Reclaim Land for Industry from Rivers, Reservoirs

Last week, I wrote of the huge potential for creating fresh land by reclaiming it from the sea, instead of dispossessing farmers to build future industries and airports. India has a very long coastline, with large mud flats (especially in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu) that can be reclaimed cheaply.

One reader objected that most of India lies inland, so sea reclamation cannot have a truly national impact. Very true. We must reclaim land inland too.

The potential is surprisingly high. India has over 600 dam reservoirs, getting silted at varying rates. Siltation reduces their capacity to store water in the monsoon, and hence reduces electricity generation and irrigation water too. During President Xi’s visit last year, Chinese companies expressed interest in desilting 600 reservoirs.

Greens oppose dams saying the benefits are limited to a few decades till reservoirs get silted up. But reservoir capacity can be expanded again by dredging. Historically, this has been far too expensive. But the equation has now been changed by the skyrocketing price of land, which is being acquired by governments at up to one crore per acre.

Dredging is not just feasible but very profitable if the dredged silt is used to reclaim large tracts of land that can be sold to industries and service providers (including holiday resorts and even airports). Many industries, notably power stations, require large amounts of fresh water, which are readily available in reservoirs. However, pollution will be a potential hazard that can affect water quality and the livelihoods of reservoir fishermen. So, high environmental standards must be observed in these zones, and highly polluting industries like paper or leather must be banned.

Desilting reservoirs will achieve three things simultaneously. First, it will increase reservoir capacity and hence the amount of water that can be stored for irrigation. Second, the additional storage will enable hydroelectric plants at dams to run at full capacity. Third, desiltation will provide large amounts of land urgently needed for industry and services, avoiding the heartache and unfairness inherent in forced land acquisition from farmers.

Every state (barring mini-states like Delhi) has dams with reservoirs. Thus reservoir reclamation will facilitate creation of industrial land across the country. Some reservoirs are wide and relatively shallow (like Hirakud in Odisha) and offer the greatest potential for land reclamation. Reclamation will yield less land in reservoirs in gorges in the high mountains. But even small amounts of reclaimed land are very valuable in the high mountains, where any flat land is rare and much sought after.

Another strategy for inland areas is to reclaim land from the wide floodplain of rivers, notably in the Gangetic valley. The floodplains of several rivers are over a mile wide. These rivers typically have a trickle of water in the lean season, with the floodplain getting fully covered only for a few weeks in the monsoon.

Floodplains check flooding. Cloudbursts during the monsoon can cause massive precipitation in a short time that can become a major flood. A wide floodplain allows the excess water to spread without overflowing river banks.

However, floodplains have got silted over centuries. Much of Bangladesh’s territory represents silt deposited by the Ganga. Siltation has lowered river depth and thwarted the development of river traffic. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar complains that the Farakka Barrage has slowed the Ganga’s flow and increased harmful siltation in Bihar.

If sand from dredging is used to reclaim land on river banks, or to build islands in the river, the flood-absorbing capacity should not be affected, and can even be enhanced (the river’s deepening can more than compensate for the loss of width). Last year I had suggested that dredged silt from the proposed Kolkata-Allahabad stretch of the Ganga could be used to create an island opposite the Dashashwamedha Ghat in Varanasi, providing facilities for a million more tourists without disturbing the traditional waterfront.

Sadly, the Ganga and its tributaries flow mostly through backward, misgoverned states where few people want to invest — Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. Hopefully, those states will reform in due course and become industrial hubs in the future. Maybe Tata Motors would have avoided the trauma of the Singur agitation if it had opted for reclaimed Ganga land.

Even backward Gangetic states need new airports and river ports. Airports the world over have been built on land reclaimed from wide rivers. Reagan Airport near Washington DC is built partly on land reclaimed from the Potomac. The London City Airport is built on land reclaimed from the Thames.

In sum, India’s land scarcity can be mitigated by reclamation, inland and offshore. That’s clearly better than forcible land acquisition from farmers. That’s the way to go.

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute.