India's Ken-Betwa Link Project: Development dream or ecological disaster?

The rocky banks of the Betwa river
The Wire
Bundelkhand, India
India's Ken-Betwa Link Project: Development dream or ecological disaster?

This is the first in a six-part series on the Ken-Betwa Link Project.

As the drought-prone Bundelkhand region reels under a severe water crisis, the Union government has begun preparations to implement the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP) which aims to direct water to the region, which occupies parts of the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

Small pillars have been placed to mark the area where the proposed Daudhan dam will be built as part of the first phase of the project. Given that it has been less than four months since the tripartite memorandum of agreement (MoA) for the project was signed between the Union government and the state governments of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 22, 2021, it seems that the government plans to work on the KBLP at a ferocious pace.

But there is one small problem.

Prime minister and chief ministers of India signing the river-linking project into being.
Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath signing the agreement for Ken-Betwa Link Project / Credit: Press Information Bureau, India.

The Supreme Court has yet to clear the KBLP for implementation based on an expert report submitted by its Central Empowered Committee (CEC) on August 30, 2019, which examined the potential impact of the project on the people of Bundelkhand and on the environment and wildlife of the region among other issues.

The CEC report states that the implementation of the KBLP would cause widespread ecological devastation in the region and recommends that the government’s goals under this project could be achieved through cheaper alternatives or by expanding the capacities of existing projects in the region.

But although the Supreme Court has yet to hold a hearing on the CEC report, based on which the project will or will not be executed, documents accessed under the Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005, show that the Modi government has already begun to implement the KBLP, having almost completely ignored the CEC investigation and report throughout the project’s planning stage.

Environmental concerns or impediments?

The Ken-Betwa Linking Project and its possible effects on the region has been discussed since 1995 when the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), an agency of the Ministry of Jal Shakti, first released a feasibility study that claimed the Ken river could be linked to the river Betwa.

The Ken originates from the Kaimur hills of Katni district in Madhya Pradesh and joins the river Yamuna near Chilla village in Banda district of Uttar Pradesh.

However, questions were raised about the veracity of the claim and its ramifications.

After coming to power in 1999, the then-prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, set up a task force to accelerate the project. Later, in 2005, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the then-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and Babulal Gaur, the then-chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, signed a tripartite memorandum of understanding along with the Union government on a possible water-sharing arrangement between the two states in the future.

Five years later, in April 2010, the NWDA prepared a detailed project report (DPR) for Phase-I of the KBLP, which was based on the claim that the Ken carries surplus water. Since the government has not released the data from its study on the Ken, experts cannot verify this claim.

In any case, Jairam Ramesh, the environment minister in the then-Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, refused to grant approval to the project at the time, stating that implementing it would lead to widespread environmental destruction.

But on July 8, 2016, two years after the Modi government came to power, the project was granted its techno-economic clearance, which was followed in quick succession by the wildlife clearance on August 23, 2016, the environmental clearance on August 25, 2017, clearance from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in January 2017 and first-level forest clearance from the environment ministry on May 25, 2017, the last with certain conditions attached.

The proposed Daudhan dam will submerge an area of around 9,000 hectares of land, of which 5,803 hectares lies within the Panna Tiger Reserve. A total of 6,017 hectares of forest land will have to be cleared, of which 4,141 hectares are within the sensitive core of the tiger reserve. In all, an area equivalent to 8,427 football fields will have to be deforested.

A road sign in Hindi indicating the project site ahead.
A board for the Ken-Betwa link project outside Panna Tiger Reserve / Credit: Dheeraj Mishra.

According to the report of a sub-committee of the Forest Advisory Committee, at least 23 lakh (2.3 million) trees will need to be cut down for the implementation of Ken-Betwa Link Project. This is about 1,078 times more than the number of trees that were uprooted in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony in 2019 to build car sheds for the Mumbai Metro, which had led to protests both within the city and elsewhere in the country.

But when The Wire inspected more than 2,000 documents related to the KBLP accessed under RTI, no reference to any detailed consideration of the CEC’s findings could be seen.

No ministerial or secretary-level meeting of the Ministry of Jal Shakti had laid emphasis on discussing the CEC report or conducting an independent study of its cautionary aspects regarding the Ken-Betwa Link Project. Instead, the discussions between ministers and officials on the project remained limited to negotiations over water-sharing between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.

The CEC report did find a mention in the minutes of one meeting: that of the Special Committee on Interlinking of Rivers which expedites the work of all river linking projects across the country. But the members of the special committee gave a clean chit to the government’s assessment of the project in an arbitrary manner.

In fact, to judge by the KBLP-related documents acquired by The Wire, many of the people working on the project appear to view environmental and ecological concerns as impediments to development.

