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Ken-Betwa: A Solution or Further Crisis?

First conceptualised in the 1970s, India’s first river linking project out of a series of 16 peninsular projects and 14 Himalayan projects is finally set to take off. To be built on the Ken-Betwa rivers of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, the project expects to provide 62 lakh people with drinking water, annual irrigation in around 10.62 lakh hectares of area, and also generate 103 MW of hydropower and 27 MW solar power. While these claims appear praiseworthy and the idea, seminal, is the Ken-Betwa project feasible? Let’s examine the dichotomy of blarney and lampoons that this project has gathered. The rationale behind the concept of riverlinking is to identify river sources in different areas, one surplus in water availability and the other deficient. After identification, the water-surplus area is linked to the water-deficient area by means of a channel or underground tunnel.

Water from the former region is transported to the latter, ergo linking the rivers of the two regions and supposedly balancing water supply. In the 1970s, then Union Irrigation Minister Dr KL Rao first put forward such a rationale, when he proposed constructing a National Water Grid to transfer water from water-surplus to water-deficit areas. Nearly a decade later in August 1980, the Ministry of Irrigation came up with a National Perspective Plan advancing transfer of water from basin to basin. The National Water Development Agency (NWDA) recognised 30 river links, 14 located in the Himalayan region and 16 in the peninsular region. The river-linking idea has since occupied centre-stage in various public debates and discussions, but it was not until 2016-17 when the Ken-Betwa link received most of its clearances that the project gained steadfast momentum.

The Ken-Betwa Link aims to construct a reservoir and a dam across the Ken river in Panna district of Madhya Pradesh, and a subsequent canal channel to transport water to the Betwa river in Uttar Pradesh. The project envisages benefits accruing to the drought-prone Bundelkhand region covering 13 districts of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Before diving deeper into the project, it is pertinent to set our groundwork in place by looking at some key players of the Ken-Betwa debate, who will be cited multiple times in this article. First is the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) which is the project developer and inherently handles clearances of the project. Next is the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), appointed by the Supreme Court of India, which after two years of detailed investigation submitted its report on the Ken-Betwa river link on August 30, 2019. Another important player is the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC).

The Endangered Question

History has shown that whenever a massive infrastructure project, especially pertaining to the hydrological sector, is approved by the government, it poses a threat to the environment and raises ecological concerns. One such issue is the ‘Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR)’ in Panna district of Madhya Pradesh, which spreads across 65 % of the total 9000 hectares of area that will eventually be submerged once the Daudham dam on the Ken river is built. The CEC report says that the project will lead to “the loss of 10,500 ha of wildlife habitat in Panna Tiger Reserve”, in addition to the areas submerged due to construction of the Daudham dam, as mentioned earlier. CEC claimed that the link would cut off the core critical tiger habitat of PTR from the rest of the national park, a unique ecosystem of morphological significance with a biodiversity which cannot be recreated. Conservation biologist Raghu Chundawat noted that the tiger population of PTR will get cut off from that in the surrounding areas.

Many genetic studies have concluded that due to inbreeding, tiger populations that are isolated are at a higher risk of extinction. The FAC states that, “in an ideal situation, it would have been better to avoid KBLCP (that’s how the FAC addresses the Ken-Betwa link) in such wilderness areas such as PTR specifically when it runs the risk of providing justification or unhealthy precedence for more such developmental projects within protected areas”. By saying this, the FAC pointed to a domino effect of sorts, hinting that once a developmental project of such scale is approved in a sacred and protected area like that of Panna Tiger Reserve, others will soon follow, setting an unhealthy precedent. According to the data released by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, 124 tigers died in 2021, the most in a decade. Statewise, Madhya Pradesh had the highest loss at 41. This riverlink problem would only sit atop of the other problems faced by the tigers of Panna Reserve.

