Ken-Betwa project can ravage Bundelkhand

The project is based on the premise that Ken, the smaller of the two rivers, has surplus water that can be transferred to the bigger Betwa river. But the hydrological data that is claimed to support that premise is not in the public domain and has never been put to scrutiny by any independent, credible agency. Ground realities and available facts show that the hydrological basis of the project is a secret exercise in manipulation.

Ken-Betwa project can ravage Bundelkhand

UNNECESSARY: The plan to transfer surplus water from Ken to Betwa may end up affecting adversely the ecosystem in the areas lying along their course. - File photo

Himanshu Thakkar

Environmentalist

THE people of Bundelkhand certainly need better water access and management, as claimed in the media briefing note on the occasion of the Union Cabinet clearing the Ken Betwa Link Project (KBLP) on December 8. But the project is not for Bundelkhand, of Bundelkhand or by Bundelkhand! It will have an unbelievably adverse impact on Bundelkhand; it promises benefits that were promised decades ago, but never realised. Much better, cheaper, less impactful and faster options exist for Bundelkhand.

The law of the land says that before taking up a project for implementation, it must have all the required clearances. In the case of KBLP, it does not have the final forest clearance. Fundamental questions have been raised about its wildlife clearance by the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court and the SC has yet to take a decision on it. Besides, a legal challenge to the environmental clearance is pending before the National Green Tribunal. If the law of the land is to prevail, the Cabinet should not have cleared the project. But a decision was taken apparently on the political consideration of gaining some electoral benefit in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

In a path-breaking report submitted to the Supreme Court on the KBLP on August 30, 2019, the CEC raised fundamental questions not only on the appropriateness of the wildlife clearance given to the project, but also the viability, optimality and desirability of the project. It said the project will lead to “the loss of 10,500 hectares of wildlife habitat in PTR,” in addition to the submergence of 9,000 hectares of the Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR).

The detailed project report of KBLP prepared by the project proponent National Water Development Agency (NWDA) says: “The main objective of the Ken Betwa Link Project is to make available water to water deficit areas of upper Betwa basin…” That upper Betwa region is outside Bundelkhand and has higher rainfall than Bundelkhand. Most areas of Bundelkhand that are now promised water from KBLP are either already getting water from the other existing projects or were made similar promises decades back. The promises remain unrealised. Both the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) and the CEC conclude that the NWDA has not examined the alternatives to the project.

The then Panna Collector wrote 15 years ago that the district, one of the least irrigated areas of Madhya Pradesh, will suffer the maximum destruction, while getting very little benefit. The downstream district of Banda in UP will suffer such huge impact that at one stage, the Principal Secretary to the Uttar Pradesh government wrote in an affidavit before the Supreme Court that the project will bring social unrest in the state.

The project is based on the premise that Ken, the smaller of the two rivers, has surplus water that can be transferred to the bigger Betwa river. But the hydrological data that is claimed to support that premise is not in the public domain and has never been put to scrutiny by any independent, credible agency. Ground realities and available facts show that the hydrological basis of the project is a secret exercise in manipulation.

The CEC report raises questions about the current and future water needs of the Upper Ken basin, which has clearly been ignored. The project is likely to keep this mostly tribal area permanently backward. Ken basin and Bundelkhand are asked to pay that price for the past blunders of irrigation engineers in Betwa basin, as the CEC report says: “This faulty planning in the development of irrigation facilities in the lower Betwa basin at the cost of upper Betwa basin is proposed to be now rectified by the substitution of water from Ken basin.”

The FAC said: “It is suggested that a team of independent experts on surface water hydrology, drawn from leading scientific institutions, should have been requested to examine the hydrological aspects of the Ken Betwa river link.” Why is the government afraid of such an independent scrutiny of hydrological foundation of KBLP?

The recommendation of environmental clearance for the project by the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the MoEF in December 2016 itself was a huge exercise in manipulation.

The Stage I forest clearance accorded to the project on May 27, 2017, is based on a number of conditions that will require fundamental restructuring of the project. The changes required statutorily will affect the project costs, benefits and impacts, and hence, will require fresh appraisal. Such conditions include the stipulation that the proposed 78-MW power house shall not be constructed in the forest area; no building material is to be taken from the forest area; implementation of the CEC recommendations, among others.

The minutes of the final FAC meeting held on March 30, 2017, note: “The construction of dam within the Panna Tiger Reserve is not the best possible option for development of water resources in the drought-prone area of Bundelkhand keeping in view the pristine forests of the PTR and its rich biodiversity… 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, then 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 KBLP in such wilderness areas such as PTR, specifically when it runs the risk of providing justification or unhealthy precedence for more such developmental projects within the protected areas. Certainly, it will not be in the interest of wildlife and the overall well-being of society in the long term.” What were the compulsions for the government to clear a disastrous project like that, as noted by the FAC, no less?

Let’s end with what the then Secretary in the Union Water Resources Ministry told me in a meeting at Jal Shakti Ministry. When asked why the government was pushing a project that would bring so much destruction to Bundelkhand rather than solving its problems, his answer was, to paraphrase, considering the current costs, “it’s a Rs 45,000-crore proposition.” 

Tribune Shorts


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