No mention of CEC report

For example, the minutes of an April 23, 2018, secretary-level meeting on the KBLP, which was held while the CEC gathered information for its report on the project, show that the discussion between the officials of the Union and state governments revolved around water-sharing between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh and concerns regarding the conditions imposed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) on deforestation. There was no mention of the CEC investigation.

This same attitude to environmental issues is visible in the October 2018 presentation given by M.K Srinivas, the former director general of the NWDA, who used the Ken-Betwa Link Project as a case study and implied that the need for environmental clearances was a ‘hurdle’ placed in the way of water-related projects.

Agricultural fields near a river which will be the site of the proposed dam.
The site where the Daudhan dam is to be built on the Ken river / Credit: Dheeraj Mishra

Water-based projects need techno-economic clearances, environmental clearances, wildlife clearances, forest clearances and investment clearances from the ministries or agencies concerned, as well as a clearance from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs before they can be implemented. These provisions are in place to ensure that water development projects are sustainable, do not harm the environment and ecology and are not ruinously expensive.

However, in his presentation, Srinivas implied that the clearances required for the KBLP were impediments placed in the way of ‘developmental’ work. He used the same disparaging tone when he referred to the petitions challenging the project in court and the investigation of the KBLP by the CEC.

Even after the CEC report was submitted on August 30, 2019, no meeting between Union and state officials on the KBLP mentioned its findings.

Twenty days after the CEC’s report was submitted, in a meeting chaired by the secretary of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (now called the Ministry of Jal Shakti), the attendees only discussed water-sharing between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The minutes of the meeting hold no reference to the CEC report.

Since 2017, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have been locking horns over water-sharing in the non-monsoon period. Uttar Pradesh demanded 935 million cubic meters of water (MCM) from the project in the non-monsoon season (October to May), while Madhya Pradesh offered only 700 MCM.

One cubic meter of water equals 1,000 liters while one MCM contains one billion liters.

To resolve the dispute, it was decided that officials of the Ministry of Jal Shakti would survey the situation on the ground and assess the amount of water required for each state.

In the same meeting, Upendra Prasad Singh, the then-secretary of the Jal Shakti ministry, expressed his concern over the conditions imposed by the MoEFCC while granting first-level forest clearance to the project and insisted that these conditions should be relaxed. But there was no mention of the CEC report in the meeting.

Nearly a year after the CEC submitted its report, another meeting was held on September 3, 2020, between the two state governments and the NWDA. The meeting was chaired by the secretary of the Jal Shakti ministry and attended by 23 top officials from the Union and state governments, but none of them expressed any interest in discussing the recommendations and warnings issued by the CEC in its report. Once again, the dialogue remained confined to the allocation of water between the states and a demand for the relaxation of the conditions imposed by the MoEFCC.

Soon after, on September 22, 2020, another meeting took place, this time between Tulsi Ram Silawat and Mahendra Singh, the water ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh respectively, and headed by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the Jal Shakti minister. The agenda of this meeting was to finalize the agreement on the river-linking project.

At the start of the meeting, the reason behind the Modi government’s determination to implement the project was made clear when Shekhawat said: “The Ken-Betwa link project was a dream envisioned by our former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to resolve the water problem in the drought-hit Bundelkhand region.”

The proposed KBLP is far from being the first scheme to provide water to the parched region: earlier governments had introduced several schemes to resolve the water scarcity. But as well-intentioned as these schemes have been, most of the people of Bundelkhand still have to travel long distances to access water.

In this meeting, Shekhawat requested the water ministers and officers of MP and UP to not to raise ‘petty’ issues such as water-sharing in the non-monsoon period and distribution of hydropower at every meeting, because discussions on these topics tended to create hindrances in the implementation of the project.

Even in this ministerial meeting, the CEC report was not discussed at all, as revealed by the minutes of the meeting. Instead, the discussion on the draft memorandum of agreement was finally closed and preparations began for the final draft of the MoA for the Ken-Betwa Link Project. This was signed on March 22, 2021, by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the Union Jal Shakti minister, Yogi Adityanath, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister.

According to the MoA, Madhya Pradesh will receive 1,834 MCM of water while Uttar Pradesh will get 750 MCM of water during the non-monsoon or lean season.

‘KBLP the best option’

When The Wire asked Bhopal Singh, the director general of the NWDA, whether the Supreme Court’s CEC report was considered before the MoA on the KBLP was signed, he said that the report had been discussed in a meeting of the Special Committee on Interlinking of Rivers and a consensus had been reached that the KBLP was still the best way to address Bundelkhand’s water scarcity issue.