Apart from the tiger issue, the protected area of PTR also houses seven species of vultures, three of which are migratory ones. There is also a Gharial Sanctuary downstream. The CEC concluded in its report that the “impact of the project on the downstream Gharial Sanctuary and the vulture nesting sites” hasn’t been examined by the Standing Committee of National Board of Wildlife. Our Honourable Supreme court has upheld in one of its decisions (lA No. 100 in WP (C) No. 33 of 1995 with lA No. 3452) that our approach should be eco-centric and not anthropocentric. While an anthropocentric approach considers moral obligation only towards human beings, an ecocentric approach takes into account all living beings surrounding us. It is yet contemptible that in this day and age of across-the-board ideas, we still continue to exclusively apply the humanocentric approach to policy making. In the name of development, is it justified or even desirable to view the same through a lens of our selfish human motives and needs alone?

Data and Bureaucracy:

A Systemic Clash Next, let’s talk about clearances. A number of questions have been raised on the several survey measures adopted by the government and reports that it has based clearances of the project on. To start off, the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) is a report formulated by the government itself whose objective is to identify and evaluate the potential impacts of such a project on the environmental system. The Environment Management Plan (EMP) is another such document that facilitates formulation, implementation, and monitoring of environmental protection once the project is cleared.

The dialogue in the CEC report (submitted to the Supreme Court) about the impacts of the project is entirely incongruous to the EIA of the project. A number of renowned and official agencies, including the Forest Advisory Committee, have noted legions of factual errors and inadequacies in the EIA-EMP reports. Despite all this, the government had already granted an environmental clearance to the project in August 2017 based on the EIA report. The CEC report submitted to the Supreme Court notes that while granting the wildlife clearance to the project, the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife had factored in the impact of the project only with respect to the tiger habitat of the region, completely disregarding the entire flora and fauna and the distinct ecosystem of the region, thus also turning a blind eye to the fact that the project is located within the core of the Panna National Park.

According to an examination by The Wire in July 2021, instead of conducting fresh studies to determine the water landscape of the region, the Jal Shakti ministry infamously used hydrological data from 18 years ago. It is exceedingly paramount to note that of the multiple techno-economic analysis and hydrological reports based on which the government has granted clearances to the project, no report has been made available to the general public or been subjected to an autonomous exploration by experts. En masse, domain experts, scientists, activists, environmentalists, and conservationists are together at odds with the government over what can be inferred from the data available about the Bundelkhand region.

A Flawed Underpinning

The project primarily rests on the postulation of ‘water surplus’ which states that Ken, the smaller of the two rivers, has ‘surplus’ water that can be transmitted to the bigger Betwa river. As aforementioned, the hydrological data used by the government to prop up this premise is concealed. Even though on-ground realities and publicly-accessible facts rebut the government’s assertion, there is no way to corroborate between the two sets of data. Gopal, a former professor of environmental sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, told IndiaaSpend that “The NWDA has relied more on modelling than on actual observations”.

"Modelling data is based on many assumptions and does not match the ground reality," he said. "If there is surplus water, why do districts like Panna struggle to have enough drinking water?" Furthermore, this notion of ‘surplus’ is often based on limited data and “a poor understanding of the role of natural flows, including floods and periodic droughts, in maintaining ecosystems and ecological processes”, many scientists, including renowned hydrologist Jagdish Krishnaswamy, wrote in a 2017 research communiqué. Interestingly, the very idea of water surplus is questionable. The Ken and the Betwa are both tributaries of the perennial Yamuna river. The two basins share a border and face floods and droughts simultaneously. The expressions 'surplus' and 'deficit' as used by government entities are misnomers, environmentalists say, since such anthropogenic measures do not apply to natural resources.

