Fixing a Nation’s Plumbing II: What We Choose to Ignore

by Vikas Lakhani

This is the second post about India’s National River Linking Project. Read the first part here.

As has been clear in the previous post, I see several fundamental objections to the NRLP. First and foremost, environmentalists have rightly raised serious concerns about the ecological consequences of this grand scheme. They argue that the water storage structures constructed under the NRLP would dramatically alter the supply of nutrients and sediments that are vital for the survival of ecosystems downstream. In addition, the rivers would lose their ability to flush out the rising salinity in the Bay of Bengal. The pilot project of linking the Ken and Betwa Rivers in central India would mean felling millions of trees in the Panna Tiger Reserve. Recently, the Supreme Court granted permission for the pilot to go ahead. With this Supreme Court mandate to carry on the project in the “national interest,” the future of the big cats and the park’s delicate ecosystem remains in peril.

Proponents of the NRLP might justify these environmental costs by pointing to the project’s vision of increasing India’s irrigation potential by 35 million hectare—and its concurrent benefits. However, similar such projects in the past have achieved only a fraction of the imagined benefits and effects. For example, the Sardar Sarovar project irrigates only 0.1 million hectares out of the 1.8 million hectares that was originally imagined and planned (Talati and Shah, 2009). Additionally, one could easily argue that the justification of improving the irrigation potential does not hold any merit because the project would directly affect aquifer recharge capacity. Since current farming practices depend substantially on the groundwater, the NRLP’s impact would be counterproductive for the irrigation potential.

Another strong objection to the project has to do with technological feasibility. Referring to the NRLP as “technological hubris,” experts have raised concerns about its hydrological and technical feasibility and the credibility of feasibility studies. They claim that the project is based on outdated plans and dubious scientific data that has not considered the climatic and environmental change connected to the large-scale alteration of water flow. This argument appears to hold merit, as scientists at the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) in Bombay and Madras have been evaluating the water surplus theory through the computer simulation of climate variability data. The results indicate that dramatic changes in the rainfall patterns due to anthropogenic climate change may lead to the flooding of drought-prone areas and the drying up of water surplus basins in the future.

House submerged in a river in Sundarban, West Bengal, after a cyclone in 2009. Photo by Vikas Lakhani.

Socially, the NRLP also promises to be problematic. The displacement and rehabilitation of people due to the impact of the NRLP, for example, appears to be strongly underestimated. Although the proponents of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the Narmada valley claim to have achieved technological mastery over “nature,” few would deny the enormous burden it imposed on the tribal communities in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. According to an estimate by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), the NRLP would displace over 1.5 million people due to the submergence of land for storage structures and the excavation of canals.

As we have seen in the introduction, it would not come as a surprise if the project runs into inter-state and international disputes over the control of water. Bangladesh has already raised concerns over India’s plans to redirect water from major river basins. According to an estimate, the project would affect 100 million people in Bangladesh. Experts have also warned that the construction of storage structures in seismically active Himalayan regions might activate earthquake fault lines.

Remembering and forgetting

India is one of the fastest growing economies in the world today. Riding high on the modernity wagon, the current administration seems to be overlooking alternative water management options. Science and technology are seen as the preferred solution to most, if not all, societal issues. The NRLP appears to be yet another tool for the government to emphasize its political propaganda of development. During one of my visits to the drought-affected regions of Devas in central India, I came across the work of Samaj Pragati Sahayog, an NGO co-founded by Mihir Shah that works in the field of water and livelihood security. Struggling with scarcity of water in central India, several villages in Devas used to migrate in search of water every summer. Building on the wisdom of local water management strategies and grassroots innovations, this NGO achieved enormous success in managing to control the migration of thousands of people every year. There are several such successful stories that lack the glamor and luster of a grand scheme but have proved effective. On the other hand, the mega-scale projects have often run into disputes and, unfortunately, have faded from the collective memory of people and institutions. It has become more and more important to remember our mistakes and discuss failures from the past. For my doctoral thesis, I explore the role of memory in influencing risk perception and learning. It will contribute to our current understanding of how and why certain disasters are remembered while others are forgotten. I have chosen to do a case study of the Machhu Dam failure that occurred in 1979 in the western part of India. In times when we need the active engagement of people in political debates based on their experiences, risk perceptions, and learning, the memory of the dam failure appears to have faded significantly. The systematic forgetting of past mistakes helps in actualizing the imaginations of a desired future. The concept of socio-technical imaginaries, which originated in the field of science and technology studies (STS), offers a lens to investigate how science and technology produce instruments of collective imagination and grand visions of progress. The NRLP offers an opportunity to analyze how an individual vision may become a collective consensus and an instrument of legitimate action. I will co-author a paper with Jeroen Oomen that will explore the Interlinking Rivers project as a prime site for collective meaning-making, as well as the construction of political narratives. We will analyze the Interlinking Rivers project using socio-technical imaginaries to dig a little deeper and see if we are ready for another groundnut scheme.


Talati, J., and T. Shah. “Institutional Vacuum in Sardar Sarovar Project: Framing ‘Rules-of-the-Game.’” In Strategic Analysis of the National River Linking Project (NRLP) of India Series 5, edited by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI). Proceedings of the Second National Workshop on Strategic Issues in Indian Irrigation, New Delhi, India, 8–9 Apr 2009. Colombo: International Water Management Institute (IWMI): pp. 95–106.

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