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Explained | What ails the Ken-Betwa river link project?
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Ahead of the forthcoming Union budget, experts have derided it for being illegal, lacking economic sense and defying ecological science.

January 22, 2023 10:33 am | Updated January 26, 2023 10:25 am IST


A boy plays in the Betwa river near Jhansi.

A boy plays in the Betwa river near Jhansi. | Photo Credit: Monica Tiwari

On January 18, the Steering Committee of the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP) held its third meeting in New Delhi. It was chaired by the Secretary of the Department of Water Resources, in the Ministry of Jal Shakti, who reiterated that KBLP was a “flagship” project of the national government and that it “is critical for the water security and socio-economic development of Bundelkhand region”.

In December 2021, the Union Cabinet approved KBLP at a total cost of Rs 44,605 crore. In this project, the national and the Madhya Pradesh governments will link the Ken river with the Betwa river so that the latter can water the Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh.

What is the Ken-Betwa link?

The link will be in the form of a canal that will be fed by the new Daudhan Dam on the Ken, to be built within Panna Tiger Reserve. The national government has said that the dam will generate 103 MW of hydroelectric power. The linking canal will flow through Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh and Jhansi districts, with the project expected to irrigate 6.3 lakh hectares of land every year. 

Hydrological and ecological experts aren’t convinced, however, mainly because the government’s plan is based on a ‘surplus and deficit’ model that they have said has little basis in science. They are also concerned that the project will endanger the water security of Panna. In 2018, environmentalist Ravi Chopra called the idea “nonsense”; in 2021, conservation biologist Raghu Chundawat said that thanks to KBLP, “Bundelkhand will suffer for decades to come”.

There are also significant legal problems with the approval granted to the KBLP.

What are the legal problems?

“Approval by the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife to the Ken-Betwa link Project has not been proved to be necessary for the improvement and better management of the wildlife therein as provided in Section 35(6) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972…”

The Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court made this categorical observation vis-à-vis plans to create a high reservoir-dam on the Ken river in the Panna National Park and Tiger Reserve for the KBLP. It concurred with the applicants’ prayer at the apex Court: that the wildlife approval given by the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) at its meeting on August 23, 2016, was ultra vires.

The Indian government catalysed this approval despite an expert body created by the Standing Committee of the NBWL itself saying that “an independent hydrological study of river Ken is necessary” and that “no developmental project should destroy the ecology of remnant fragile ecosystems and an important tiger habitat in the country”.

What clearances has the KBLP received?

India enacted the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 at a critical juncture, when its wildlife was in peril. The key provisions of the Act (Sections 18 and 35) relate to setting aside areas of significance to wildlife as ‘sanctuaries’ and ‘national parks’. Sections 29 and 35(6) restrict human activities within them without prior approval.

Diversion of, stopping or enhancement of the flow or water into or outside of them is taboo unless doing so is deemed to be necessary to improve and better manage the wildlife within a sanctuary or a national park. And in the case of the Panna Tiger Reserve, the CEC has found such diversion to not be necessary to improve and better manage wildlife in the park.

Downstream of the national park lies the Ken Gharial Sanctuary, created to protect the critically endangered Gangetic gharial ( Gavialis gangeticus). The destructive impact of the proposed dam on the flow of water into and outside of this sanctuary should be immediately clear, as also its violation of the requirement under the Act for a sanctuary. The CEC is clear in its report that “the Standing Committee of the NBWL has not considered the impact of the project on the downstream gharial sanctuary”.

The CEC submitted this report to the Supreme Court on August 30, 2019, and the matter remains sub judice. The project is also reportedly still to receive full forest clearance. A challenge to its environment approval is also pending before the National Green Tribunal, presumably because the tribunal believes the project must secure forest clearance first.

Due diligence and expert scrutiny during the project-approval stage are cornerstones of sound environmental governance. So it was a big shock when, following Cabinet approval, the national government announced the implementation of the KBLP in the 2022-2023 Union budget and said Rs 1,400 crore would be allocated in that financial year.

How will Panna’s tigers be affected?

Recall that the Panna tiger reserve lost all its tigers by 2009, requiring a remarkable effort spanning almost a decade to reintroduce them. Panna is exceptional tiger habitat because of its deep gorges, which will be drowned if the new dam is built. An illegal approval granted by a national board will bring to naught all the good, hard work of the past.

The government is also developing a larger ‘Panna Tiger Landscape’, but this is not the concession many believe it to be. This landscape should be created in any case for Panna’s tigers. Such landscape-level action is also required around most wildlife areas in light of a new global target to protect 30% of global terrestrial and marine areas by 2030, finalised at the COP15 biodiversity conference in December 2022.

The question is: Why should such plans be designed and deployed only because the heart of a tiger reserve is to be drowned and the park irreversibly fragmented?

In fact, there may not even be enough water in the Ken, a non-perennial river, to meet the projected needs of the Betwa – forget the needs of the Bundelkhand region. This is why the NBWL expert body mandated an “independent” hydrological investigation of the Ken. Older reports by state agencies had thrown up different, and hence unreliable, projections. Such an independent investigation remains pending.

Independent experts have also said that it will be more economical and faster if the governments restored Bunderlkhand’s erstwhile Chandel-period lakes and ponds and if they replicated the successful field-pond schemes on priority. The region is already blessed with adequate annual rainfall.

Against this background, rushing the KBLP sans due diligence – both technical and legal – will intensify water conflicts between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh; dash locals’ longstanding expectations of irrigation and drinking water; and cost a decade’s labour and funds. Ahead of the forthcoming 2023-2024 Union budget, let us hope we won’t be saddled with a  textbook loss-loss project.

Manoj Misra is a former member of the Indian Forest Service and has been convener of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Campaign for a Living Yamuna) since 2007.

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