KOLKATA – Nearly four decades after it was conceptualised, a contentious river-linking project in central India has received government clearance at the highest level. The Cabinet, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, approved the Ken-Betwa interlinking project – India’s first such ambitious move – in December.
This project will come up in eight years in the Bundelkhand region that spans the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, and at a current estimate of more than 446 billion rupees (S$8.07 billion).
It envisages transfer of water from Ken to Betwa through the construction of a dam and a 221km canal linking the two rivers. The project, according to the government, will support irrigation for more than one million ha and deliver drinking water for a population of around 6.2 million, besides also generating 130MW of power.
“The project is expected to boost socio-economic prosperity in the backward Bundelkhand region on account of increased agricultural activities and employment generation. It would also help in arresting distress migration from this region,” a government statement said on Dec 8.
But this move has revived ecological concerns around the project and infuriated critics, including those who had challenged the project in court even prior to this clearance and are worried about its adverse impact on the region, especially on the Panna Tiger Reserve, a key tiger habitat.
“It is illegal, it is premature,” said Mr Manoj Mishra, without mincing his words while referring to the Cabinet clearance. The retired government forester and head of the Yamuna Forever Campaign, a movement to protect the Yamuna river, is one of the petitioners in a pending case against the project in the Supreme Court (SC).
“Until and unless the SC has decided the case on merit, a case which is sub judice and does not have all the clearances, how can the Cabinet take a decision on that unless it has been misled about the pending cases,” he told The Straits Times. The project has also been challenged in the National Green Tribunal, which is yet to deliver its verdict.
In a 2019 report submitted to the Supreme Court, its Central Empowered Committee questioned the project’s wildlife clearance as well as its viability. It noted that the project would lead to the loss of 10,500ha of wildlife habitat in the Panna Tiger Reserve on account of submergence and fragmentation.
It added that the project will result in “complete breakdown of the evolutionary process of millions of years” in the local unique ecosystem and termed the impact on the Panna Tiger Reserve, as well as the Ken Gharial Sanctuary, as “irreversible”.
Mr Mishra mentioned that the proposed reservoir will truncate the tiger reserve, impeding movement of tigers in the western direction, where they head to colonise new areas because of a contiguous forest belt. “This entire western migration, which ideally should take place in the larger interest of tiger conservation, will be stopped forever as long as the reservoir exists,” he added.
Even the forest clearance given to this project in 2017 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is conditional, and stipulates that a proposed 78MW power house shall not be constructed in the forest area and that no construction material is to be taken from there.
Mr Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People and a petitioner in a case against the project in the National Green Tribunal, said there is no evidence to indicate that the project had been redesigned to ensure it meets these conditions. He added that the Cabinet clearance now risks even compromising these checks.
“The government wants to go ahead, but they see these hurdles, which is why they want to bring pressure on all these institutions now,” he told ST. “Once the Cabinet has cleared it and the PM has endorsed it, you can imagine the kind of pressure each of these institutes and committees will be functioning under.”
In a response to ST, director-general of the National Water Development Agency, Mr Bhopal Singh, said that the loss of the Panna Tiger Reserve’s core area is being compensated with land for compensatory afforestation in the reserve’s vicinity. The loss of buffer area will also be offset by providing “double degraded forest” land.
A Landscape Management Plan is being developed as well for the conservation of wildlife and biodiversity in the region, which the Central Empowered Committee has said is no substitute for the loss of the Panna Tiger Reserve’s wildlife habitat and the felling of more than 2.3 million trees with a girth of 20cm or more.
Questions have also swirled around the assumption that the Ken basin is “water surplus”, allowing the authorities to propose the transfer of water to the water-deficit areas of the upper Betwa basin in this project.