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Small water-conservation schemes are 'more viable' than Ken-Betwa river-link project

By Bharat Dogra* 

Bundelkhand region in Central India comprising 14 districts (7 in Uttar Pradesh and 7 in Madhya Pradesh) has been frequently in news due to water scarcity. While there is widespread agreement on according very high priority to resolving the water problems here by finding sustainable solutions, there is a lot of difference of opinion regarding how to go forward in this.
Already in recent decades several large and medium dam projects have been constructed here and a district like Lalitpur is known as the district perhaps most known for such projects. Despite this people have continued to experience water scarcity quite frequently. While people just now are happy regarding the jal jeevan mission being busy with providing water connections in all village homes, serious concerns regarding the depletion of water sources still persist.
The biggest and most highly publicized water project being implemented here, which involves dam as well as canal construction and which has been called the first river-link project under the wider national river-links mega-project is the Ken-Betwa River-Link Project. This was approved by the Cabinet with a budget of Rs 45,600 crore and completion period of 8 years.
However several misgiving have been expressed about this project such as the felling of 2 to 3 million trees, displacement of a significant number of people, absence of surplus water in the Ken river during the lean season, the adverse impact on water availability in several downstream areas, the risk of waterlogging as well as loss of natural sources of water as a result of canal construction and adverse impact on wild life.
As both rivers are in the same region affected by more or less similar weather the concept of transfer from surplus to deficit has low validity. Not just the desirability but even the viability of this project has been questioned on several occasions by eminent persons, experts as well as local villagers and activists.
Keeping in view all these factors, is it wise to commit as much as Ken-Betwa River-Link Project Rs 45,600 crore on this project over the next 8 years, as was done at the time of approval by the cabinet? As is well-known, such estimates presented at the time of approval of such projects generally tend to escalate with the passage of time and the final estimate is often much, much higher than on the basis of what the approval was granted.
However even if we proceed on the basis of the original estimate of approval date, this involves spending of Rs 45,600 crore over 8 years, or an average Rs 5,700 crore per year.
In other words, if this massive project which has been described as both undesirable and ultimately unviable by several experts is avoided and instead its budget is transferred to the most viable and desirable water conservation projects which give good results very soon, then additional Rs 5,600 crore per year can become available for such projects over the next eight years for the 14 districts of Bundelkhand, or Rs 400 crore per year per district, in addition to the funds already available under various schemes for water conservation work.
Small water conservation projects will contribute very well to climate change adaptation and climate resilience
I have been looking at various such promising small-scale water-conservation projects of great potential in recent decades, and reporting about them. I am aware that corruption and poor implementation can take place in the case of such work too. However I am here speaking about the potential, promise and performance of sincerely and honestly implemented small-scale water conservation projects and I can certainly say on the basis of my experience that such projects can give very good results.
Hence transfer of funds from unviable and undesirable projects like the Ken-Betwa Link to sincerely and honestly implemented projects in Bundelkhand can change the face of Bundelkhand from an area of water scarcity to a green area which is very capable of promoting sustainable livelihoods in villages.
In view of now drawing a lot of water from bore wells for feeding pipelines supplying taps in all village homes, there is clearly a need for better and more water conservation works, including repair and restoration of traditional water sources, and the proposal made here will fulfill this need as well.
These small-scale water conservation projects will also contribute very well to climate change adaptation and climate resilience. Apart from meeting human needs these will make a big contribution to quenching the thirst of farm animals, stray animals and wild life.
This proposal will also be helpful for taking forward the good work of rejuvenation of rivers in Bundlkhand. The rejuvenation of about 8 or 9 rivers, perhaps more, has been reported recently, due to work which has often involved the close cooperation of voluntary organizations, village communities, panchayats and the district administration.
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*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Planet in Peril”, “Protecting Earth for Children”, “Man over Machine” and “India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food”

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