Home India's River-Linking Project

India's River-Linking Project


Boutros Boutros-Ghali quoted in 1991, “the next war will be fought over water, not politics.”[i]Water being the most important natural resource available on the planet sustains all aspects of life. However, maximal percentage of water that is available today is highly polluted and depleted thereby reducing the quantum of water that can actually be used.

Conflict over water resources is a common phenomenon for India as it houses 17.6% of the world’s population and is the second largest populated country in the world. Due to the uneven proliferation of water, a plan was initiated to transmit water from the water surplus region of the northeast to the water scarce region of western and southern India. This is the National River Linking Project (NRLP) and this article discusses some of its important facets.


For India, the idea of interlinking rivers is not a new one. Ever since the nineteenth century, efforts have been made for interlinking rivers to ensure water availability in scarce regions.However, there has been a constant failure to design a concrete river-interlinking project in India. A major breakthrough in this regard was achieved in 2002 when a mandate passed by the Supreme Court of India led to the commencement of NRLP. Initiated by the then Prime Minister, AtalBihari Vajpayee, the NRLP was to be completed by 2016, which seemed to be an impossible timeframe to implement such a grandiose project. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, which followed the Vajpayee rule, had suspended the proposal when it came to power in 2004.[ii]However now, with the BJP back in power, the project has been granted a new life and is to be completed within 2050.

The NRLP has been designed to transfer surplus waters from the flood prone areas to ease water shortages in western and southern India diminishing the impact of recurrent droughts in these regions. Under the NRLP 30 interlinking projects were initiated: Sixteen links in the Himalayan region and 14 links in the Peninsular region are proposed that will transfer annually about 174 billion cubic metre(bcm) of water through a canal network of 14,900 km. It includes connecting 37 rivers and construction of dams/storages in 3,000 places.

NRLP Components

The NRLP has two components viz Himalayan River Development and Peninsular River Development.The Himalayan component has been proposed to transfer 33 bcm of water through 16 river links. It has two sub components linking the Ganga and Brahmaputra to the Mahanadi Basin, and Eastern Ganges tributaries and Chambal, Sabarmati river basins.The peninsular component has been planned to transfer 141 bcmof water through 14 river links. It has four subcomponents linking the Mahanadi and Godavari basins to the Krishna, Cauvery and Vaigai rivers; West flowing rivers south of Tapi to north of Mumbai; Ken river to the Betwa river and Parbati, Kalisindh rivers to the Chambal rivers; and some west flowing rivers to the eastern river.

The NRLP will cost more than USD 120 billion (in 2000 prices), of which the Himalayan component costs USD 23 billion; the peninsular component costs USD 40 billion; and the hydro-power component costs USD 58 billion.[iii]

The government  has planned to launch NRLP,in December 2015, with the construction of Ken-Betwa Link, which will provide water facilities in the water deficient areas of Raisen and Vidisha districts of central Madhya Pradesh. The Construction on the Damanganga-Pinjal and Par-Tapi-Narmada links in Gujarat and Maharashtra along with the second phase of the Ken-Betwa link have been proffered to start after the completion of the first phase of the Ken and Betwa link.


The NRLP project has several benefits. The projectclaims to generate a total power of 34,000 MW. Out of this, 4,000 MW will come from the peninsular component while 30,000 MW from the Himalayan component.[iv] Secondly, the NRLP project would require an enormous amount of people to be employed to make the project a success. The project claims to provide additional irrigation to 35 million hectares (m ha) in the water-scarce western and peninsular regions, which includes 25 m ha through surface irrigation and 10 m ha through groundwater.This will also augment crop production and higher farm incomes.


Despite the benefits NRLP has come under constant criticism by environmentalists, human activists and various others. There are a number of environmental concerns that need to be taken into consideration before deducing the advantages of NRLP. Firstly, there is a danger of seismic hazards especially in the Himalayan Region. Secondly, the intern basin transfer of water may cause river pollution depleting the quality of water available. Thirdly, this project would require clearing of forests ensuing loss of biodiversity, which would create imbalance in the ecosystem. NRLP will also lead to the displacement of massive number of people across India. The record of adequate compensation provided to these displaced people has been bleak. A large majority of critics believe that the high costs involved in the project will not be able to yield the desired results. Also, the government alone will not be in a position to finance this magnificent project and thus will have to involve the corporate sector which can further lead to various complexities.[v]

Furthermore, most neighbouring countries perceive that the NRLP project goes against several water sharing treaties that India has signed with them. Transferring river water would naturally affect the amount of water that ultimately reaches these neighboring countries. Water experts and environmentalists in Pakistan analysed India’s river linking project and explained how the project would be a breach to the Indus Basin Water Treaty 1960 which would eventually turn Pakistan into an infertile land.  Bangladesh is also completely dependent on India for the amount of water that is released through the dams constructed in the NRLP project as excessive water release could flood the Bangladesh delta while on the other hand miniscule amount of water release could spoil the crops.


Despite the above, the NRLP has an extremely lopsided outlook. Most critics expect disadvantages of NRLP to overshadow the project, as they believe that interlinking of rivers could lead to an irreversible disaster. Additionally, this project can also distress the entire water cycle and is presumed to have adverse affects on the nature. Therefore, the debates surrounding this project seek to motivate the government to consider various other options, which they otherwise have ignored. These options can be listed as effective rainwater harvesting, increase the storage for regulating the vast amount of runoff that otherwise cannot be effectively utilized among various others.

The NRLP on its fulfillment will be the largest interlinking project undertaken in the world.  The government consciously needs to analyze the project on the whole as well as appraise the multiple alternatives that are available.

Akanksha Khullar is an independent researcher. Views expressed here are personal



[i]Jarvis, W. Todd."Water Wars, War of the Well, and Guerilla Well-fare."Ground Water, 2010, 346-50.

[ii] Swati Bansal. "National River Linking Project: Dream or Disaster?" 2014. http://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/national-river-linking-project-dream-or-disaster

[iii]UpaliAmarsinghe. "The National River Linking Project of India: Some Contentious Issues." 2012

[iv]Swati Bansal. "National River Linking Project: Dream or Disaster?" 2014. http://www.indiawaterportal.org/articles/national-river-linking-project-dream-or-disaster[iv] ibid

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Akanksha Khullar

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Rameshwar Roy
Could we not distribute development based on distribution of natural wealth than other way around? I do not subscribe to the view that deforestation of one area may be balanced out by forestation of the other area; so is the case with linking of rivers as well, which will imbalance nature's cycle to our disadvantage. In an extreme case we can find answers to such surplus flood water displacement through under ground pipe lines with no apparent effect on the surface of the ground. Todays' technology should be able to make such ventures economically viable. No classical digging, but boring vertical and horizontal with cement hardening for flow of water to large distances.
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