How the disastrous Ken-Betwa link project endangers India's tigers, rivers and mountains
Has the Centre considered all options before deciding to spend such copious amounts on a river-linking project that environmentalists have termed an ecological disaster?
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You may have heard of or visited Khajuraho or Orchha, two tourist hotspots in Madhya Pradesh. Chances are you may have also heard of or visited Panna National Park and the Tiger Reserve. But how many of you have heard of Ken river that flows just about 20-odd kilometres from Khajuraho? And if you have been to Panna, you may not even have bothered to ask or remember the name of the pristine river flowing through a geologically-rich area that lends a unique character to the river.
These days, Betwa, another river's name is taken in the same breath. The latest reason for which Ken-Betwa were in news was that the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change gave a go-ahead to the Ken-Betwa linking project on May 16.
Ken and Betwa, originating in Madhya Pradesh’s Vindhya range, flow north to merge with the Yamuna. The two names have been doing the rounds in news off and on for many years as the Ken-Betwa link project is among the first of the government’s big-ticket Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) projects.
The two rivers cut across several places in the parched Bundelkhand region and hence have been chosen to be part of the river-linking project wherein the idea is to transfer excess water in one basin to a deficit basin. Here, dams and canals will transfer excess impounded water from Ken to the water-deficit areas of upper Betwa.
• A dam at Daudhan
• A two-kilometre long tunnel followed by about 230km-long link canal for transferring water
• Two powerhouses, one each at the foot of the dam and the end of the two-kilometre long tunnel
The government claims the project when completed will irrigate about six lakh hectares (Ha) of land and provide drinking water to approximately 1.30 million people. The cost has escalated to more than Rs 15,000 crore (2015-16 prices).
When the actual work for the project begins, it will inundate a large area of dense forest, a wonderful tiger habitat. Trees on 6,017Ha of forest land will need to be cut. Environmentalists point out that as many as 5,578Ha fall in the core and the buffer zone of the Panna National Park and the Tiger Reserve. The Ken river also has the famous Ken Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary.
It was on this issue that forest clearance faced repeated hurdles. The forest advisory committee had raised several issues including hydrology, conservation of gharials and relocation of villages from the Panna Tiger Reserve.
Uma Bharti, the minister for water resources had shot off a letter to Anil Dave, the then minister for environment (Dave died earlier this month, and Harsh Vardhan is the incumbent minister). Dave and Bharti had a discussion and, apparently, following that a recommendation given.
The committee had also objected to the dam height by 10 metres but later relented (or diluted the opposition?) to allow it as the project proponent officials claimed it would not be feasible with lesser height. In fact, even before the proposal reached the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, there were reservations about the feasibility and practicality of the project in the ministry of water resources, Uma Bharti’s own office.
Stating that the project area has “a questionable hydrology”, a top-level official from the water resources ministry, who was involved with the process, shared: “Is Ken really a water-surplus basin? Answer is clear no. Betwa basin has more water than Ken basin but just that Betwa basin is at a lower gradient, so the water is being transferred from Ken to Betwa.”
“Our ministry’s own body the Central Water Commission (CWC) refused to certify that the project will have at least 70 per cent dependability owing to the quality of soil in Bundelkhand,” the official pointed out.
Not just this, there are scores of other discrepancies and contradictions in the entire project proposal. As recently as May 2, 2017, an informal coalition of environment and wildlife organisations wrote a “collective note protesting the proposed Ken Betwa River Link Project” to the minister for environment, forests and climate change.
Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, River and People (SANDRP), one of the signatories, pointed out: “The conditions put forth by the forest (FAC) and wildlife board (NBWL) are directly contradictory to things mentioned in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). For instance, both FAC and NBWL say the power component of the project needs to move out of the protected area and forest land. Which means, the project needs to go back to the drawing board again and then go back to the EAC again.”
In their "open letter", after pointing out the discrepancies, the activists opined that “the Ken-Betwa link project should be stopped. Bringing water to drought-prone areas should remain a priority for the central government but more cost-effective, ecologically-sustainable and socially acceptable options must be explored. The current course will irreversibly damage one of India’s most irreplaceable biodiversity vaults”.
In fact, this biodiversity vault term applies not just to the living beings but extends beyond to the beautiful topography of the region. The rock geology and the river morphology offer a veritable Grand Canyon-like appearance to a large portion of the rivers.
Gorge carved by River Ken in Madhya Pradesh. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Retired JNU professor Brij Gopal, now with the Centre for Inland Waters in South Asia, terms Ken a “geological and geo-morphological marvel” for the rock-bed offering a wide variety of designs and a riot of colours. He has pointed out how “this is different from Narmada or Godavari, the other two rock-bed rivers and has been documenting the river as the project threatens the existence of the river and the forest it feeds”.
A report explained how this rock-cut geo-morphology is associated with melting glaciers that lead to turbulence in rivers and hold deep clues for scientists.
