On the occasion of World Water Day on March 22, a memorandum of agreement was signed between Union Minister of Jal Shakti and the chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to implement the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP) on Monday.
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, for the project on March 22, World Water Day.
Devastating tag still remains.
What is the Ken Betwa Link Project?
The Ken-Betwa Link Project is the first project under the National Perspective Plan for interlinking of rivers. Under this project, water from the Ken river will be transferred to the Betwa river. Both these rivers are tributaries of river Yamuna.
The Ken-Betwa Link Project has two phases. Under Phase-I, one of the components — Daudhan dam complex and its appurtenances like Low Level Tunnel, High Level Tunnel, Ken-Betwa link canal and Power houses — will be completed. While in the Phase-II, three components — Lower Orr dam, Bina complex project and Kotha barrage — will be constructed.
According to the Union Jal Shakti Ministry, the project is expected to provide annual irrigation of 10.62 lakh hectares, drinking water supply to about 62 lakh people and also generate 103 MW of hydropower.
Two states, two rivers and a link
What is the estimated cost of the KBLP?
According to the Comprehensive Detailed Project Report, the cost of Ken-Betwa Link Project is estimated at Rs 35,111.24 crore at 2017-18 prices.
Which region will get the benefits of the KBLP?
The Ken-Betwa Link Project lies in Bundelkhand, a drought-prone region, which spreads across 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
According to the Jal Shakti Ministry, the project will be of immense benefit to the water-starved region of Bundelkhand, especially in the districts of Panna, Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur, Sagar, Damoh, Datia, Vidisha, Shivpuri and Raisen of Madhya Pradesh and Banda, Mahoba, Jhansi and Lalitpur of Uttar Pradesh.
“It will pave the way for more interlinking of river projects to ensure that scarcity of water does not become an inhibitor for development in the country,” the Ministry said in a statement.
Will the project affect the Panna tiger reserve?
According to a written reply given by Minister of State for Jal Shakti Rattan Lal Kataria, out of the 6,017 ha of forest area coming under submergence of Daudhan dam of Ken Betwa Link Project, 4,206 ha of area lies within the core tiger habitat of Panna Tiger Reserve.
Are there previous examples of river-linking in India?
In the past, several river linking projects have been taken up. For instance, under the Periyar Project, transfer of water from Periyar basin to Vaigai basin was envisaged.
It was commissioned in 1895. Similarly, other projects such as Parambikulam Aliyar, Kurnool Cudappah Canal, Telugu Ganga Project, and Ravi-Beas-Sutlej were undertaken.
Recent developments on interlinking of rivers in India
In the 1970s, the idea of transferring surplus water from a river to water-deficit area was mooted by the then Union Irrigation Minister (earlier the Jal Shakti Ministry was known as Ministry of Irrigation) Dr K L Rao.
Dr. Rao, who himself was an engineer, suggested construction of a National Water Grid for transferring water from water-rich areas to water-deficit areas. Similarly, Captain Dinshaw J Dastur proposed the Garland Canal to redistribute water from one area to another.
However, the government did not pursue these two ideas further. It was in August, 1980 that the Ministry of Irrigation prepared a National Perspective Plan (NNP) for water resources development envisaging inter basin water transfer in the country.
The NPP comprised two components: (i) Himalayan Rivers Development; and (ii) Peninsular Rivers Development. Based on the NPP, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) identified 30 river links—16 under Peninsular component and 14 under Himalayan Component. Later, the river linking idea was revived under the then Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government. Ken Betwa Link Project is one of the 16 river linking projects under the Peninsular component.
Which are the clearances required for a river-linking project?
Generally, 4-5 types of clearances are required for the interlinking of river projects. These are: Techno-economic (given by the Central Water Commission); Forest Clearance and Environmental clearance (Ministry of Environment & Forests); Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) Plan of Tribal Population (Ministry of Tribal Affairs) and Wildlife clearance (Central Empowered Committee).
Claims and counterclaims
“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.
However,the area houses the Panna tiger reserve, one of the prime breeding spots for tigers.
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 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 ~350 billion (~35,000 crore) of public fund is involved.”
The people of Bundelkhand certainly need better water access and management. But the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP), estimated at a cost of Rs 35,000 crore, is not the solution. The project will, on the contrary, lead to huge adverse impacts in the region.
The Panna district, one of the least irrigated areas of Madhya Pradesh, will, on the other hand, suffer maximum destruction, while getting very little benefit from the project. Downstream, districts of Uttar Pradesh too stands to suffer adverse impacts that have been flagged by state officials.
In effect, the Ken basin and Bundelkhand are being asked to pay the price for past blunders in overdesigning the lower Betwa projects. “This faulty planning in development of irrigation facilities in the lower Betwa basin at the cost of Upper Betwa basin is proposed to be now rectified by substitution of water from Ken,” the CEC report says.
Moreover, the KBLP does not have the final forest clearance, and its wildlife clearance has been opposed by the SC-empowered CEC. A challenge to its environment clearance is pending before the National Green Tribunal. The Prime Minister endorsed the project on March 22, when the UP and MP Chief Ministers signed a second MoU on the project, almost 16 years after the first MoU.
The CEC report’s findings on the impact of the KBLP is at odds with the shoddy Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the project, based on which it was given environment clearance in August 2017. Even the forest advisory committee has noted the factual errors and inadequacies in the EIA-EMP.
The Stage I forest clearance from May 27, 2017 is based on a number of conditions that will require fundamental restructuring of the current project, including change in project costs, benefits and impacts and hence will require a fresh appraisal. Such conditions include the stipulation that the proposed 78 MW powerhouse shall not be constructed in the forest area. In the lean season, the entire inflow to the proposed reservoir will be released for the downstream river and flow in the downstream river will be maintained throughout the year till Ken river reaches Yamuna river, and no building material is to be taken from the forest area.
The minutes of the Forest Advisory Committee meeting held on March 30, 2017 notes: “The construction of the dam in site within Panna Tiger Reserve is not the best possible option… the total project cost has not included the cost of ecosystem services lost due to the diversion of forest… If the cost of ecosystem services lost is considered than the benefit/cost ratio will be very less, making the project economically unviable.”
The FAC concludes: “In an ideal situation, it would have been better to avoid KBLCP… Certainly it will not be in the interest of wildlife and the overall well-being of the society in the long term.”
There has been compromised decision making at every step of the project. Why then does the government push for it?