In 1982, the Centre proposed an ambitious project to link the Ken and Betwa rivers, claiming it would meet the irrigation, drinking water and electricity needs of nearly 62 lakh families. The project proposes to transfer water from the Ken basin to the Betwa basin, through a canal 231 km long.
Decades later, on 22 March 2021, the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh signed a tripartite agreement for project implementation. The Rs 37,611 Crore project is expected to provide irrigation benefits of 10.62 lakh hectares annually to the two states. In recent years, as rising global temperatures put India at an increased risk of drought, the Ken-Betwa project is being presented as a solution to water problems.
However, the Ken-Betwa river linking project comes at an environmental, social and political cost:
The project requires the construction of a flood plane in Panna National Park, which hosts one of India’s largest tiger reserves. Out of India’s tiger population of nearly 3000, about 50 reside in Panna, along with 6 vulture species. According to reports, construction of the Daudhan dam as part of the Ken-Betwa project will lead to about 4,206 hectares of the core tiger reserve being submerged. In 2016, the National Board of Wildlife (NBWL) provided clearance for Phase I of the project. The minutes of the meeting held by the Panel revealed a few disconcerting points:
According to a report released by the forest advisory committee, the project will also lead to the felling of about 1.8 million trees. Such a loss can drive changes in rainfall patterns in the area. Additionally, Panna is known for its diamond mines, which provide income for many. Locals have alleged that water seepage caused by the dam will alter the temperature conditions required for diamond production, impacting the industry.
The Supreme Court-appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) is among the many committees that have raised doubts about the project. A petition opposing the approval to the project is pending before the Supreme Court.
The feasibility report of the Ken-Betwa project released by the National Water Development Authority estimated the displacement of about 1000 families due to submerging. Data research organisation Land Conflict Watch reported that villagers were not provided with detailed information about the project and were asked to attend public hearings despite this.
Scheduled castes constitute 15.5% of the population to be submerged, while Scheduled Tribes constitute 34.4%. According to reports, the locals have accepted their fate of being displaced and have been rallying to demand guaranteed fair compensation from the government. Although an estimated compensation amount is mentioned in the feasibility report, the government is yet to decide on a final amount and discuss it with the villagers.
During the public hearings that took place in 2014, activists alleged that the hearings were being conducted much too late and with a volley of misinformation. Allegedly, comprehensive documents were not provided, mandatory notices were not produced, documents were not available in languages native to the villagers and the hearing summaries were not produced on time. Pushpendra Bhai of Bundelkhand Future Council had written to the Public Hearing Panel demanding the cancellation of the hearings, but received no response.
Ever since its inception, the prospect of a Ken-Betwa river link has been positioned as the solution to water scarcity problems in the area, especially drought-prone Bundelkhand. The fundamental idea of the project, however, is incorrectly portrayed according to experts. EIA experts have pointed out that the EIA for the project has numerous flaws, one of the most prominent being the miscalculation of water availability in the Ken basin. Water balance studies, drought frequencies and the availability of ‘surplus’ water have all been overlooked.
While the Terms of Reference of the project itself states that prevailing environmental flows of the river need to be followed, the EIA has no mention of these environmental flows. Some reports even suggest that key aspects of the data related to the Ken-Betwa project have not been disclosed to the public, preventing independent research to verify the government’s claims.
Ecological experts have stressed the importance of an analysis of India’s existing water resources before commencing any of the proposed river linking projects. The current assessments lack a comprehensive understanding of the project’s total impact. As the late Dr Latha Ananta of the River Research Centre has said: “The government is trying to redraw the entire geography of the country. What will happen to communities, the wildlife, the farmers who live downstream of the rivers? They need to look at a river not just as a source of water, but as an entire ecosystem.”
The conflict between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh regarding water shares was a major reason behind the delay of the Ken-Betwa project agreement. The dispute was resolved after Uttar Pradesh dropped its demands for a higher share. Such conflicts are common, the Sardar Sarovar Dam conflict between Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan being one of the most notable.
More recently, the newly ignited Krishna Water dispute between Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh comes to mind. Resolving such conflicts not only costs time and money but requires farsightedness. For example, with a changing climate leading to changing rainfall patterns, disputes over the availability of water in the Ken basin may accelerate in the future.
If a conflict between States isn’t enough, India’s plans to implement river linking projects across the country have not been well received by neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh. In 2015, the Water Resources Ministry announced its plan to establish the Manas-Sankosh-Teesta-Ganga link, in consultation with the governments of Assam, West Bengal and Bihar.
This was met with criticism from the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, who alleged that such a project would greatly reduce the water availability in Bangladesh. 54 of India’s rivers flow through drought-prone Bangladesh, which means a project impacting water can lead to major cross-border conflict.
With the agreement between the states, the project is officially on its way to the next stage: clearance. Experts are hopeful that the project proposal in its current form won’t receive forest clearance. Generally, the clearances required for river linking projects include Techno-economic (given by the Central Water Commission); Forest Clearance and Environmental clearance (Ministry of Environment & Forests); Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) Plan of Tribal Population (Ministry of Tribal Affairs) and Wildlife clearance (Central Empowered Committee).
While no developmental project is free of environmental costs, it is sad to see a project like the Ken-Betwa river link – positioned to provide benefits to human life from natural resources – harming nature to such an extent