisha is yet to be happen, and both these states are opposing the project,” points out Thakkar. The ecological concerns remain. Continues Parineeta Dandekar, also of SANDRP, “Inter-basin diversion of Netravati for Bangalore Rural and Bangalore water supply is a big issue in Malnad. Most of the dams and associated links are planned in dense forests. If at all those come up, what will be the fate of over 50 mini-hydel projects in Netravati?” Dandekar goes on, “There was a big agitation against diversion of Netravati to supply water to the ever-growing Bangalore. The proposal has been resurfacing incessantly. It is currently being opposed by the chief minister, but we do not know its final fate. Some 12 lakh farmers of Dakshina Kannada and the entire city fo Mangalore depend on Netravati.” Mangalore itself has been facing drinking water shortage, and farmers are not allowed to lift water from the river for their fields by the city corporation and the district administration. The livelihood of thousands of farmers is under threat due to this recent development, and the expansion of water supply lanes under this Karnataka Urban Development and Coastal Environment Management (KUDCEM) project has ignored this sensitive and very important rights issue. Dandekar asks, “When this is the reality, how can a further reduction in the flows through interbasin transfers of Netravati for supplying water to Bangalore be even considered?” These are not entirely new posers. But none of them were answered when the Union minister for water resources three months back announced progress on plans to connect 37 rivers across the nation through 31 links with 9,000 km of canals, saying such a project was feasible. This exercise, the ministry said, would cost $140bn. It’s possibly only a matter of time before the canals are dug up and the rivers linked. Once that happens, the ecological disaster will be there for all to see. @write2kill

Netravati river originates in the Western Ghats from Ballalrayana Durga near Charmadi. The river drains an area of about 1,353 square miles.

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An impending disaster