The ambitious National River Linking Program was designed to help connect thirty-seven Himalayan and peninsular rivers in a pan-Indian water grid. Ridiculed by Rahul Gandhi, it has now been ordered to be implemented by the Supreme Court in a time-bound manner. The question is: Will that happen? The experience from the Supreme Court-overseen Narmada project is not very encouraging.

In India, government plans for mammoth water projects do not jibe with the grassroots empowerment and the rise of influential civil society groups. NGOs funded by international donors and domestic sources are ever ready to take up the cause of local residents facing potential dislodgment from homes located in project areas. The power of these organizations to organize grassroots protests has been demonstrated in several dam projects.

With the demands of industrialization putting increasing pressure on local water resources, NGOs and citizens groups also have led grassroots movements against the setting up of water-intensive manufacturing facilities, delaying the plans of giant corporations like the Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal and Posco of South Korea, for example, to build large multi-billion-dollar steel plants in India’s iron ore belt. With anti-dam woman leaders like Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy spearheading popular protests, these organizations wield considerable clout.

Add to the picture India’s labyrinthine political and bureaucratic processes, which are slow moving and bendable to public pressures—however contrived—as was exemplified by the 2010 federal-government decisions to abandon three dam-building projects on the Bhagirathi, one of the tributaries of the Ganges, including one project midway that resulted in the loss of several hundred million dollars of taxpayer money. Such was the “competitive populism” that forced the government’s hand on those projects that federal authorities actually went one step ahead to unveil India’s first dam-free zone, through which this river will flow freely for 135 kilometers in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Against this background, it seems extraordinary that the Vajpayee government conceived of the ambitious National River Linking Program. This is a plan of the dream world, not the India its citizens have known: A colossal water grid to handle 178 billion cubic meters of interbasin water transfers a year through the construction of 12,500 kilometers of new canals, generating 34 gigawatts of hydropower, creating 35 million hectares of additional irrigated land, and opening extended navigation networks. This is the kind of program that only a large, ruthless autocracy like China can launch and implement. So it is of little surprise that India’s river-interlinking program has remained for years at the planning phase.

Rahul Gandhi publicly rejected the program as a “disastrous idea,” saying, “It is an idea that will be extremely dangerous to the environment of the country.” He went on to add that it “is not a good idea to play with nature on a massive scale.” Taking his cue from the remarks of the ruling party’s heir apparent, the then Indian environment minister Jairan Ramesh also went public to debunk the proposed program as imbued with the potential to unleash “a human, economic, and ecological disaster.” Yet, while seeking to discredit the water-grid program, Rahul Gandhi, driven by local partisan politics, has lent support to one component of it—the linking of two small rivers, the Ken and the Betwa, to provide irrigation facilities in fourteen backward districts in the Bundelkhand Region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh states. Construction of the 231-kilometer canal to link the Ken and the Betwa, however, has stalled in the face of environmental concerns, including the likely submergence of a portion of the Panna tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh.

To be sure, it was the Supreme Court that prodded the central government in 2002 to embark on such a water-grid program. It also is true that partisan politics has been at play—something endemic in India—with the succeeding government loath to endorse its predecessor’s river-interlinking program. The UPA government indeed told Parliament in late 2009 that the proposed program, centered on the separate linking of the Himalayan and peninsular rivers, “involves massive expenditure” and “such kind of money is not available to us.” Yet it has not tried to put forward a cost-effective alternative to a program that the National Water Development Agency and the National Commission for Integrated Water Resource Development say is essential to double India’s food production to more than 450 million tons of grains per year to help meet the demands of increasing prosperity and a growing population, projected to stabilize at between 1.35 billion and 1.58 billion by 2050.

Given the regular flooding in the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin during the monsoon season and the recurring drought in western India and the peninsular basins, the National Water Development Agency has argued that “one of the most effective ways to expand the irrigation potential for increasing the food grain production, to mitigate floods and droughts, and to reduce regional imbalance in the availability of waters is the Inter-Basin Water Transfer (IBWT) from the surplus rivers to the deficit areas.” To produce 450 million tons of cereals annually even with improved farming techniques and new plant varieties, India will have to substantially expand irrigated farming. Otherwise, a growing reliance on food imports seems inevitable.

It is true that inter-basin water transfers have been in successful operation in several parts of the world. China’s Great South–North Water Diversion Project, in fact, stands out as the largest inter-basin water transfer initiative in world history. But India is not China, where the lack of democracy is an advantage in ramming through changes. India has shown over and over again that it has no ability to make long-term strategic plans and then execute them clinically.

When India has struggled for decades to complete the multipurpose Narmada River project, how could it realistically imagine implementing the grand National River Linking Program? The river-linking plans indeed carry implications for downstream Bangladesh, which has been concerned that—as in the case of the Indian construction of the Farakka Barrage between 1962 and 1974—it could end up as the loser.

The plain fact is that organized protests by NGOs, by driving up costs or stalling plans, have acted as a damper to hydropower and other water projects in India, discouraging public and private investments. As a result, the attraction of hydroelectricity has faded, although the country’s sprawling Himalayan region holds immense hydropower reserves. The share of hydropower in India’s total electricity supply actually fell from 50 percent in 1962–63 to about 23 percent in 2009–10. Despite federal government efforts in recent years to reinvigorate a shrinking hydropower sector, grassroots protests, environmental concerns, protracted litigation over land acquisition, and advance premiums on projects sought by state governments have shelved many dam-building plans across the Himalayan belt but especially in the states of Uttarakhand and Sikkim.

The plan to harness the 1,300-kilometer-long Narmada River in west-central India for irrigation and hydropower actually dates back to the period just after Indian independence. Decades later, the project is still not fully complete. By contrast, China, with its authoritarian ability to steamroll any local resistance, completed building the Three Gorges Dam ahead of schedule to generate 18,300 megawatts of power—more than 12½ times the capacity of the Narmada project.

The legal, logistical, bureaucratic, political, and NGO-activist hurdles the Narmada project has faced reflect the true reality in implementing any large developmental project in a country as politically diverse and disorganized as India, whose red tape and susceptibility to pressures are legendary. Just as India has no articulated national security strategy, defined defense policy, or declared counterterrorism doctrine, it also has no national water-security strategy.