In 2018, after India and Nepal announced new connectivity through inland waterways, I visited Bihar and Nepal with a Manthan Adhyayan Kendra field team to understand how prioritised waterways on the rivers are developed, specifically national waterways on rivers Kosi and Gandak, as well as on the Ganga.

Our team was working on a project to investigate the characteristics and issues associated with changing and shifting river channels, the challenges of maintaining adequate depth throughout navigation channels and environmental impacts due to interventions, such as dredging proposed for very high sediment loads.

While navigating the lock-and-gate arrangements at the Hanuman Nagar Barrage for the Kosi National Waterway, I spoke to Badriji from Nepal, who showed us the Kosi Eastern Canal and the syphon structures made for river drainage. He explained that there were three underground syphons and one above-ground syphon. “Ye uppar wala syphon toh bante hi nakaaman ho gya kyuki nadi ke bed se unchaa hai [The one above the ground has been useless since it was built because it is way above the riverbed and, hence, water cannot find its way through].” He spoke at length about the lack of canal maintenance and how it contributes to waterlogging, impacting agriculture on the right side of the canal.

Impacts of interlinking

Reflecting Badriji’s concerns, there is now a growing body of literature and voices illuminating the adverse impacts of river interlinking projects in India. While the National Water Development Agency, under the Ministry of Jal Shakti, has proposed many interstate river interlinking projects based on the premise of transferring water from water-surplus to water-deficit basins, it has also proposed intrastate projects.

One of the projects gaining prominence after the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project is the Kosi-Mechi Intrastate linking project, which aimed to provide irrigation benefits during the monsoon period in north Bihar and faces annual flooding and waterlogging conditions.

Under the National Perspective Plan, the National Water Development Agency proposed thirty major river link canals in India. Of the thirty, sixteen are situated in peninsular rivers and fourteen involve Himalayan rivers (six of which are directly associated with Bihar).

Expanding the scope of such projects in Bihar, the state’s Minister of Water Resources Department, in the Special Committee Meeting of River Linking Projects held in November 2021, requested that the National Water Development Agency conduct surveys to gauge the possibility of linking all small rivers in Bihar. Among the river linking projects in Bihar, the Kosi-Mechi project was accorded Investment Clearance and Environment Clearance in August 2019. During that 2019 meeting, the minister requested that this project be granted National Status, similar to that of the Ken-Betwa interlinking project.

The Kosi-Mechi project is designed to divert part of the Kosi River surplus water through the existing Hanuman Nagar Barrage by way of a 117-km long link canal to the Mechi River in the Mahananda Basin. The diverted water would provide kharif crop irrigation during the monsoon season to the Araria, Purnia, Katihar and Kishanganj districts in Bihar.

The irrigation water, when needed during non-monsoon periods for rabi crops, is dependent on the construction of the Sapt Kosi High dam and is not part of the Kosi-Mechi project as of now. Mahendra Yadav, a member of the Kosi Nav Nirman Manch movement, said the Kosi-Mechi project is based on the kalpanik (imaginary) condition that the Sapt Kosi High dam will be built someday.

“Kosi and Mahananda, and even Mechi, which is the tributary of Mahananda, are situated in the same eco-zone,” Yadav said. “So, when it rains or floods in Kosi, the same flood reaches Mechi or Mahananda in a day or two. Rainwater in the monsoon season is there in both the basins, so there is hardly any need for water during the monsoon.”

“If the Kosi-Mechi Project were indeed an irrigation project, the state would look to provide solutions to the water deficit for rabi crops,” Yadav said.

Gaps in assessment

The Kosi-Mechi project’s public hearing document, the only documentation listing the concerns of the local population from beneficiary districts, also contains similar worries about the providing of water to areas that naturally receive water during monsoon seasons. Many locals fear this could make their fields more prone to flooding and waterlogging and lead to the destruction of their land.

The absurdity of the logic of this project is not the only issue. The project posits itself as having no adverse impacts on the environment and only positive impacts for the people of Bihar. However, there are major gaps in the environmental impact assessment report.

First, look at the number of rivers, rivulets and streams impacted by this project. Kosi’s water from the Hanuman Nagar Barrage is to be transferred to the Mechi River by extending and remodelling the Kosi Eastern Main Canal. A new 76 km canal will be constructed close to the Indo-Nepal border as an extension of the existing 41 km Eastern Kosi Main Canal.

Additionally, the project involves the construction of 14 syphon aqueducts, nine canal syphons, 10 cross regulators, 27 head regulators, nine pipe culverts, 43 road bridges, one settling basin and eight escape canals. The canal – meant to connect only two rivers in Bihar – will cross thirteen rivers on its path: Parman, Tehri, Lohandra, Bhalua, Bakra, Ghaghi, Pahara, Nona, Ratua, Kawal and Kankai.

The canal may also interfere with other minor streams, but according to the environmental impact assessment report on the basis of which this project has been granted Environment Clearance, these issues would only be revealed during the project’s execution. The workaround for these minor streams would be to either divert them or construct cross drainage structures. It can be said, however, that what’s not accounted for hardly ever gets managed properly.

Second, the project and its environmental management will not provide a remedy for the siltation or the issues of catchment, both of which are imperative if any river linking project in North Bihar is to survive. The environmental impact assessment report even acknowledges that the project is exclusively for canal linking and, thus, unable to implement siltation measures due to funding and management constraints.

Displacement, downstream impacts

Third, The environmental impact assessment report claims that the Kosi-Mechi project will not displace the population and, therefore, the need for a resettlement and rehabilitation plan has been ruled out. However, this does not mean that there will be no impact on the population.

The same environmental impact assessment report states that 1,396.81 hectares (3,450 acres) of land is required for the project, of which 632.23 hectares (1,560 acres) have already been acquired, with 764.58 hectares (1,890 acres) to be acquired for branch canals and distributaries. As a result, potentially affected populations who would require resettlement or compensation are being held in abeyance.

Finally, it is alarming that the downstream impacts of the project will not be assessed until five years after its commissioning. The whole purpose of the environmental impact assessment is to evaluate potential impacts prior to development and account for any necessary management and mitigation measures while implementing the project.

While the Kosi-Mechi project has been given the green light, important prior assessments related to land, water, sediments and compensation remain. Discussing the reasons for such haste, Yadav laments the Eastern Kosi Canal’s existing problems and claims that its utilisation potential was revised (decreased) to match its actual utilisation.

Speaking about the Kosi-Mechi project, he is equally pessimistic. “It is not an irrigation project, it is not a flood protection project, it is not even a river interlinking project,” he said. “The only beneficiaries of this project are the few people involved in the construction of the canal.”

Avli Verma is a Researcher with Manthan Adhyayan Kendra. She has an M Phil from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and studies emerging infrastructural interventions on Indian rivers.

The article was first published in India in Transition, a publication of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.