The executive summary of the Ken-Betwa Link Project I as available on the NWDA website does describe the geology of the dam site in technical jargon as: “The Daudhan dam site area is more or less flat with rolling undulations on both the flanks of the Ken river displaying elevations roughly between 216.20m to 300m. It is occupied by and inter-bedded sequence of arenaceous and argillaceous sediments represented by hard, compact and massive sandstone exposed on the left flank of the Ken river, thinly bedded sequence of sandstone, siltstone and shake exposed sparingly in the river section and thinly bedded to laminated porcellanite with black shale and chert beds on the right abutment hill in succession... A considerable part of the dam alignment is occupied by flood plain alluvium forming sandy terraces on either side of the Ken river.”
Vishal Verma, a teacher and a researcher in geology and palaeontology in Madhya Pradesh, translates it for the layperson: “These are very special rocks. The flowing rivers, along the sandstone mountains, create sand granules of various sizes. Because these are of different sizes, it traps not just air in between but also captures moisture. This, along with shallow waters near the river banks, becomes an important habitat for a number of reptiles. If a reservoir is built, these functions of the ecosystem are disturbed; these habitats would be disturbed.”
The abutment hills are home to a variety of vultures, which, in turn, depend on the biodiversity near the river. While much has been written about the loss of tiger habitat vis-à-vis Panna National Park and the tiger reserve, very few people know that the same habitat is an equally important habitat for vultures.
Indore’s "Nature Volunteers", a pressure group of activists and people from all walks of life, has been fighting to save this vulture habitat. Their main contention is that the EIA mentions only three types of vultures but seven out of nine types of vultures are, in fact, already classified as endangered by the conservation body International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
That is perhaps the reason the FAC has asked the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), a research and conservation NGO, to prepare an action plan for vulture conservation on the one hand and also told the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) on the other hand to prepare a species recovery programme for the conservation of gharials.
Whither options assessment?
But is it necessary to spend so much money, inundate such large forest area? Have the powers that be considered all options before deciding to spend such copious amounts on a river-linking project that environmentalists have termed an ecological disaster?
The most common suggestion that has been coming from all quarters — environmentalists, activists and even many villagers and farmers is to scrap the project in its entirety and return to the roots — turn to the traditional system of harvesting rainwater through the numerous ponds and water bodies as was done by the Chandelas and Bundelas.
At the turn of the millennia, there were at least 50-60,000 big and small ponds and lakes. About 5,000 of them — built by the Bundelas, Chandelas and Gaur kings, were huge ones — 100 acres-plus in size. Then, there were 22-25,000-odd tanks built by the community that ranged from three to five, to 10 acres and finally there were about 25,000 personal farm ponds, from half an acre to five acres.
The National Rainfed Area Authority (NRAA) had come up with the "Report on drought mitigation strategy for Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh" prepared by its Inter Ministerial Central Team. It had rightly pointed out how the “traditional Chandela, Bundela or Peshwa tanks and Haveli Systems of cultivation were neglected and could not be integrated with modern technologies, management or resources, livestock production, value addition and market-driven economy”.
Apart from the several recommendations about change in agriculture practices, the report’s major commendations vis-à-vis water conservation were: participatory integrated watershed management for in-situ conservation of the rainwater, recharging of about 2.8 lakh dug wells, renovation and repairs of Bundela, Chandela and Peshwa tanks, digging of farm ponds and open wells (all short-term and medium-term).
Development of unutilised water resources in Madhya Pradesh, improving the efficiency of the already developed canal irrigation system and Ken-Betwa links are long-term investments for mitigation of drought, it said.
Even before the NRAA report came out, the much-publicised "Bundelkhand Jal Sansad" or Bundelkhand Water Parliament held on July 23, 2003 at Orchha in Tikamgarh district had outright rejected the proposal to link Ken and Betwa as it is “against local people, environment and culture” and passed resolutions including the survey of old, traditional ponds and water bodies; the formation of a non-governmental "Jal Rakshak Samiti" (water conservation committee) in each village and the adoption of traditional organic farming practices with promoting less water-guzzling crops.
In March 2015, the NRAA came up with a "brief on Special Package for Drought Mitigation in the Bundelkhand region — state-wise details of expenditure of different activities and their major impact in agriculture and allied sectors" in which it showcased how check dams, dug wells, canal renovations and minor and medium irrigation projects helped increase the irrigation potential in both Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh:
(Source: NRAA’s Brief on Special Package for Drought Mitigation in the Bundelkhand region)
In effect, put together, the creation of irrigation potential for 2,96,140Ha in Madhya Pradesh and 2,97,040Ha in Uttar Pradesh. This is an achievement in itself but not comparable to the goals set. Neither were the jal rakshaks appointed in every village as envisaged in 2003.
This was because neither NRAA recommendations nor the Jal Sansad resolutions worked in entirety. The NRAA, a typical government agency, only half-heartedly pursued its agenda (it almost went defunct and was "revitalised" in December 2016).
