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EXCLUSIVE: India’s inland waterways policy needs restructuring


India’s river linking plan was seen as highly problematic on different counts, of which the major objection was on the probability of conflicts of interest between riparian States.

By Salam Rajesh

At one point of time the Union Government of India had a majestic plan to link major rivers in the country, criss-crossing State boundaries and geographical territories. However, the plan met with severe criticism from different fronts – academics, scientists, civil society organizations, local communities, and even political parties not aligned with the ruling party. The plan is not gone altogether although it had somewhat lost its teeth by the rigorous opposition from the different sections of society.

India’s river linking plan was seen as highly problematic on different counts, of which the major objection was on the probability of conflicts of interest between riparian States. Conflicts of interest on water sharing are already there with Cauvery River in the headlines, so much as there is conflict over water sharing between India and Bangladesh over river Bhagirathi (Hooghly in West Bengal).

The other concern was on the probability of disturbances in the natural cycle of eco-regions when rivers are diverted from their original course. This was in addition to the concerns on the probability of rivers shrinking in their original courses when considerable volume of the water from the parent river is diverted to other water deficient rivers.

Deviating slightly from the original plans to link rivers with one another – to achieve “water security” in water deficient regions, the Government at the Centre is now coming up with a major plan (the National Waterways) to establish connectivity through waterways by uplinking rivers sharing geographical affinity.

In 2016, the Government of India passed the National Waterways Act 2016, and launched the National Inland Waterways Program declaring 111 rivers or river stretches as National (Inland) Waterways. Under the program, up to 4,503 Kilometer stretch of rivers in 15 States is to be developed to facilitate ‘better improved connectivity’ via the waterways. This is being projected to provide cheaper means of transportation and freight movement other than the railways and the land routes.

For instance, the plan is to upgrade inland waterways along the river Ganges from Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh up to Kolkata and Haldia via the river Hooghly in West Bengal (National Waterways No.1). The plan also incorporates uplinking river Brahmaputra in Assam with the river Barak in Manipur via a 121 Kilometer stretch (NW No.6).

The Centre for Financial Accountability did a rapid assessment of the Government’s plan and came up with the view that “Inland waterways and their components such as the multi-modal terminals are being kept outside of the legally binding Environmental Clearance process. Implementation of waterways projects could have serious adverse environmental and social impacts due to dredging operations, movement of heavy vessels in the navigational channels, and impacts due to riverine terminals could lead to degradation of aquatic ecosystem including adverse impacts on fish population”.

The question on disturbances on the natural ecosystem of the rivers when they are subjected to heavy dredging to make them navigable was popped up by eco-environmentalists as well as scientists at different levels. For instance, river beds with sand and pebbles are habitat for a wide variety of fish, crap, turtle, gharial, and other aquatic insects. So when the river beds are dredged and totally disturbed, there is high probability that the animal life dependent on this ecosystem are likely to perish, even to the point of extinction in the wild.

In Manipur, quite contradictory to the country’s plans on uplinking major rivers for improved inland waterways, the Government here has moved a controversial plan to introduce mechanized motorways in Loktak Lake rather than thinking on the feasibility to tap the rivers Barak and Manipur. Similarly as the countrywide objections on the river linking proposal, the State’s plans to take up the Loktak Inland Waterways Improvement Project met with stiff objections from the local communities.

The primary concern was on the health of the lake’s ecosystem when diesel operated mechanized boats are introduced in the freshwater lake. Hundreds of fisher families depend on capture fishery at Loktak for their livelihoods and sustenance, and for this, they practice various forms of traditional fishery including laying of nets across the lake’s water surface. The contention was that once mechanized motor boats are introduced in the lake, criss-crossing the lake ferrying passengers, there is probability of conflict of interest rising between fishers and project proponents on the question of inability to lay the nets and the subsequent disturbances to traditional fishery practice such as phum-namba.

Other than this, the concern was also on the impact of the project to the population of migratory waterbirds that visit the lake in their thousands every winter. A major criteria of Loktak Lake as a Ramsar site of international importance is focused on the diversity of wildlife it supports. Any developmental agenda that is negative in character and likely to have adverse impacts to the lake ecosystem is bound to be objected by academics, scientists, environmentalists, and the local communities.

The Government’s plan to develop a navigational route connecting river Brahmaputra with the river Barak reaching up to Tipaimukh in Manipur’s Pherzwal District is viewed with some amount of skepticism by environmentalists. Other than the question on upsetting the natural ecosystem of the Barak and Tuivai rivers, the question raised is on the feasibility of navigation in these rivers during lean season when the level of water is rather shallow.

It also raises the question on whether the Government of India has finally dropped the proposal of constructing the High Dam of the 1500 megawatt capacity Tipaimukh Hydroelectric Power Project, proposed to be constructed over the Barak River in the Tipaimukh area. If not so, then the two projects overlap one another, and neither supplementing to the other. Either way, the hydro project faced stiff opposition from local communities and environmentalists over concerns on negative impacts of the project on both the human and natural environments.

The socio-economic feasibility of the Brahmaputra-Barak waterways is questionable in the context of the more faster and economical transportation and freight movement to be available once the Silchar-Imphal stretch of the Trans Asian Railway becomes functional. What would be the necessity for development of this waterway once the railways become operative? The relevance of the Brahmaputra-Barak waterways project becomes highly irrelevant in this context.

Doubts on transparency in project conceptualization springs to the forefront when assessing mega projects of the government in the absence of public accountability. Detailed deliberation on project concepts is usually missing, and in the long term basis this give room for objections from local communities whose priorities are seldom given preference by the State. Transparency and accountability are key for successful implementation of Government’s policies on ground.

(The writer is a media professional working on environmental issues. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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