India's Supreme Court orders river links project to proceed

A river in India
Image caption By linking rivers, India wants to tackle the cycle of flood and drought

India's Supreme Court has ordered the government to implement an ambitious project to link major rivers in the region "in a time-bound manner".

The court also appointed a committee to plan and implement the project.

The judges said the project had been long delayed, resulting in an increase in its cost.

In 2002, the government announced plans to link major rivers in the region to reduce persistent water shortages in parts of India after a court order.

The project was announced by then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who said the scheme will "free India from the curse of floods and droughts".

He also set up a task force to get the project going.

But the project has remained on paper for the last 10 years.

Project opposed

On Monday, the three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice SH Kapadia, said the central and the state governments should participate for the "effective" implementation of the river-linking project "in a time-bound manner".

It is not clear what timeframe the court envisions.

"We direct the Union of India to forthwith constitute a committee for interlinking of rivers," the bench said, adding that "we direct the committee to implement the project".

The project aims to link 30 major rivers and will involve diverting the Ganges and the Brahmaputra - two of India's biggest rivers.

It requires the construction of large dams within India, Nepal and Bhutan, requiring international agreements with these countries.

The project was opposed by India's neighbours and environmentalists.

Bangladesh said diversion of water from these rivers would harm its interests - while environmentalists said the project would cause an ecological disaster.

But India says it must enhance its irrigation potential to meet its demand for grain to feed an estimated population of 1.5 billion by 2050.

The river-linking project was first devised in India in 1980 and has been under discussion ever since.

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