To assuage the drought-like situation in the hilly region of Bundelkhand that spans across Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in the Indian heartland, the 2004 AB Vajpayee government took up an ambitious plan to link the Ken and Betwa rivers.

The idea was that surplus water from the Ken basin in Uttar Pradesh could be diverted to Betwa in Madhya Pradesh feeding several areas along the way. This idea gained traction again under the current Narendra Modi government and on September 20, reports emerged that Phase 1 of the Rs10,000-crore project – which includes a 230-km canal and a series of barrages and dams linking the rivers – was cleared by the National Board for Wildlife.

The project, when complete, is expected to irrigate more than six lakh hectare of land in the two states, but there is a catch – The Daudhan Dam to be built to divert the water of Ken river will submerge about 10% of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh according to reports, potentially hurting the population of the country’s endangered national animal, apart from displacing other animals and destroying prized forest land.

It is this as well as concerns about the effectiveness of the project that has prompted several environmentalists to oppose it. One such eminent conservationist is MK Ranjisinh, who has helped shape India’s wildlife conservation policies for the last five decades. But the retired bureaucrat now finds himself with his back against the wall as the government is firm on going ahead with the river-linking project that will end up destroying the very wildlife sanctuaries that he and others like him have been trying to protect. In an interview to, Ranjisingh, an advisory member of Madhya Pradesh’s wildlife board, talks about his discussions with the government on the project and how it could affect the animal and plant life of the state.

The Ken-Betwa interlinking of rivers is expected to inundate parts of the Panna tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh. How much damage will this do to the forest land? If the park is bisected, what implication will this have on animal movement and the gene pool of animals?
It is not a question of quantum alone. The centre of the park will be bifurcated – I have used the word disemboweled – and the connecting areas on both sides are rather tenuous. The inundation will affect the connectivity and movement of all animals, including the prey. It will also adversely affect the quality of habitat.

The area being submerged is low-lying and being close to the river, it has moisture and supports the growth of grass. As a result there is plenty of food available for herbivores. These include cheetal, neelgai, wild boar and the four–horned antelope. The cheetal provide the principle food species for the tiger. I do not see the gene pool getting affected.

Did you bring the fact that the project would submerge the core area of the tiger reserve to the notice of Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan?
I did expostulate all these details at both the state wildlife board meetings held under the chairmanship of the chief minister. In the first meeting, held last autumn, Mr Chouhan had agreed to take a relook at this project. I felt our arguments might be accepted, but that did not happen. They came back with the same Environment Impact Assessment report [which had said the project would not cause significant damage]. Now this report has been lampooned by experts.

For one, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has approved of a firm from Mumbai [to do the Environment Impact Assessment] that is not on the approved list of the ministry and which seems have little knowledge of the forests. The assessment report claims that sal forest grow in Panna and the reserve is inhabited by the Manipur brown antler deer. This deer is found only on the Indo-Burmese border. They are talking about areas under submergence without talking about the canals emanating from the proposed dam or about the colonies of workers that will have to be constructed to build the dam or even of the noise factor that will adversely impact animals.

You are said to have informed the chief minister that although it was his prerogative to take a final decision, it was the job of conservationists to place all the facts on the table. Why do you believe all facts were not being 'put on the table’?
I had told Mr Chouhan that he is wearing two hats, one as chief minister and the other as chairperson of the state wildlife board, which is an advisory body. Let people have a free say. Most of the members on the board are government servants who will not open their mouths. If there had been a secret vote, you would get a very different picture. But you must let everyone have a say.

Why do you want to subvert this body to suit what you want done? You want everyone to become a rubber stamp. Let the body give its own opinion and then you can overrule them. Why do you want to manipulate it? You must not forget that I belong to the Madhya Pradesh cadre.

The government looks at these wildlife boards as being bodies for clearances. I told the chief minister, make up your mind – project or park (Panna Tiger Reserve) – you cannot have both. My fear is that the chief minister will be left with neither the project nor the park.

Several water experts have warned against the interlinking of the rivers. They point out that the Ken river itself does not have enough water and the project will prove to be a disaster, thereby worsening the water situation in our country.
I am not against projects but projects cannot succeed if there is not enough water. This is an old game being played out by the irrigation department. We have had numerous examples where the irrigation has not measured up to what has been promised. A survey of irrigation projects from 1955-90 and has found the department was able to deliver only 55,000 hectares as against the one lakh hectares promised, while the cost escalation has been manifold. If we take into account the cost escalation, these projects would not have been sanctioned.

When I was chairman of the Narmada Valley Development Authority, I told the irrigation experts to put all the cards on the table. How much will the cost be, how much electricity will it generate, to which the engineers replied, at this rate, the project (to build dams across the river) will not be sanctioned. I regard this as cheating the nation. I am not saying projects should not be sanctioned but they must be done with a proper analysis.

You distributed a paper prior to one of the state board wildlife meetings, which was reportedly torn up by the chief minister. Is that correct?
I gave him a paper which has not been brought on record. The whole purpose of giving him a paper was to present him with a different point of view. The fact that he tore it up is based on hearsay. He did not tear it up in front of me.

It seems a paradoxical that we are willing to submerge a vast chunk of pure virgin forests and then go on to spend millions of rupees on a Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority fund. Weren’t there other ways of providing irrigation to water-deprived sections of Bundelkhand?
I regard these as the last havens of hope with mother nature, where our natural heritage will survive. Why should Panna and Kaziranga be less sacrosanct than the Taj Mahal and Ajanta-Ellora? We have tiny havens left – these comprise only four per cent of India’s land mass. This is a Rubicon that should not have been crossed. But if we want to save these reserves after satisfying the need and greed of people, then I am afraid we will have no forests left. Itne badi virasaat kisi ko nahi milee hai. No country has such an inheritance of natural resources. Not only will we destroy Panna Tiger Reserve but the Ken Gharial sanctuary will also get affected.

You were heading the Narmada Valley Development Authority and you know full well just how funds marked for irrigation are being constantly revised and increased. Most irrigation projects are not performing at even 50% of their capacity?
This [Daudhan dam] will not be the only one. Three other dams have been built downstream of the Panna Tiger Reserve. There is the Bariyarpur Dam, which although built recently is running at 33% of its capacity. Gangau dam built by the British is not delivering.

We also seem to forget that these forests are a source of water in a water-deprived country. After the Palamau Wildlife Sanctuary (Jharkhand) was notified as a tiger reserve, the foresters there measured the water flow of the rivers and rivulets at the time of the notification. Two years after the notification, the quantum and period of flow in all the rivulets and rivers there had increased. Water is the greatest gift we have received from these forests.

You helped found and notify the Panna National Park. How do you feel now that it could soon cease to exist?
I had helped notify nine new national parks and 14 new sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh. I do not want to sound subjective. All our protected areas are going to suffer and unfortunately, most of these development projects will not deliver.

Why did the conservationists on the National Board for Wildlife not speak out against the river-linking project?
You should ask them. They do not want to ruffle any feathers. I am referring not only to individuals but also NGOs.