India clears its first river-linking project, prompting ecological concerns

The Betwa river in Orchha, Madhya Pradesh state. The Ken-Betwa interlinking project received government clearance last month. PHOTO: DISCOVER INDIA/FACEBOOK

KOLKATA - Nearly four decades after it was conceptualised, a contentious river-linking project in central India has received government clearance at the highest level. The Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approved the Ken-Betwa interlinking project - India's first such ambitious move - in December.

This project will come up in eight years in the Bundelkhand region that spans the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and at a current estimate of more than 446 billion rupees (S$8.07 billion).

It envisages transfer of water from Ken to Betwa through the construction of a dam and a 221km canal linking the two rivers. The project, according to the government, will support irrigation for more than one million ha and deliver drinking water for a population of around 6.2 million, besides also generating 130MW of power.

"The project is expected to boost socio-economic prosperity in the backward Bundelkhand region on account of increased agricultural activities and employment generation. It would also help in arresting distress migration from this region," a government statement said on Dec 8.

But this move has revived ecological concerns around the project and infuriated critics, including those who had challenged the project in court even prior to this clearance and are worried about its adverse impact on the region, especially on the Panna Tiger Reserve, a key tiger habitat.

"It is illegal, it is premature," said Mr Manoj Mishra, without mincing his words while referring to the Cabinet clearance. The retired government forester and head of the Yamuna Forever Campaign, a movement to protect the Yamuna river, is one of the petitioners in a pending case against the project in the Supreme Court (SC).

"Until and unless the SC has decided the case on merit, a case which is sub judice and does not have all the clearances, how can the Cabinet take a decision on that unless it has been misled about the pending cases," he told The Straits Times. The project has also been challenged in the National Green Tribunal, which is yet to deliver its verdict.

In a 2019 report submitted to the Supreme Court, its Central Empowered Committee questioned the project's wildlife clearance as well as its viability. It noted that the project would lead to the loss of 10,500ha of wildlife habitat in the Panna Tiger Reserve on account of submergence and fragmentation.

It added that the project will result in "complete breakdown of the evolutionary process of millions of years" in the local unique ecosystem and termed the impact on the Panna Tiger Reserve, as well as the Ken Gharial Sanctuary, as "irreversible".

Mr Mishra mentioned that the proposed reservoir will truncate the tiger reserve, impeding movement of tigers in the western direction, where they head to colonise new areas because of a contiguous forest belt. "This entire western migration, which ideally should take place in the larger interest of tiger conservation, will be stopped forever as long as the reservoir exists," he added.

Even the forest clearance given to this project in 2017 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is conditional, and stipulates that a proposed 78MW power house shall not be constructed in the forest area and that no construction material is to be taken from there.

Mr Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People and a petitioner in a case against the project in the National Green Tribunal, said there is no evidence to indicate that the project had been redesigned to ensure it meets these conditions. He added that the Cabinet clearance now risks even compromising these checks.

"The government wants to go ahead, but they see these hurdles, which is why they want to bring pressure on all these institutions now," he told ST. "Once the Cabinet has cleared it and the PM has endorsed it, you can imagine the kind of pressure each of these institutes and committees will be functioning under."

In a response to ST, director-general of the National Water Development Agency, Mr Bhopal Singh, said that the loss of the Panna Tiger Reserve's core area is being compensated with land for compensatory afforestation in the reserve's vicinity. The loss of buffer area will also be offset by providing "double degraded forest" land.

A Landscape Management Plan is being developed as well for the conservation of wildlife and biodiversity in the region, which the Central Empowered Committee has said is no substitute for the loss of the Panna Tiger Reserve's wildlife habitat and the felling of more than 2.3 million trees with a girth of 20cm or more.

Questions have also swirled around the assumption that the Ken basin is "water surplus", allowing the authorities to propose the transfer of water to the water-deficit areas of the upper Betwa basin in this project.

Different figures of water availability in the Ken basin have been offered over the years, and a study of rainfall data from 1901 to 2004 has indicated a significant decrease in monsoon rainfall over major water surplus river basins in India.

"The entire hydrological basis of the project has to be reviewed by a panel of independent non-government experts," said Mr Thakkar, adding that both the Ken and Betwa basins are exposed to the same meteorological situation, with experience showing that whenever Ken experiences floods, Betwa is also generally flooded.

"Ken is a much smaller basin compared to Betwa. They are adjoining basins and have the same kind of rainfall. How can a smaller basin have more water than a larger basin?" added Mr Mishra.

Mr Singh, however, countered that there is a "sound and robust institutional mechanism for the assessment and appraisal of water availability". In the case of the Ken-Betwa link project, the hydrology and water balance in the Ken basin had been examined and reviewed thoroughly by the government's Central Water Commission, he added.

He also pointed out that rainfall and river flows in Bundelkhand are limited to just two to three months and that the region faces perpetual water shortage and drought conditions despite numerous "minor projects", including ponds and tanks to store water.

"The region needs a project of a scale which will help in harnessing flood water during monsoon period and stabilise water availability in the region during lean periods, particularly during drought years," he added.

But there are those who argue that the region, which receives an annual rainfall in excess of 1,000mm, can instead be made water secure by small-scale and decentralised measures. These include rejuvenating tanks built by local Chandela kings several centuries ago.

An emphasis on dams and reliance on groundwater extraction has, over the years, led to the decay and abuse of these historical tanks, with their catchment areas deforested and encroached upon. As a result, many of these tanks have silted up and been reduced to garbage dumps.

Developing additional field tanks, taking steps for groundwater replenishment and use of less water-intensive crops, instead of rice and wheat, were also recommended in a 2017 report by the Centre for Inland Waters in South Asia.

Such success stories exist. In 2019, Niti Aayog, a government think-tank, hailed Jakhni, a Bundelkhand village, as an "excellent example" of participatory and decentralised water management.

Without external funding, machinery or resources, the village overcame its water crisis through construction of farm ponds, restoration of water bodies and intensive plantation of trees, among other measures.

The Cabinet's decision to clear the mega project despite its current legal roadblocks and potentially cheaper and more effective solutions has been linked to the upcoming critical assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh.

"When you get to spend so much money at one place, you not only get a sense of power and can show off to the people that, 'Oh we are doing so much and so on', but it also gives you so many opportunities for kickbacks," added Mr Thakkar.

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