“The Special Committee was of the opinion that while preparing the DPR of the Ken-Betwa Link Project, all the available alternatives or options were examined and the Ken-Betwa Link Project was the best option to meet the irrigation needs of the command area and provide relief to the drought-prone Bundelkhand region. The CEC may be informed accordingly,” Bhopal Singh told The Wire.

However, the minutes of this meeting, which was held on February 26, 2020 and chaired by Rattan Lal Katariya, the former Jal Shakti minister of state, contain no details of how the committee formed this ‘opinion’. There is no mention of any independent research, analysis or study of the CEC report before the decision was made.

This was the 17th meeting of the Special Committee on Interlinking of Rivers which had been set up in 2014 on the direction of the Supreme Court and which mostly has politicians, administration officials and a few government experts on its panel.

A total of 67 members participated in this meeting, of which 64 were from various departments of the Union government and the two state governments. The remaining three were special invitees – a former chairman of the Central Water Commission, a former professor from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, and a former secretary of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage.

Bhopal Singh told The Wire that a reply was sent to the CEC for its consideration on July 24, 2020, by the NWDA on behalf of the government.

The CEC report

Environmental experts accuse the Modi government of high-handedness and of discrediting democratic institutions by not taking seriously the Supreme Court’s crucial CEC report on this ‘catastrophic’ project and striking the deal between the states without waiting for the apex court’s final verdict.

Manoj Misra, a river activist leading the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, had challenged the wildlife clearance granted to the KBLP in the Supreme Court in 2017, following which the Supreme Court had sought the CEC’s opinion on the matter.

After studying the matter for about two years, the committee submitted its report on August 30, 2019. The report elaborately discusses the violation of rules in granting wildlife clearance, the impact of deforestation on the Panna Tiger Reserve and its biodiversity, the probable increase in the cost of the project, the ecological loss and so on. All the details in the report have been supported with facts and figures.

A gibbon in a tree branch in a forest.
Many animals are found in Panna Tiger Reserve which are on the verge of extinction / Credit: Dheeraj Mishra.

In its report, the CEC claimed that the submergence of 6,017 hectares of forest land envisaged by the Ken-Betwa Linking Project would result in a total loss of 10,500 hectares of wildlife habitat because it would cut off the core critical tiger habitat of the Panna Tiger Reserve from the rest of the National Park.

The forest land that the KBLP proposes to submerge is a unique ecosystem of morphological significance with a unique and rich biodiversity in the region which cannot be recreated, the committee observed.

The CEC said that in granting the wildlife clearance to the KBLP, the Standing Committee of the National Board of Wildlife (SC NBWL) had considered the impact of the project only in terms of tiger habitat and had not taken into account the entire flora and fauna and unique ecosystem of the region, ignoring the fact that the project is located within the core of the national park.

The very objective of the declaration of this unique ecosystem with special morphological significance and unique biodiversity as a national park was to ensure the operation of the laws of nature, including natural evolution unhindered by human intervention, the CEC report said. Implementing the KBLP would defeat this objective and result in the complete breakdown of the evolutionary processes of millions of years, the report observed.

The report also said that the approval of the SC NBWL for the diversion of 6,017 hectares of wildlife habitat for the Ken-Betwa Link Project Phase-1 had not been proved to be necessary for the improvement and better management of the wildlife therein as provided in Section 35(6) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Section 35 (6) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 states that the destruction or removal of any wildlife, the destruction, damaging or diversion of the habitat of any wild animal and the diversion, stopping or enhancement of the flow of water into or outside a national park or sanctuary, can only be permitted if it is found to be necessary for the improvement and better management of wildlife.

The CEC added that the proposed measures to mitigate the effects of such a drastic change in the wildlife habitat are extremely inadequate and cannot recreate this kind of unique ecosystem at the Panna Tiger Reserve.

The CEC categorically rejected the contention of the NWDA, the SC NBWL and the MoEFCC that the project will have a positive impact on the tiger population. It asserted that the large flood plains that will be vacated by the villagers when they are relocated will remain under water even during summer, since they are located below the 240-meter dead storage level.

The CEC report stated: “Impact of the project on the downstream Gharial Sanctuary and the vulture nesting sites has not been examined and no mitigative measures in this regard are forth coming in the recommendation of the SC NBWL.”

Even the committee constituted by the SC NBWL to look into the impact of the proposed KBLP had made a scathing remark about the project: “No developmental project should destroy the ecology of [a] remnant [of a] fragile ecosystem and an important tiger habitat in the country. In an ideal situation, it would be best to avoid such projects in such wilderness areas with protected area status and specifically when it runs the risk of providing justification or unhealthy precedence for more such developmental project within the protected areas that will not be in the interest of wildlife and the overall well-being of the society in the long term.”

