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Whither 1970s, 1980s chipko gains? Axing of 23 lakh trees for river linking project

By Bharat Dogra* 

Each tree is considered to be a conserver of water, so it is extremely strange that a leading project in India, widely publicized to reduce water shortages of a drought-prone area, is supposed to start with the axing of 2.3 million trees, besides badly disrupting wild life including tigers in a protected zone and displacing thousands of villages.
The claims of this project have been trashed repeatedly by eminent experts as well as a committee appointed by the apex court of India. However ignoring all this, the Cabinet approved the Ken-Betwa River-Link Project (KBRLP) on December 8, 2021.
The government has committed to spend about Rs 5,500 crore average per year over the next 8 years ( Rs. 44,600 crore, or 6 billion dollars in all) over the next eight years on this multipurpose power and water project whose main stated aim is to solve the water scarcity of Bundelkhand, a region of 13 districts in central India.
Essentially this project involves the transfer of water from a river basin considered surplus (Ken) to the other considered deficit (Betwa). But as critics have pointed out, this basic premise of the project is non-rational as the surplus water availability in Ken river has never been established properly. In fact this river and its tributaries have been ravaged and depleted in recent years by reckless sand mining carried out by politically well-connected mafias.
Besides, as both river-basins are adjacent to each other, together experiencing similar weather conditions of heavy or deficient rain, there is little justification for transfer of water based on notions of deficit-surplus.
Studies of water scarcity in Bundelkhand have mentioned deforestation as a leading cause ; hence seeking to solve water scarcity with a project involving axing of over 2 million trees appears foolhardy. These studies, highlighting the rich traditional wisdom seen in many water conservation works of Bundelkhand, have called for their better care and promotion of water conservation based on similar understanding of local conditions.
Earlier, 30 experts, some of whom have held official positions, joined hands to prepare a document which states that “the project has been plagued by sloppy, intentionally misleading and inadequate impact assessments, procedural violations and misinformation at every step of the way.”
Pandurang Hegde is an environment activist who worked very hard — and with much success — to save many trees from commercial felling in the ecologically crucial Western Ghats area of Karnataka state. He says bitterly, “ Before we could celebrate our success, even more trees started being cut in the name of big projects whose desirability and viability was not well established at all.”
In the Himalayan region a very large number of trees are threatened even in river catchment areas by projects whose desirability and necessity has been questioned repeatedly. If we add together all such cases where a large number of trees are threatened, many in ecologically crucial areas, the numbers easily add up to the possibility of saving around four million trees in India alone.
Vimla Bahuguna, a motherly activist who devoted her life to protecting forests in the Himalayan region, told me recently, “ The gains of the battles we won in the 1970s and 1980s are being lost now.”
When her husband Sunderlal Baguguna, the venerable famous leader of Chipko (hug the trees) movement died recently, the government paid rich tributes to him. Just a few months earlier I had gone to their home to present them my new book on their lifelong struggles to save trees and rivers in the Himalayas. As we discussed the current situation, he almost broke down when speaking of the slaughter of trees in several places.
The government honours his memory, but will it honour his vision of making the best possible efforts to save all threatened trees and forests?
At world level of course the potential for saving threatened trees is many times more. Hence there is increasing need for setting up international mechanisms for making best possible efforts to save trees threatened by dubious projects, or more broadly by all avoidable reasons.
An agency can be set up in the United Nations and it should be mandatory for any project in any country that involves axing of trees beyond a limit to inform this agency and to at least obtain its opinion on possibilities of avoiding this loss. 
An effort should be made to get the best advice on the possibilities of saving trees by all countries. This will also help to establish reliable records for all cases worldwide involving heavy loss of trees. This need has increased all the more in times of climate change.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now; his books include “Planet in Peril” and “Protecting Earth For Children”

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