The Big Story: Green signals

On October 27, the National Green Tribunal admitted an appeal challenging the environmental clearance to phase one of the Ken-Betwa river linking project, allowing valuable time for a pause. The ambitious project, which will divert around 5,500 hectares of forest land from the Panna National Park, aims to transfer water from the so-called water-surplus Ken river to the apparently water-deficit Betwa river. The government, which pushed this aggressively as a means to solve the problems of the drought-prone Bundelkhand region, has steamrolled through the clearance process over the last year. This, even as ecologists continue to warn of disastrous impacts and questions are raised about how effective the project will be in meeting its stated aims in the first place.

On December 30, 2016, the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee gave the go-ahead for a clearance, even though the Supreme Court’s central empowered committee was still examining the project. The empowered committee had doubts about the mitigative measures to contain damage to the Panna reserve, through which the Ken river flows. Besides, even though the project was recommended for clearance by the expert appraisal committee and the National Board for Wildlife, reports point out that both included caveats, calling for fresh project plans and reassessments. The location of the power generating facilities inside the tiger reserve was cited as a key concern by the wildlife board as well as by the forest advisory committee, which submitted a set of recommendations on March 30. But in May, amid mounting political pressure, the forest advisory committee brushed aside all suggestions for changes to the project, giving it the nod. The environment ministry had already cleared the project and this month Union Minister Nitin Gadkari said he expected work to start in three months.

If the clearance process does not inspire confidence, neither do the government’s claims to justify linking the two rivers. First, experts have questioned the definition of the Ken as water surplus and Betwa as deficit in comparison. The figures to support these claims are shrouded in secrecy since the rivers are part of the international Ganga basin and transboundary water systems are not to be discussed. Second, the government has claimed it will provide drinking water to 1.34 million people. But ecologists says taking water away from the Ken will be costly for drinking water needs in the downstream areas of the river. Third, the government estimates it will help irrigate about 600,000 hectares in 13 districts of Bundelkhand. In a region which saw devastating droughts last year, this is a compelling argument. But the project aims to do so by creating a mesh of canals, which is not the preferred system of irrigation there. Farmers and even Bharatiya Janata Party workers in Madhya Pradesh have expressed their opposition to it.

Yet it is political will that seems to have powered the Ken-Betwa project from the start. It is envisioned as part of a larger plan to link 37 rivers, from the Himalayas and from peninsular India. River linking has been a pet project of BJP governments at the Centre, irrigating land and ending drought but also achieving grand ideological goals like national integration as it connected the entire country in one grid. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had pushed for it and Prime Minister Narendra Modi revived the idea in his Lok Sabha election campaign. More recently, Union Water Minister Uma Bharti has made the Ken-Betwa project a matter of personal prestige, threatening to go on hunger strike in 2016 if it was delayed.

So sacrosanct is the river-linking project to the current dispensation that you may question it at your own peril. Recently, an activist in Tamil Nadu was booked for sedition because he wrote a book challenging the Centre’s project. Yet, apart from causing grave environmental damage, this grand plan for national integration is likely to displace half a million people in the process. The current challenge to the project should be occasion for the Centre to ask itself a vital question: will it be worth it?

The Big Scroll

Raksha Kumar reports that there is scant data to support the government’s rationale for linking the Ken and Betwa rivers, and that farmers do not want the river-linking project.


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