Rivers of contention

CHITRA NARAYANAN | Updated on January 20, 2018


A ₹10,000-cr project to interlink the Ken and the Betwa rivers is mired in controversy

In the search for a solution to Bundelkhand’s water problems, many plausible solutions have emerged. But arguably the most grandiose is a ₹10,000-crore project to interlink the Ken and the Betwa rivers, both tributaries of the Yamuna.

The Modi government has revived this old idea and is advancing it with gusto. It claims that when the project is complete, it will irrigate 6 lakh hectares, provide water supply to 14 lakh rural people, and generate 78 MW of power. The bizarre proposal envisages the transfer of 1,074 million cubic metres of water from the Ken in Madhya Pradesh (which is relatively dry) to the Betwa at a place in Uttar Pradesh some 225 kms away (which has abundant water), through a link canal

Environment activists point out that it will submerge 58.03 sq km of the Panna Tiger Reserve and 31.97 sq km of the buffer zone. The dam being built as part of project will be in the Panna reserve. Fearing widespread displacement of those living in the buffer zones of the reserve, local NGOs oppose the project, arguing that what is needed instead is revival of traditional water bodies and systems. Sanjay Singh, secretary, Parmarth, an NGO that works on rainwater harvesting projects, fears it will lead to conflict between the two States. “Bundelkhand was never water-starved as long as it followed its traditional water-conserving systems,” he says.

‘Unscientific’ project

River experts too oppose the project on the ground that it is too unscientific: how can a smaller river (Ken) feed a larger river (Betwa), they wonder. Says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, “The assumption is that Ken has water surplus and Betwa is dry.” He feels the project will end up transferring water to an area in Betwa region which is already irrigated. He fears that the water may be exported out of Bundelkhand and finally benefit the river’s upstream areas near Bhopal and Vidisha. “It is ecologically damaging, socially disruptive and economically costly,” says Thakkar.

But S Masood Husain, Director-General of the National Water Development Agency, the nodal agency behind projects to interlink rivers, who has experience of building mega-dam projects, brushes aside these concerns. “Everybody considers himself a water professional,” he says. “I agree that local small interventions are required, but they alone cannot meet the water security needs of our country,” he says.

“We rely too much on divine providence,” he says. According to him, creating more reservoirs will equip us better against both droughts and floods.

Husain is confident the river-interlinking project will kick off in the next few months as the environmental clearance was obtained some days ago. “The standing committee on wildlife in the Ministry of Environment has decided to give in-principle clearance. Based on that expert appraisal, we can secure additional clearances,” he says.

But Thakkar says the standing committee approval is a “farce” as it was given even before the sub-committee gave its report. The Wildlife Institute of India is preparing the impact assessment.

Against the flow

As one drives out of Jhansi on the Khajuraho highway, the Betwa is in spate, even during this dry summer. A hundred kilometers ahead on the highway, we cross the Ken, which is nearly dry. “It’s been one of the worst summers we have seen,” says Bhavna Kumari, who along with her husband Shyamendra Singh runs the Ken River Lodge at Panna National Park. Husain, however, scoffs at such claims. “Everybody is busy forming opinions from visual inspections. Our project report is based on hydrological assessment, taking into account full-year water availability and data collected over 60 years,” he says.

Manoj Misra, convenor of the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, demands that these hydrology reports be made public. He has written an impassioned open letter to Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, urging him to hold consultations with experts before proceeding with the project.

Recently, Minister of State for Water Resources Sanwar Lal Jat said the project was “at an advanced stage.” Husain says it could start within six months and could be completed in 6-7 years. “The locals living in Panna are know their lives will be transformed and are fully in support,” he says. Aquatic ecologist Brij Gopal, former Professor of Environmental Science at JNU, however, says that he was present during the public hearings and no signatures were taken. “If you paint a rosy picture promising jobs, water, fairly large compensation, and hide the risks, people in poor areas will verbally agree,” he says.

The activists are all geared up for a battle to save the Ken. Misra points out that there are many more approvals to be secured –– and, of course, the option of legal challenge too exists.

The project has a chequered history: the tripartite Memorandum of Understanding was signed in 2005 between the Water Resources Ministry, and the state governments of UP and Madhya Pradesh, but stiff opposition from conservationists stalled it. Eleven years on, the battle lines are being drawn afresh.

Published on May 23, 2016

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