Claims and counter-claims

The government claims that a total of 9.04 lakh (900,000) hectares of land will be irrigated owing to the KBLP. However, the CEC said that there are 11 major/medium and 171 minor irrigation projects already in place in the Ken basin and the goal of the KBLP can be met simply by expanding the capacity of these ongoing projects.

The CEC also said that the profit from this project estimated by the government is factually erroneous and expressed concern over the government’s failure to deliberate upon other much better alternatives to attain the proposed benefits of the KBLP.

The report quoted the response of an official of the NWDA to a query made by the CEC on the scope of utilizing more efficient technologies relating to irrigation, such as employing micro-irrigation system and suitable crop planning suited to the agro-climatic condition prevalent in the arid command area. The NWDA official admitted that micro/drip irrigation saves water and fertilizers and informed the CEC that the micro/drip irrigation system is suitable for crops including grapes, banana, pomegranate, orange, citrus and mango.

Expressing surprise over the agency’s response, the CEC report said: “This statement of NWDA only goes to confirm that the alternatives to mega Hydel Project have not been examined by the project proponent (sic).”

The Ken-Betwa Link Project is to be implemented in two phases. In the first phase, a 77-meter high and 2,031-meter long dam will be constructed at Daudhan village, located near the Ken river.

In addition, a 221-km long Ken-Betwa link canal will be built through which water from the Ken will flow into the Betwa basin.

The Modi government claims that the project will help to irrigate 6.53 lakh hectares of land in Madhya Pradesh and 2.51 lakh hectares in Uttar Pradesh and give 62 lakh people access to drinking water.

A map indicating the affected region in India
Map showing construction locations along with names of structures under Ken-Betwa Link Project / Credit: The Wire. 

However, although it is claimed that the project will resolve Bundelkhand’s water scarcity problem, the fact is that the KBLP will cater to only to ten of the 13 districts of Bundelkhand, while some districts that will benefit from the project are not in Bundelkhand. How the other three districts of Bundelkhand will deal with water scarcity is not mentioned, showing the contradictory nature of this project.

According to the documents accessed by The Wire, Damoh, Chhatarpur, Panna, Tikamgarh, Datia and Sagar in Madhya Pradesh and Banda, Jhansi, Lalitpur and Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh may benefit from the first phase of the project. These ten districts are part of the Bundelkhand region.

But the second phase of the KBLP, which involves the construction of the Lower Orr Dam, the Kotha barrage and the Bina complex multipurpose project, will cater to districts beyond Bundelkhand, such as the Shivpuri, Vidisha and Raisen districts of Madhya Pradesh.

Environmental activist Manoj Misra, who challenged the KBLP in the Supreme Court, claims that the real purpose of the project is to bring water to the upstream of the Betwa basin which is outside Bundelkhand.

“Most people do not understand that the real purpose of the Ken-Betwa Link Project is to provide water to districts like Vidisha and Raisen, which fall outside Bundelkhand. This is mentioned in the DPR itself. The areas of Bundelkhand where the project aims to supply water are already within the irrigation target through various earlier projects. This [the KBLP] is only a substitution project. When the dams are built upstream of the Betwa basin in the second phase of the project, the lower basin will face a water shortage and Daudhan dam will compensate for it. This whole exercise has nothing to do with Bundelkhand,” Misra said.

Misra added: “The law does not allow any ministry to grant this sort of wildlife clearance. The law clearly states that only such activities can be allowed in a national park that are in the interests of the wildlife. The CEC report also confirms this. The project will cause a fragmentation of the region which will ruin every effort to mitigate its effects.”

The Supreme Court’s final decision on the Ken-Betwa Linking Project based on the CEC report is still awaited. As of now, the matter has not been listed for hearing.

Read Part 2Ken-Betwa Link: Not Enough Land to Compensate for 23 Lakh Trees Cut, Govt Tries to Bend Rules
Read Part 3Ken-Betwa Link: Refusing to Do New Hydrological Study, Govt Moves Ahead With 18-Year-Old Data
Read Part 4Ken-Betwa Link: Jal Shakti Secretary Had Rejected Provisions on Water-Sharing Between UP and MP
Read Part 5Ken-Betwa Link: No Cost Analysis or Environment Impact Study, Structures Make Way into Project
Read Part 6: Ken Betwa Link: Locals Waiting for Development are now on the Verge of Displacement

This story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published in The Wire on 18 July 2021. It has been translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman and lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: The rocky banks of the Betwa river / Credit: Sandeep Handa via Pixabay.

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