A river on a rocky course

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on January 20, 2018
Rock show: The potholes on River Ken, which winds its way through deep-cut valleys, gorges and canyons, make it a geological and geomorphologic marvel. Photo: Brij Gopal

Rock show: The potholes on River Ken, which winds its way through deep-cut valleys, gorges and canyons, make it a geological and geomorphologic marvel. Photo: Brij Gopal

The Ken and the Panna National Park became tourist hotspots in the

The Ken and the Panna National Park became tourist hotspots in the’90s.   -  Special Arrangement

At home: Panna was one of the most successful big cat translocation experiments in India. Photo: R Sreenivasa Murthy

At home: Panna was one of the most successful big cat translocation experiments in India. Photo: R Sreenivasa Murthy

Show me the water: Activists say there is not enough water in the Ken for what the government is dreaming to achieve. Photo: Brij Gopal

Show me the water: Activists say there is not enough water in the Ken for what the government is dreaming to achieve. Photo: Brij Gopal

If the Ken-Betwa river interlinking plan takes off, it will change the lives of many in the region. But will it be for the better or worse?

Many would think it’s a crazy pastime — walking along a riverbed on a blazing hot summer day, gathering rocks and taking their pictures. Professor Brij Gopal has been doing just that for the past five years. The aquatic geologist is studying the morphology of River Ken in Madhya Pradesh, examining the overhanging rocks, the potholes on its bed, and generally muddying his fingers looking at the sediments.

Half the world may not have heard of River Ken, or Karnawati, her ancient name. She flows just 20 km away from Khajuraho, one of the most visited sites in the world, and right through the Panna National Park and tiger reserve. So why is the good professor spending so much time pottering around this tiny river that springs from the Vindhyas and merges with the Yamuna, when there are bigger and better-known rivers around?

“Ken is a geological and geomorphologic marvel,” he says, animatedly pointing out how the potholes on this river, which flows through deep-cut valleys, gorges and canyons, are so different from those found in the mighty Narmada and Godavari, two other rock-bed rivers. “The potholes occur on sandstone here, which is very rare; they are usually found on basalt or granite,” he says.

We may find the fuss over potholes mystifying. But geologists get excited as these are associated with melting glaciers that lead to turbulence in rivers and hold deep clues for scientists. What’s also driving the former environmental sciences professor at JNU to spend money out of his pocket and document the river is the controversial Ken-Betwa link project — India’s most ambitious river interlinking programme till date. And one that threatens the existence of the river and the forest it feeds.

The professor who shuttles between Jaipur and Khajuraho, studying the bed characteristics, sediments, biodiversity and water quality of Ken, says that the river has not been properly studied. “Whatever data the National Water Development Agency (the nodal agency in the interlinking plan) has used is on the flow, rain gauges and rainfall pattern,” he says. He worries that several of his discoveries may get submerged once the big dam and reservoir are built at Panna, especially since the government is pushing ahead with the project and not sharing its hydrology reports. He hopes his intensive documentation will help save the heritage sites.

Gopal waxes eloquent about the rock paintings in the reserve’s buffer zone, believing they could date back to the Pandava era. The Pandavas, it is believed, spent their exile in these forests, which are not far from Chitrakoot. But what excites him is a rare geological feature at Pandavan, the place where River Mirhasan joins the Ken and the water suddenly disappears into a deep rift.

Legend has it that the river did not want to disturb the Pandavas and hence went underground. Another version that Gopal has heard from many villagers is that the Pandavas wanted to stop the river but she turned into a fish and slipped under their feet. “Pandavan is of historical and cultural interest and needs to be declared a geoheritage site before it is submerged under the reservoir,” he says.

Gopal is not the only one who is worried. Others who have devoted a lifetime to River Ken too are sceptical about the interlinking project. Shyamendra Singh, or Vini Raja, as he is popularly called, who helped put Panna Tiger Reserve on the tourist map with his beautiful lodge and exciting wildlife safaris, is very concerned about the fate of the big cat.

When Vini came here in the ’80s to set up a cottage in the forest, people thought he was crazy. “I had two options,” says the Mayo alumnus who excelled in mountaineering. “Either go live in the mountains and organise treks or do something around wildlife.” Hailing from the royal family of Nagod, which is close to Panna, he chose the central Indian plains to start his wildlife enterprise. There were no tigers in the park when Vini constructed his lodge by the river. Two females and one male were brought in and subsequently, four more. The tiger population multiplied from seven to 34, making Panna one of the most successful big cat translocation experiments in India. By the mid-1990s, tourism was thriving at the park and the wooden lodge, with its enchanting view of the river, became a sought-after destination. Other lodges and camps too came up. But then the poachers arrived, endangering the tigers, followed by the floods in 2005 that devastated Panna. Vini lost his home and the park its tigers. “I almost moved out, but the villagers had become dependent on tourism for their livelihood and urged me to rebuild,” he says. In 2009, there were practically no tigers left in Panna and it’s been a herculean effort to get them back.

