Ken-Betwa linking project: For want of water, a river may be lost

The Batwa river, Madhya Pradesh
Since the 1980s, when it was planned, the Ken-Betwa river linking project has had two words attached to it – “pending” and “devastating”.

The project was pending because Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh could not agree to a water-sharing formula. It was devastating because villages, forests, river ecology stood to face havoc if the project came up.

The “pending” tag went when the Union Jal Shakti ministry facilitated a deal between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, both BJP-ruled states, for the project on March 22, World Water Day.

Devastating tag still remains.

Claims and counterclaims

Estimated to cost Rs 35,000 crore, the link will transfer surplus water from the river basin of the Ken to that of the Betwa. The upper Betwa basin faces water shortages. The project involves constructing the Daudhan dam and a canal linking the two rivers.

According to a government statement, it will irrigate 1.06 million hectares annually, provide drinking-water to about 6.2 million people, and generate 103 Mw.

“The project will be of immense benefit to the water-starved region of Bundelkhand”, which is dry, under-developed, and straddles both the states, it said.

The area houses the Panna tiger reserve, one of the prime breeding spots for tigers.

“If a large dam comes up on the Ken, it will kill the river and the tiger reserve,” said Manoj Misra, convener and head of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan.

The reserve is also home to endangered vulture populations and gharials. Many other rare and endangered species are found here. Several studies indicate the Ken has a unique geology. Some geologists have even called the river a “geological marvel”. According to Misra, rather than benefiting Bundelkhand, the project is designed to feed areas of the upper Betwa regions of Vidisha, Raisen and Bhopal.

“It will rob Bundelkhand of its lifeline river.”

According to the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), close to 4,000 hectares will be submerged and 10 villages with nearly 1,585 families. The EIA has said the project would provide excess water to the Panna tiger reserve.

Environmentalists working in the area disagree.

“Close to 9,000 hectares will get submerged because of the project and of that 6,000 hectares is in the tiger reserve. It will submerge the most critical breeding ground of tigers,” said Siddharth Agarwal, river researcher and activist.

Agarwal walked along the River Ken in 2018 to create a public record of the ecology of the river.

The project plans to build a dam in the upper Betwa basin, stop the water in upstream regions near it, and divert the water from the Ken to meet the deficit. The hitch is the Ken doesn’t have surplus water. It even dried up during the last monsoon.

“There is no data that says the Ken has excess water. Places from where water will come have less rainfall than where it will go. The Ken is part of the Ganga basin and is in the trans-boundary region. Therefore, the discharge data is not in the public domain,” said Agarwal.

The government does not put out the discharge data of trans-boundary rivers on grounds of national security.

Weak legal ground

Apart from the environment and ecological challenges, the link itself is on weak legal grounds. The three key clearances -- forest, environment, and wildlife -- are missing.

“The project doesn’t have the final forest clearance (FC). The first-stage FC is on conditions that cannot be fulfilled because the Forest Advisory Committee suggested that the power plant component should be kept out of the forest/wildlife area. This entails restructuring the project and hence a fresh cost-benefit analysis needs to be done. The wildlife clearance has been challenged by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) under the Supreme Court, and the environment clearance also stands challenged before the National Green Tribunal,” said environment and water expert Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP).

The CEC in 2019 had raised questions on the need and viability of the link. It noted: “The projection of availability of surplus water in the Ken basin for transfer to the Betwa basin without first exhausting possibilities for the development of irrigation facilities in the upper Ken basin appears to be premature particularly considering that an investment of ~280 billion (~28,000 crore) of public fund is involved.”

Way forward

Thakkar said the project would need a fresh detailed report and a landscape management plan.

Several experts are of the view that local irrigation means should be exhausted before the government embarks on such a mammoth project.

Agarwal points to two local irrigation programmes -- Apna taalab abhiyan in Banda by Pushpendra Bhai and Awartansheel Kheti by Prem Singh. The two, when combined, propagate the idea rainwater should be harvested and organic farming practised. This entails creating lakes and producing local cereals, crops, and fruit.

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