Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam on the interlinking of rivers

This is a video of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam talking about the benefits of interlinking of Indian rivers. A bit of the video is in Tamil but I have highlighted all the important points in English. Why I am posting this now is because we have all heard Dr Kalam was a proponent of the river interlinking project under Vajpayee Govt. But now that there’s opposition from some sections of the scientific and environmentalist communities, I thought it is better we hear it from the horse’s mouth and why Dr. Kalam thinks it is important we interlink our rivers. He at the very outset mentions about ecological and human problems that may arise due to the mission and addresses them later in the talk. He calls the project “Integrated Water Mission”.

Highlights:

  • If Karikalan (A Chola king) had thought it was impossible to build a dam, Tamilnadu would not have got Kallanai (A 1800-year-old dam and distribution system which helped irrigate vast swaths of land making TN a top food-producing region in the world)
  • If MS Swaminathan, VJ Kurien had thought it was impossible, we may have never had the green and white revolutions making India self sufficient in food
  • If my mentor Vikram Sarabhai had thought it was impossible, we may have never launched the satellite back then
  • Many of us have this “Disease” that “It is impossible”. Only men who believed it was possible created our history
  • Per capita availability of water varies from 10-50 kilo-liters over a year
  • By 2020 we need to produce 400 million tonnes of food grain (twice as much as now)
  • The population is also expected to grow and we need to have more water
  • India get’s 4000 billion cubic metres of water every year from all natural resources
  • Out of which 1400 BCM is lost by evaporation, another 1500 BCM flows away into the sea due to floods
  • 1100 BCM is remaining, of which 430 BCM gets recharged as ground water, 370 BCM is utilised by us
  • Balance 300 BCM can be now harnessed - this is what networking of rivers will give us
  • I have studied floods and droughts - floods affect 260 million people, drought affects 86 million people in India
  • If we are able to harness 1500 BCM of flood water by diversion and storage, we will prevent floods as well as drought
  • If we succeed, we will reduce 2400 crores of crop damage and 200 crores handed out by govt. as relief money every year
  • Now how to harness flood water and how to regulate water outflow into the sea. Aim should be to channelize this surplus water to the right storage and distribution to beat droughts and help in sanitation
  • My idea is to have a hybrid scheme that will harness 300 more BCM of water apart from 1500 BCM flood water
  • We should discuss the displacement of people and overall impact on the environment
  • New mechanisms should be first put in place to provide facilities for those going to be displaced
  • But we need to take into consideration the 300 million people who will be benefited from the project
  • There are some apprehensions by environmentalists about degradation of environment
  • I naturally believe that integrated water development will only help our environment if done properly
  • I believe science & technology will help in properly executing such missions

What is the opposition saying?

  • 1.5 million people will be displaced
  • 104,000 hectares of prime forested land will be submerged
  • The effects on life forms are unpredictable
  • Need to look at a river not just as a source of water, but as an entire ecosystem
  • Water stressed Bangladesh is protesting the project

Dr. Kalam was a big campaigner for interlinking of India’s rivers. I am not sure why during the Vajpayee NDA Govt. time the project was not given a go ahead and started, given both Vajpayee and Kalam as President were for it. With due respects to Dr. Kalam, his vision for India and the conviction that he must have studied and analysed such a huge project thoroughly, I don’t see here Dr. Kalam giving any substantial arguments towards allaying fears of the environmental and human costs of this mega project. Except him saying something of the sort like he’s confident science and tech will help us tide over these challenges which he acknowledges.

I don’t think inter-linking rivers is going to solve any problems.

To begin with, any river inter-linking projects will displace innumerable people. I read that since independence that the construction of dams alone have displaced more than 60 million people. Inter-linking rivers will surely displace even more people. And I don’t see the point of such a project which might end up being a burden to more people than it may possibly help.

Also, no one can predict with any certainty what kind of effect this will have on the environment and entire eco-systems when you divert the course of rivers which these eco-systems depend upon. Some of the effects will be irreversible and no one knows how many species are going to be adversely affected.

And none of this is going to happen for free. The government is going to need to spend a lot of money to make anything of this kind work. Will the potential benefits (if there are any, at all) outweigh the costs purely in financial terms (leaving aside the environmental cost)?

The more important question is not whether inter-linking rivers is possible or not but whether is it a good idea at all?

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