National

Wildlife panel clears first phase of Ken-Betwa project

India’s first interState river interlinking project was given a go-ahead by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) at a meeting chaired by Environment Minister Anil Madhav on August 23, according to a report that was made public on Tuesday. This would be the first time that a river project will be located within a tiger reserve.

The Rs. 10,000-crore Ken-Betwa project will irrigate the drought-prone Bundelkhand region but in the process will also submerge about 10 per cent of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, feted as a model tiger-conservation reserve.

“I’m a staunch conservationist myself but life is a trade-off,” V.B. Mathur, a member of the NBWL and part of the wildlife clearance process, told The Hindu. “The project will bring water to one of India’s worst drought-affected regions and we’ve also insisted on an integrated wildlife management plan,” he said.

The main feature of the project is a 230-km long canal and a series of barrages and dams connecting the Ken and Betwa rivers that will irrigate 3.5 lakh hectares in Madhya Pradesh and 14,000 hectares of Uttar Pradesh, in Bundelkhand. The key projects are the Makodia and Dhaudhan dams, the latter expected to be 77 m high and responsible for submerging 5,803 hectares of tiger habitat in the Panna tiger reserve.

Villagers to be moved

Chhatarpur, Panna, Tikamgarh, Raisen, and Vidisha districts of Madhya Pradesh and Mahoba, Jhansi and Banda districts of Uttar Pradesh will benefited from assured irrigation supply, domestic and industrial water supply and power, said the project report of the Water Ministry. On the other hand, about 6,388 people in 10 villages will be affected due to the submergence by Daudhan reservoir and 13499 persons living in the 28 villages will be affected due to the submergence by Makodia reservoir and will have to be resettled. Seventeen lakh residents of nearby towns and villages in both States will benefit from improved drinking water and irrigation facilities, the report added.

According to the NBWL, 6,221 hectares — 4,141 of which is core forest and located inside the reserve — will be inundated when, and if, the proposed reservoir were filled to the brim. A key point of contention between wildlife experts associated with the impact assessment and dam proponents in the water resources ministry was whether the height of the Daudhan dam could be reduced to limit the water overflow and contain its subsequent impact.

The Water Ministry had refused saying this would compromise the economic viability of the project and the records of the August meeting suggest the wildlife experts were convinced. “We considered that point but calculations showed that reducing the height of the dam by even a few metres would compromise the heart of the project — irrigation benefits to the farmers — and make the cost much higher,” Mr. Mathur added.

There were also concerns that vulture and ghariyal habitat in the region would be affected. Here too, the committee noted, that only “3% of the vulture habitat” would be affected. “Only about once in five years do we expect the dam to be filled to capacity,” Raman Sukumar, ecologist at the IISc and part of the NBWL expert team told The Hindu, “But what we’ve insisted is that government buy private land (agricultural) in lieu of the forest land destroyed. This is to ensure that the tiger habitat doesn’t get fragmented due to the project.”

Mr. Sukumar wasn’t present in the final meeting that cleared the project but confirmed the habitat-loss figures in a phone conversation with The Hindu.

No new mining leases would be allowed in the delineated tiger dispersal routes and existing mining leases extended only “if concretely justified” and a proposed hydro-power project would now be located outside the reserve.