A team of wildlife experts submitted a crucial report Monday, on which hinges the fate of the first-ever inter-State river linking project since India’s independence. The submitted report — not yet public — warns of the dangers to the ecology and animal life due to the proposed Ken-Betwa project. The main feature of the project is a 230-km long canal connecting the Ken and Betwa rivers which will irrigate 3.5 lakh hectares of drought-prone Bundelkhand. However, it will also inundate about 400 of the 4300-hectare Panna Tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
The report neither endorses nor disapproves of the Ken-Betwa project but notes that if the government were to go ahead it ought to ensure that the proposed canal does not hinder tiger movement and that there should be enough habitable forest land developed to compensate for the loss of tiger reserve land.
The Ken-Betwa river interlinking project is being vigorously promoted by the incumbent NDA government as the first in a series of projects to transfer surplus water from certain rivers into deficient ones and improve irrigation as well as hydropower availability.
Given the threat to the tiger reserve, the Environment Ministry, whose clearance is mandatory for the project, tasked the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) with an expert analysis on the environmental impact.
“We have given a very tough report … the terms of the committee were not to recommend a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but to give a site report,” said Raman Sukumar, NBWL member and part of a six-member team tasked to visit the site and assess the ecological and wildlife costs of the project. He didn’t disclose the contents of the report.
Apart from threats to the tiger habitat, there are also threats to gharial, hyenas and vultures that live within the sanctuary.
Another expert confirmed to The Hindu that the report “had to strike a balance” between the need for irrigation and to preserve the ecology of the reserve, that is also now held as a model of tiger conservation. “No one can be happy about the project but the reality is that there is a Supreme Court directive to the government to implement the project,” he added.
The number of tigers in the reserve had plummeted from 25 in 2006 to zero in 2009, sparking national consternation. In conservation efforts in the seven years since, tigers from other reserves were relocated and are now believed to number 18.
Discussions are still under way on whether the height of the proposed dam along the canal can be reduced to limit the extent of tiger reserve inundation. However, the project in its current form will not affect farmers in the vicinity of the river and portions of the tiger reserve that will be lost are not the territory of the resident big cats, said people familiar with the contents of the report.
The Environment Ministry’s go-ahead will enable the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), a Water Resources Ministry body, to begin work on the project.
“The MP government has already agreed to compensate twice the area that will be lost in the reserve, but reducing dam height will make the project unviable,” said S. Masood Hussain, Director General, NWDA.