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The hidden impact of riverlinking: widespread waterlogging and salinity

By Dr Sudhirendar Sharma

It's imperative to put the facts about India's ambitious riverlinking project before the people before politicians permanently alter the geography of the country. How many people know that 246,000 hectares of land in Rajasthan became waterlogged and salinised as a result of the Rajasthan Canal Project?

Suresh Prabhu, chairperson of the task force on river linking is lying low on the domestic front, on account of the good monsoons the country is experiencing. Instead, he's shopping around for support overseas. From wooing non-resident Indians in the United States, to securing the interest of Texas secretary of state Gwyn Shea in partnering India in implementing its Rs 5.6 trillion plan, Prabhu has gone global.

However, domestic and regional support is hard to come by. Reports indicate that Nepal and Bangladesh are worried over the Indian government's stance in handling trans-boundary rivers. But Prabhu is unlikely to get involved in the raging controversy until monsoon waters recede and the rivers flow at their usual low. Till then, it will be up to Dr Radha Singh, director general of the National Water Development Agency (project implementing agency), to keep the domestic and regional opposition from flaring up.

Like most large projects, the riverlinking project survives on the publicity that hypes the benefits without substantiating them, and belittles the negative concerns without enlisting them. No wonder that at a recent meeting on riverlinking in Thrissur, Kerala, pro-riverlinking farmers in Tamil Nadu quoted an undated letter from Prabhu arguing that `all is well with the mega initiative' and that all concerns -- ecological, social and fiscal -- were being suitably looked into.

In the letter Prabhu wrote: "The task force will endeavour to take into account not only all the ecological concerns, but also the human and social concerns of the people who are likely to be displaced." He went on: "Our effort will be to work in stages, to seek a consensus of all the stakeholders before taking a decision, and to be transparent in our functioning." However, if the current goings-on are any indication, neither have any attempts been made to bring about a `consensus' nor has the task force been `transparent'.

When asked whether they had been given access to data and details about the proposed links, the farmers groped for an answer. It is because of this misinformed publicity campaign to woo the innocent by Prabhu, and Dr Singh's more aggressive stance to silence the critics that there is this `lack of faith' in those running the most costly and most destructive project in our country's history. If the project isn't destructive why are the facts not being made public?

Clearly, the norms and principles of transparency and accountability are being flouted in a democratically-governed system. Will the 700-odd people's representatives who uphold the democratic principles in letter and spirit examine the violations closely and initiate collective steps to remedy the same? The challenge is to see that all the details of riverlinking are in the public domain and subject to public scrutiny before the country's geography is permanently altered.

Interestingly, Singh upholds the Rajasthan Canal Project as an achievement that she uses to argue the case for bringing equity in water access across dry regions through riverlinking. What she doesn't realise, though, is that this canal project resulted in 246,000 hectares of arid land in Rajasthan becoming waterlogged and salinised. The land has been put permanently out of production and, so far, there has been no reliable and affordable technique developed to revive it.

Left to itself, this land would have sustained some level of production within its ecological limits. Now, irrigation has damaged it beyond repair. The proposed 11,000-km-long canal network to irrigate over 35 million hectares threatens a significantly large portion with waterlogging and salinity. An official at the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) said, on condition of anonymity, that the total land rendered unproductive from the various irrigation projects was already well over 23 million hectares.

Even if the other ecological and social concerns could be reasonably argued, there is nothing that can be done to stop the scourge of waterlogging. Irrigation has been known to hamper the process of natural drainage, as water accumulates near the roots of the plant. The subsequent deposition of salts, due to the capillary movement of water, renders the land saline. In the absence of a drainage policy, the issue of irrigation-induced salinity has been largely ignored, to the disadvantage of local farmers.

Compensation has been the key to brushing aside such concerns. From the first compensation appeal (reported by the Washington Post on March 16, 1863) on account of waterlogging, filed before the privy council by the farmers of Munark (then Punjab) to the claims put forward before the auditor general in the case of the Tawa project in Madhya Pradesh in the early 1980s, the issue of compensation for losing productive land due to waterlogging has remained largely unresolved.

The fact that waterlogging occurs a few years after the canals are laid out (the amount depends on soil type and sub-surface hydrology) is reason enough for project proponents to consider it a `non-issue'.

Waterlogging is a serious issue. It will serve the task force better to inform farmers about the risks of losing productive land to waterlogging on account of the river linking project. Crucial to such a debate is making feasibility studies, more importantly the `hidden impact' of such projects public.

(Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is a water expert attached to the Ecological Foundation in New Delhi. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2003