The much-hyped but controversial Ken-Betwa river interlinking project no longer generates interest in the drought-prone Bundelkhand. It has been a good long decade since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) sold it as its pet project that would change the face of India. Now, no one even talks about it.

The first river interlinking project in the country, for which a memorandum of understanding was signed, proposed inter-linking of Ken and Betwa rivers by diversion of water from the Ken basin to the Betwa basin through a 231.45-km concrete-lined canal.

“The people of the region did not even understand why inter-linking was needed in the first place because Ken does not have excess water,” Krishna Gandhi of Abhiruchi, a non-governmental organisation related to environmental issues, told The Hindu.

An agreement on water sharing for the region was signed between the two States way back in 1972. Had the two States implemented it efficiently, the problem of water shortage could have been addressed, he said.

The Ken-Betwa Link Project envisages a 73.80 m high Daudhan dam across the Ken, about 2.5 km upstream of existing Gangau Weir on the border of Chhattarpur-Panna districts in Madhya Pradesh. Two powerhouses, one at the foot of the dam and other at the end of a 2-km tunnel, are also proposed to generate power.

The project was expected to irrigate 4.97 lakh hectares in the Chhattarpur, Tikamgarh, Panna, Raisen and Vidisha districts of Madhya Pradesh and Hamirpur and Jhansi districts of Uttar Pradesh.

While a memorandum of understanding was signed among the Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Central governments in 2005, the project was subsequently put on the backburner by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government following resistance from various quarters.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests had made it clear that no environmental clearance would be granted to the project as it would submerge a large area of the Panna Tiger Reserve.

Describing it as a “stupid, silly” solution to the problem, Professor Gandhi said big dams never helped people. They only promoted corruption and resulted in displacement of people, he said while suggesting investing in small check dams and water harvesting projects in the entire Bundelkhand region that would also help in ground water recharging.

Indifferent

If the opponents came up with convincing arguments against the project, the people of the villages that were expected to be benefited from the project were simply indifferent. “Yes, we had heard many years ago that there would be water to irrigate our field but unless it actually happens, how can we say,” said a farmer on the outskirts of Jhansi. But, there has been no progress on it, so it is as good as dead, he added. Another farmer in the nearby field gave a blank look.

The UPA government is thinking in terms of reviving the Ken-Betwa project in the 12th Plan.

“Tikamgarh had a large irrigation system during the Chandela rule which is functional even now and comprises small tanks which function as water storage facilities. There are reports of overexploitation but if the government ensures minimum water storage level, the system can once again be made efficient,” Professor Gandhi explained. Instead of constructing dams, excess water from rivers should be channelled to fill small tanks, he suggests.

Water resource management was the main component of the special package for Bundelkhand announced by the UPA in 2009 for the development of the region, following the visits of Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi.