The Ken Betwa project needs to be redesigned

Yoginder K Alagh | Updated on July 28, 2021

A view of the Betwa river   -  RV Moorthy

The Prime Minister was a co-signatory to the Ken Betwa Project in Madhya Pradesh. Linking rivers that are close by is a more practical option rather than grandiose ideas like the Garland Canal. Those ideas remain on paper.

Linking close-by rivers is feasible. The Paar Tapti Project in the Gujarat-Maharashtra border is one such successful case. The Ken Betwa becomes important whenever monsoon fails.

The Ken Betwa interlinking is in a very difficult terrain: The project is in the Central Plateaux and Hills Region of the Agro Climatic Regions of India.

The project methodology of the interlinking of rivers demands the agro climatic characteristics to be taken into account. The feasibility document of the project lists these problems, but they were ignored in the engineering design. 44 per cent of the soils in the link are plateau soils; another 10 per cent are hill ridges and dissected flood plains.

The documents for project preparation make this clear; the engineering design ignores it.

In the Upper Betwa Sub Basin 8 more than two-fifths of the cropping pattern is jowar, fodder and wheat. Only 1 per cent or so is paddy. But the project is designed to give 48 per cent irrigation for paddy. In some soils water delivery for paddy can cause havoc.

Need to unlearn

For the Ken Betwa project, the engineers need to unlearn the lesson learned during the canal irrigation experience in the Punjab, Western UP and the Gangetic Plains with its alluvial soils.

The Orcha valley where the Betwa would end is not a paddy producing region, nor is the Betwa area to be irrigated by the Ken Betwa with surplus waters from the Ken. In fact the soil surveys included in the project proposal say so in plain words. These reports are included in the project proposal but ignored in the project plan. This is a truly extraordinary situation to put it rather mildly.

Many decades ago a journalist based in Bhopal, named Bhaduri, had written an article on the adverse impact of The Tawa Project in the Narmada upstream of Sardar Sarovar. He was Jaya Bhaduri’s father. I was in one of my deputation’s to the Planning Commission and was sent to investigate and came back to report that the damage of uncontrolled irrigation to black cotton soil was tremendous.

It was difficult to even walk in the fields. Money was being wasted on research on improving paddy yields in black cotton soils. Meanwhile the farmers wanted controlled water supply to boost yields in long staple cotton or even pulses or oilseeds.

The same story is being repeated in the Ken Betwa. We never learn. The area needs irrigation for oilseeds, pulses and cotton and not paddy. Also the rich animal heritage of the area: the famous cattle breeds need fodder. Most households have animal wealth. Many have more than one cattle. Again the area is famous for its quality wheat and irrigated yields are high. Fruits and vegetables cultivation could also be looked at.

These difficulties have been dealt with in some detail in a study commissioned by the WWF. Biksham Gujja, WWF head in India, put together a team to examine the project.

I was asked to chair it given my experience in planning the SSP Narmada Project. A former Chairman of the CWC was a member and also the Director of the Institute of Economic Growth. The issues are well stated but many important issues are also ignored.

The Ken Betwa has to be redesigned and sent back to the drawing board. It has to be a part of globalising Indian agriculture rather than repeating the mistakes of the past.

The writer is a former Union minister

Published on July 28, 2021

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