The Ironic State of Panna

While on one hand the government grandiosely talks about an inventive project to transfer ‘surplus’ water from Madhya Pradesh to the ‘deficit’ areas of Uttar Pradesh, it concurrently brushes aside the existing water scarcity in Madhya Pradesh itself. Conservation biologist Raghu Chundawat claimed that as many as 90% of all of Madhya Pradesh’s districts are hitherto water-stressed. “Panna was the only district that wasn’t water deficient, and this project will make Panna water stressed, too,” Chundawat told The Wire Science. “Now every district in Madhya Pradesh will be water-stressed.” In such a scenario when Panna already faces water deficiency, an increased friction and altercations between the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh over sharing of water resources seem imminent.

Latent Costs

As students of economics, while calculating the opportunity cost associated with a project, we take into account both explicit and implicit costs. While the explicit costs of the project have liberally been talked about and accentuated across numerable forums and platforms, it is the implicit social, environmental, political costs which have been downplayed throughout. The log of the final Forest Advisory Committee meeting held on March 30, 2017, notes: “the total project cost has not included the cost of ecosystem services lost due to the diversion of forest… If the cost of ecosystem services lost is considered then the Benefit/Cost ratio will be very less making the project economically unviable.”

Displacement and Rehabilitation

Oddly enough, a comparative study of Hirakud and Kaptai dams of India and Bangladesh by Mr. Arun Kumar Nayak finds that the civil–military regime of Bangladesh and the democratic regime of India are equally repressive in addressing issues of displacement, resettlement and rehabilitation. This finding is ratified by the Indian government’s unimpressive track record in terms of resettlement and rehabilitation of the displaced people and the dissemination of benefits from large-scale developmental projects to the local community. Most of the dam projects, which have served as India’s primary approach to tackle the water question, have faced serious social and environmental failures inducing various anti-dam movements centred around the very issues of displacement and rehabilitation.

Since most of the developmental projects are conventionally located in far-flung areas like villages, forests and hills, it innately insinuates that those displaced are more likely to be aboriginals who have been the traditional representatives of conservation. Displacement in such places doesn’t just mean a loss of residence, rather it expansively translates to a loss of livelihood, assets, habitat, impediment of a social order, and detachment from an ecosystem that sustains these people. It is imperative to note that rehabilitation- mainly the process of restoration of the livelihood of displaced people- has never been a guiding principle of the 1894 Land Acquisition Act (still in use) which alternatively prioritises cash compensation for such a loss. A misplaced mistargeted policy like this one demonstrably contributes to social unrest and movements.

Pakhi Vats
Second Year Undergraduate Student

References

Bandyopadhyay, J., & Perveen, S. (Eds.). (2008). The Interlinking of Indian Rivers: Questions on the Scientific, Economic and Environmental Dimensions of the Proposal. The Interlinking of Indian Rivers. https://doi.org/10.1201/9780203894576

Krueger, K., Segovia, F., & Toubia, M. (2008). ASSESSMENT OF THE INDIA RIVER LINKING PLAN: A CLOSER LOOK AT THE KEN-BETWA PILOT LINK. ASSESSMENT OF THE INDIA RIVER LINKING PLAN: A CLOSER LOOK AT THE KEN-BETWA PILOT LINK.
https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/50483/India_River_Project.pdf;sequence=1

Lama, M. P. (2000, August 1). Internal displacement in India: causes, protection and dilemmas | Forced Migration Review. Forced Migration Review. https://www.fmreview.org/accountability-and-displacement/lama

Nayak, A. K. (2021, September 7). Involuntary Displacement and Rehabilitation: A Comparative Study of Hirakud and Kaptai Dams of India and Bangladesh. Sage Journals. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/00195561211026629?journalCode=ipaa

Sawant, R., Salunke, P. J., & Gaikward, S. P. (2019). Underground Interlinking Of Tubewell. Journal of Emerging Technologies and Innovative Research. https://www.jetir.org/papers/JETIRAS06057.pdf

Sharma, D. (2016, August 8). Linking Rivers in China: Lessons for India. ORF. https://www.orfonline.org/research/linking-rivers-in-china-lessons-for-india/

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