Ken-Betwa link hits green hurdle

India’s apex forest advisory body has imposed tough conditions on the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project. Given the ecological and environmental impact posed by the project, it had to pass multiple authorities for clearance. A forest advisory clearance was seen to be the last step before the project was to begin.

The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), the apex environment ministry authority that clears requests for diverting forest land for projects, usually rejects or recommends a proposal, sometimes with conditions, for the diversion of forest land. As minutes of the March 30 meeting — made public on Friday — show, in the case of the Ken-Betwa project, the FAC has refrained from explicitly giving its opinion either way and only seconded an earlier sub-committee’s report that had cleared the project subject to strict caveats.

‘Not unprecedented’

“This is unusual for the FAC but not unprecedented,” a person privy to the forest clearance process told The Hindu. the FAC’s recommendations are passed on to the environment minister, who can abide by them or reject them.

The ₹18,000 crore river interlinking project requires 4,141 hectares of forest in the heart of the Panna Tiger reserve, and some more besides, to build a dam and a 230-km canal to transfer water to several drought-afflicted villages in Bundelkhand.

As compensation for the pristine tiger habitat that would be inundated by the project, the Water Ministry had agreed to acquire about 8,000 hectares of forest land from the Madhya Pradesh government and revive them as forest.

But the FAC said this land was not good enough as it was fragmented, and, to meaningfully revive a forest that is part of tiger habitat, the land acquired ought to be contiguous. This would require, according to the FAC, “revenue lands/non-forest lands by way of purchase or otherwise by the project proponents and the government”.

While a State can relatively allocate forest land for Central projects, transferring private or revenue land is harder, time-consuming and costly. The FAC has also asked for the project’s main canal to be re-aligned.

A Water Ministry official told The Hindu that these measures are “impossible to comply with”. He said that senior water ministry officials were already preparing a rebuttal to “contest” the FAC’s recommendations. “The FAC has ventured into areas far beyond its mandate and we have frequently explained to the body why these conditions cannot be met. The same points repeatedly surface,” the same official added. Water minister Uma Bharti said on the sidelines of a conference on Friday that she had not seen the committee’s recommendations. She has previously stated that were the project not to be cleared, she would go on a hunger strike.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 8:01:32 PM |

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