DAUDHAN (India) • After years of foot-dragging, India will begin work in about a month on a US$87 billion (S$118 billion) scheme to link some of its biggest rivers, say government sources, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi bets on the ambitious project to end deadly floods and droughts.
The mammoth plan entails linking nearly 60 rivers, including the mighty Ganges, which the government hopes will cut farmers' dependence on fickle monsoon rains by bringing millions of hectares of cultivable land under irrigation.
In recent weeks, some parts of India and neighbouring Bangladesh and Nepal have been hit by the worst monsoon floods in years, following two years of poor rainfall.
The sources said Mr Modi has personally pushed through clearances for the first phase of the project, which would also generate thousands of megawatts of electricity, despite opposition from environmentalists and a former royal family.
That will involve building a dam on the Ken river, or the Karnavati, in north-central India, and a 22km canal connecting it to the shallow Betwa. Both rivers flow through vast swathes of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states, ruled by Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Prime Minister hopes the Ken-Betwa scheme will set a template for other proposed river-linking projects, one of the sources said.
Government officials say diverting water from bounteous rivers, such as the Ganges, to sparse waterways by building dams and a network of canals is the only solution to stop floods and droughts.
Approximate number of rivers that will be linked under the plan
But some experts say India should instead invest in water conservation and better farm practices. Environmentalists and wildlife advocates also warned of ecological damage.
The 425km Ken flows through a tiger reserve in a valley. The government plans to clear out 6.5 per cent of the forest reserve to build the dam, relocating nearly 2,000 families from 10 remote villages.
The river-linking scheme was first proposed in 2002 by the last BJP-led government. Work stalled as state governments argued over water- sharing contracts and clearances were delayed by bureaucracy. This time, officials hope that starting with projects in BJP-ruled states will lead to smoother negotiations.
Mr Modi's government is touting the plan as a panacea for the floods and droughts that hit India every year, killing hundreds of people.
But not everyone is convinced.
"Theoretically, we can't find fault with the plan," said Mr Ashok Gulati, a farm economist who has advised governments. "But spending billions of dollars in a country which wastes more water than it produces - it makes more sense to first focus on water conservation."
India, which has 18 per cent of the world's population but only 4 per cent of its usable water resources, perversely gives incentives to produce and export thirsty crops such as rice and sugarcane.
The proposed 77m-high, 2km- long dam on the Ken river will submerge 9,000ha of mostly forest land. A big portion will come from the Panna Tiger Reserve, a tourist attraction that is home to 30 to 35 tigers and nearly 500 vultures.
"Building a dam in a reserve forest is an invitation to a grave environmental disaster," said Mr Shyamendra Singh, the scion of the maharajas who ruled a princely state near Panna during the British colonial era. "It will lead to floods in the forest and drought in the downstream."