On the other hand, the Jal Sansad’s resolution too did not materialise due to various reasons, including large-scale migration.
But a simple reason for the supposed failure of both to mitigate the drought situation was the lack of community ownership, lack of community involvement. Anupam Mishra, the late Gandhian environmentalist and author of the famous compendium on traditional methods of harvesting rainwater, Aaj Bhi Khare Hai Talaab, always harped on the involvement of the local community.
In fact, it was Anupam Mishra who, way back in 2005, had pointed out in his crisp piece "Rs 4,000 crore versus Rs 10 crore" that the government speaks in many voices, indicating how different government departments do not talk to each other.
He pointed out how “better management of rainwater should also be given a chance to meet the requirements of the area expected to gain from the Ken-Betwa link.
It’s only fair competition. After having spent about two decades researching rainwater management, it’s my estimate that the area can meet its water requirement with an investment of Rs 10 crore, and a fraction of the commitment the Indian polity is showing to river linking.” And coming down heavily on the government approach, he said: “The river-linking scheme is The Emperor’s New Clothes, to borrow from Hans Christian Anderson’s 1837 story."
Twelve years since, there is hardly any change in the government stance. But, fortunately, action on the ground clubbed with awareness has increased.
Why is the government insisting on Ken-Betwa?
Few months ago, the ruling BJP held a public consultation at New Delhi’s Constitution Club on the topic of Ken-Betwa link project. Uma Bharti, the minister for water resources (MoWR), was one of the speakers advocating the project.
Opposing the project tooth and nail, Kesar Singh, a writer and researcher with the People’s Water Forum, in his presentation, drew attention to how the traditional decentralised system of ponds, lakes and farm ponds can be the only practical solution.
Taking NWDA data (2015-16), Singh compared the benefits of one big Daudhan dam as part of the Ken-Betwa link project against one lakh new ponds and the revival of existing ones, claiming:
- The dam will have a large storage but at one place and will lead to large scale displacement. Number of lakes and ponds spread across entire Bundelkhand will not lead to any displacement even when the storage will not be as large as the dam.
- The Ken Betwa project proposes to irrigate 6.35 lakh Ha land while building new water bodies and reviving old reservoirs will help irrigate 7 lakh Ha.
- The old and new tanks will together hold almost double the quantum of water compared to one big dam.
- As against the total expenditure of Rs 17,700 crore for the dam, the de-centralised water bodies' revival and fresh construction will cost only about Rs 3,200 crore.
- The per acre cost, as per Ken-Betwa, project was Rs 1,12,738.85 as against just Rs 18,823.52 for ponds.
- The multi-crore expenditure project will irrigate only Panna, Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur in MP and Banda, Jhansi and Mahoba in UP while with the ponds and lakes can irrigate all the districts of Bundelkhand region.
“But the biggest benefit I pointed out was there will be no submergence of any area of Panna Tiger Reserve. The vulture habitat will be undisturbed and large tracts of forests will be saved from inundation. As against that, the number of ponds and lakes across Bundelkhand would attract migratory birds and develop a new local ecosystem,” said Singh, whose organisation has already constructed about 400 farm-ponds in Mahoba district.
No proponent of the Ken-Betwa link project came forward to even counter the points, let alone Union minister Uma Bharti. But neither did she promise to give it a try.
Environmentalists, activists and many residents of Bundelkhand are wondering as to what has prompted the minister — known as one of the few politicians who really have an understanding about rivers and their ecology — to push for the Ken-Betwa project.
Is it the compulsion of politics or the dam lobby getting the better of it? The earlier dispensation sat on it while the current one feels the work must commence right away.
It is more than 15 years since the talks about river-linking in its modern avatar were initiated. Except for spending crores on faulty reports, not to mention the time and energy spent on meetings that have not exactly been fruitful, not much has been achieved.
Unfortunately, what Dr Bhartendu Prakash of Kisan Vigyan Kendra & Grameen Vigyan Vikas Trust, Bundelkhand, had warned in 2004 still holds true. “Considering a suggestion by the Supreme Court as its directive, the government of India is going ahead with this multi-crore investment project without adequate research and preparation. This is going to disrupt the lives of people, environment and the situation in general,” he had written in the April 2004 issue of SANDRP newsletter.
But in this bleak scenario, there is some ray of hope, if at all one can say. Manoj Mishra, a former forester from Madhya Pradesh who now works for river conservation assures the project won't happen in the immediate future.
All that the Ken-Betwa project has got is clearance from Wildlife Board, which too has been challenged at the Supreme Court’s Empowered Committee. It is yet to get the environmental clearance and the forest clearance.
“The picture that is being painted that this is project is now imminent is basically wrong propaganda. Ken-Betwa link project is not happening any time soon,” said Mishra.
We can only hope that "any time soon" never comes.