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Disruptive impact of ‘unviable’ Ken-Betwa River Link Project for Bundelkhand region

By Bharat Dogra* 

During a recent visit to Bundelkhand region I came across a report which said, “Villagers protesting against the Ken-Betwa River Link Project have submitted a protest petition written with their blood. Their leaders have alleged that 3 to 4 million trees are likely to be cut and people of 21 villages will be displaced by the dams and canal of the project.”
Subsequent inquiries from a scientist who has worked extensively on government water research projects revealed that in his opinion this project will be highly disastrous for the Bundelkhand region already suffering from several acute problems.
The Ken-Betwa River Link Project (KBRLP) in Bundelkhand region has faced repeated criticism from several reputed experts. Involving two states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, this Rs 44,000 crore project has faced much cost escalation in the past and is likely to face even more cost rise in the future. This project involves the construction of dams and a 230 km canal, largely (but not entirely) in the Bundelkhand region of these two states, to take the water of Ken River to Betwa river.
This is the first of the around 30 projects of the larger , and highly contentious, national river inter-linking project. Perhaps for this reason, this has been persistently promoted at high levels by the government, despite being criticized repeatedly by several independent experts. What is more this criticism of independent experts , activists and local people has been backed by what is stated in several reports having official sanction, such as the report of the Central Powered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court of India.
This project involves the felling of over two to three million trees, mostly in the protected area of Panna Tiger Reserve. In these times of climate change a project which starts with felling over two million trees should not even be looked at, let alone cleared. Earlier 2.3 million trees were estimated for felling in official documents but this was on the basis of trees with less than 20 cm. girth being left out.
However, since then smaller trees have grown too and hence a figure of 3 to 4 million trees is being mentioned by those protesting against this project. Felling of trees not just in the submergence area of one dam but instead the felling of trees caused by all dams and over 200 km. canal should be counted.
This is supposed to be a project which will contribute to reducing water scarcity. What about the water conserved by these two or three million trees? Each one of these two to four million trees is a silent water conserver and in addition also contributes to climate change mitigation.
Here it should be remembered that the available studies of the water scarcity of Bundelkhand, such as those prepared by the Vigyan Shiksha Kendra (VSK) in collaboration with IIT, Delhi, have identified deforestation as an important cause of water scarcity.
The basic premise that there is excess water in the Ken River available for transferring to Betwa river has been repeatedly questioned. The district magistrate of Panna, in letters during 2005-08 to the Planning Commission and other officials reportedly said: there is no surplus water in the Ken basin. Since then water in Ken and its smaller tributaries has been depleted further by some prolonged droughts as well as heavy sand mining (a lot of this clearly illegal) which have depleted recharge in the nearby aquifers as well.
As this writer travelled earlier this year along the Ken river, there was an extremely long line-up of trucks, all waiting to carry river sand which is often taken out using very heavy machines in ways which are very damaging for the river.
In recent years highly depleted water flow in the Ken river has been noticed during the lean season. Some of the smaller tributaries are in fact badly threatened or vanishing in some stretches at least. Transfer of Ken water will further endanger the Ken river and increase the problems of people and animals depending on this river and its irrigation system. For many people in the Ken basin this Rs 44,000 crore project will aggravate drought-time problems, not reduce them.
While the axing of two million or more trees is not justified under any circumstances, it becomes all the more unforgivable if this felling is carried out for a non-viable project whose most basic premise (of there being surplus water in a river available for transfer) is highly questionable.
What is more, the Ken and Betwa basins are close to each other, both generally experience high and low rain, flood or drought at the same time, both rivers merge in the same Yamuna after some distance, so the concept of the surplus river helping the deficit river has hardly any validity.
Threat to several wild animals , birds and fish, including already endangered ones, will increase further if the wild life habitats spread over several thousand hectares are submerged under this project and a dam is constructed. These include tigers, vultures, mahseer fish, gharials and several others. The Panna Tiger Reserve will be disrupted and bifurcated by a big submerged zone and hence its ability to conserve and protect wild life will be affected in other ways too, apart from felling of trees.
Thousands of people are likely to be displaced by this project which is essentially a non-viable project based on false assumptions and unverified premises. It is strange that first people are displaced to create protected areas, then protected areas are disrupted to create dams and in addition more people are displaced as well.
This is an expensive Rs 44,000 crore project whose cost is likely to increase further. Is it justified to spend such a huge budget on such a dubious and essentially non-viable project when so many priority needs of the poor people remain largely unmet? Bundelkhand is known for high levels of poverty which has increased further due to Covid, lockdowns and reverse migration in recent times.
It is well-established from the experience of water projects in Bundelkhand so far that large and medium dam projects, apart from causing displacement of communities and failing to resettle them in a satisfactory way, have also disappointed by not bringing the expected benefits. In fact some of the more destructive recent floods in Bundelkhand have been blamed on the arbitrary release of excess water by dams. 
On the other hand, very encouraging results achieved by several small-scale water conservation and harvesting projects by several voluntary organizations of this region have clearly established that much better and cost-effective results can be achieved by concentrating more on such smaller, community-based works, supported by increasing cover of indigenous trees, regeneration of pastures and forests.
The natural river flow river system in the rocky terrain has created what the CEC report says is a special and unique system of gorges, cliffs and riverine flora and fauna very rich in its own kind of biodiversity and its loss just cannot be compensated in any artificial way. The beautiful sights of this ecosystem have been cherished in the memory of many visitors and are an enduring source of happiness for people living here, whatever their other problems.
This project has suffered from the outset from poor project planning and lack of transparency. A letter signed by 30 experts and activists was sent to the Union Minister of Environment and Forests , registering a strong protest against this project and the arbitrariness involved in its implementation. This letter says, “The project has been plagued by sloppy, intentionally misleading and inadequate impact assessments, procedural violations and misinformation at every step of the way.”
The signatories to this letter included Dr. Bhartendu Prakash , the author of two extensive studies on the water-resources of Bundelkhand region and Himanshu Thakkar, co-odinator of South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People as well as former member of the government committee on linking rivers who has written innumerable reports and letters on this issue.
The signatories also included Dr Amita Bavaskar, former member of Forest Advisory Committee amd EAS Sarma, former Secretary, Govt of India. This letter says that basic information about the water availability in the two rivers has not been made available and other basic information has been held back from project affected people.
In fact, if we look carefully at some comments made in reports having official sanction, then a very strong case for withdrawing this project can be made even on the basis of these scattered comments, but such observations have not reached the people affected by the project.
This project has been pushed in the name of helping people of Bundelkhand by reducing their water scarcity but its adverse impact on groundwater recharge in the downstream areas of Bundelkhand region is being ignored. People depending on the Ken river system and its canal system, whose water even now is much below the declared potential, will be starved of irrigation and water. Many water sources falling on the way of the 230 km. long canal will be disrupted while the canal is also likely to lead to waterlogging in some places.
This disruption is being invited by spending over INR 44,000 crore while merely restoration and repair of the hundreds, even thousands of tanks created during the times of Chandela and Bundela kings, which were created on the basis of very good understanding of local conditions, can help to solve the water problems of Bundelkhand in a much better way and at a much lower cost.
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Planet in Peril”, “Man over Machine” and “Protecting Earth for Children”



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