But now the roar is back. Four tigers and around 10 cubs are settled here, thanks to the efforts of conservation biologist Raghu Chundawat, who blew the whistle on the poaching, and the field director of the Panna Reserve. In 2010, Chundawat along with his British wife Joanna van Gruisen opened the Sarai at Toria, by the banks of the Ken.

If the interlinking project takes off, Vini fears that the tigers will be threatened again and the years of conservation will come to nought. “The area around is going to get shortened. Panna is very narrow, and further down the forest are rocky areas that are not tiger terrain; they are more conducive to antelopes.” The authorities will have to create a corridor to Bandhavgarh, towards the east, for the tigers to move, otherwise their numbers will dwindle, he says.

River activists like Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, agree. “Rivers are the mother of civilisation. But forests are the father of rivers and this project is going to destroy the forest that sustains Ken,” Thakkar warns.

On the cusp of two trails

River Ken finds itself at the intersection of two tourist trails in central India. There is the cultural trail starting from the Bundelkhand kingdom of Orchha, near Jhansi, on to Khajuraho and through Panna to Chitrakoot, and beyond that to Varanasi. Then there is the wildlife and ecology trail from Panna to Bandhavgarh to Kanha and beyond to Pench, with interesting sights like Raneh Falls en route. Millions visit Khajuraho but few take the trouble of travelling 30 km to see the amazing five-km-long canyon where River Ken plunges down the gorges. The canyon, made of crystalline granite in pink, green, brown and black basalt hues, fill you with the same awe that you feel looking at the marble rocks at Jabalpur.

Gehrighat, where the Ken enters the gorge, is a vital vulture habitat in the park, says Gopal. Once a gharial haunt, Vini says the drought and declining water levels have forced the reptiles to either swim away or die. “There is one gharial left,” he says. “The sad part is that there is not enough water in the river for what the government is dreaming to achieve,” he adds.

The interlinking project hopes to irrigate six lakh hectares and supply water to 14 lakh rural people. But Manoj Misra, a former forest officer and the convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, says these claims are wrong. He is baffled how a river that is running dry will feed the Betwa, which is always full. “It’s like taking nutrition away from a thin man to feed a fat man,” says Misra. S Masood Hussain, director general of the NWDA defends the interlinking plans. The average per capita water storage created in India is 200 cubic meters, way behind China (1,100 cubic metres) or the US (1,960 cubic metres), he says. “We are nowhere near these nations in water security. We rely too much on providence and we need to come out of it,” he says. According to him, creating more reservoirs will equip us better against both droughts and floods.

Meanwhile, the villagers are divided. Many are tempted by the prospect of fat compensation and the dream of water flowing through the region. But the villages where people have invested in rainwater harvesting and found ways to cope with the dry summers want nature to be left alone.

Prem Singh, a farmer activist in Badokar Khurd in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh says rivers, like blood vessels, know their job is to nurture the earth and take their routes accordingly. “It’s no accident that the Ken flows this way and the Betwa that way. Disturbing these routes will be disturbing the ecology.” Singh, whose sustainable farming methods are inspiring many in the region, points to his green acres where fruit, pulses and grains grow in abundance. “They are invoking the plight of farmers to set up this project. But we have our methods of rainwater harvesting and irrigate the fields without disturbing the river,” he says. He is spreading awareness about the perils of monocropping and advocates dividing farms into fruit orchards, growing mixed crops of pulses and grains, and going organic.

UIrike Reinhard, a German who has made Panna home and zips around on a Royal Enfield, is inspired by Singh and is getting Janwaar, her adopted village, to practise the same methods of farming and water conservation. Janwaar, says Reinhard, is in the buffer zone of the park and will be affected by the river interlinking project. Reinhard teaches the village kids skateboarding and is involved in a crowdfunded project that will, she says, provide drinking water all year round. The skateboarding village has attracted photographers like Vicky Roy. The money from selling these photographs (₹50,000 per photo) is being used for a solar-power handpump to draw water from a tube well and fill two 5,000-litre tanks. On November 14 this year, Janwaar will host a skateboarding competition. A host of other experiments are also afoot at Janwaar including an MIT labs project to map climate change. As Gopal sums up, if the ₹10,000 crore being invested in the interlinking project were given to these villages for such projects, the parched area will be able to sustain itself.

Published on May 27, 2016

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