A bend in inter-linked rivers
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A bend in inter-linked rivers

The Centre says Bundelkhand needs the Ken-Betwa project, but will it really help the drought-hit region?

By Kshitij Malhotra

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Bundelkhand, one of the worst hit among the regions toiling under drought conditions, spreads out over parts of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP). Three years of deficient and unseasonal rainfall have led to widespread farmer suicides, ruined crops, massive immigration and distress selling of cattle and grains. Relief efforts by state governments — in the form of compensation for failed crops and to families of suicide victims, increasing working days under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and free distribution of food — have failed to have the desired impact, thanks to rampant corruption and administrative lapses. Yet the fact is, even if MP and UP were efficient, corruption-free states, these measures wouldn’t really have helped because they don’t address what lies at the root of Bundelkhand’s distress: water scarcity.

Listen to Minister of Water Resources Uma Bharti, and it seems the Centre has an ace up its sleeve with the ambitious and contentious Inter-Linking of Rivers (ILR) plan. First conceived in the 19th century by the colonial British government, the idea of linking rivers in the country has fascinated successive governments. In its current avatar, it was a project Atal Behari Vajpayee was eager to execute when the first National Democratic Alliance came to power at the Centre. However, after running into controversies and opposition from environmentalists, interest in it dried up when Congress-led government succeeded the NDA. Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has revived interest in it, pumping Rs 100 crore to kickstart the Ken-Betwa project.

Under the ILR, excess water from certain rivers will be transferred to drought prone areas. The aim is to create a total of 30 links between major rivers and the first of these is the Rs 10, 000-crore Ken-Betwa link, which will  divert 1,074 million cubic meters of surplus water from the Ken to the Betwa through a 220-kilometre long canal, irrigate six lakh hectares of land, and provide drinking water to more than a million people in Bundelkhand.

There is, however, a problem. Himanshu Thakkar of South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) told Newslaundry that he had raised one rather basic question to the expert committee constituted by the Ministry of Water Resources. “I asked, ‘please share what is the basis of saying that Ken is surplus, show us the hydrological data,’” Thakkar said. “They refused to share it.”

According to Thakkar, the claim that Ken has surplus water and Betwa has a water deficit has no scientific backing. Moreover, he alleges that the government is aware of this and is therefore reluctant to share the data publicly. Attempting to alter the natural courses of rivers at a scale that has never been attempted anywhere in the world may have consequences that not even the most rigorous scientific study could foresee. Consequences that would have to be borne by those in whose name the ILR has ostensibly been initiated – the poor. Under the circumstances, more transparency about the data that the government is basing its plans upon is critically important.

That’s not all. Thakkar feels the government is not only exaggerating the benefits of the project for the Bundelkhand region, but also misleading the public. “This project is not going to benefit the farmers of Bundelkhand,” he said, referring to the justification offered for the ILR. “On the contrary, it is going to facilitate the export of water from Bundelkhand to the upper Betwa region.”

Diverting the Ken and building the Daudhan dam on it is likely to cause serious ecological problems which are being ignored because of Bundelkhand’s dire situation. In a controversial move, Phase I of the Ken-Betwa linkage project was given “in-principle clearance” by the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) standing committee (chaired by Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar), even as an expert report about the environmental impact of the project was awaited. An expert panel later deferred the clearance and asked for more studies to establish the effect of the project on wildlife and regional hydrology.

A major bone of contention is the proposed Daudhan dam on the Ken river, which could lead to loss of 58.03 square kilometres in (or 10.07% of) the Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) of the Panna Tiger Reserve in MP. An additional 105.23 square kilometres of CTH will be lost due to fragmentation and loss of connectivity. In order to compensate for the loss of land, the MP government has promised to add areas from the buffer zones to the core, but experts feel this will do little to protect the tiger population of Panna. The Panna question has even resulted in its Director losing his job — R Sreenivasa Murty was transferred to Kuno wildlife sanctuary after he submitted a report objecting the Ken-Betwa river link, arguing it would have an adverse effect on tiger habitat.

Dr Raghu Chundawat, a conservation biologist who has a long history of working in Panna Tiger Reserve, told Newslaundry that if the project goes through, it would “destroy the tiger habitat”. “How can they violate a law which states that no water regime can be changed within the tiger reserve or any protected area?” he asked.

Like Thakkar, Dr Chundawat too is unconvinced about the Betwa having a water deficit. He’s of the belief that the government is manufacturing a water deficit in the Betwa river to irrigate areas outside Bundelkhand. “The Betwa already has 4-5 dams,” he said. “The uppermost dam, which is close to Bhopal, they want to expand the irrigation potential there. Because they’re going to use more water there, there will be a deficit in the Betwa river. That deficit will be fulfilled by taking water from the Ken river.”

Aside from the environmental damage, there’s also a human cost. According to the detailed project report published by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), phase I of the plan will result in the “involuntary displacement of 806 families as their houses get submerged under the Daudhan reservoir”. In the same report, the NWDA estimated that the total cost of rehabilitation and resettlement would be about Rs 333.77 crore. Ultimately, the report is optimistic about the future because it predicts that the “socio-economic condition of the people living in the command area and its vicinity will improve in general”. The implication is that while some people will lose their homes, not only will they be suitably rehabilitated, but the project will leave them better off than before.

The situation on the ground, however, is very different. Pushpendra Bhaiya is the convenor of Apna Talab Abhiyaan (Own Your Pond Movement), a group that promotes alternative irrigation techniques in Bundelkhand. He believes there are better alternatives to ILR if the government is really serious about helping farmers and improving irrigation. “If they [the government] used all the money to build ponds for the farmers, it would be better,” he said. “Each pond will only cost Rs 1-1.5 lakh. Small dams can also be built at the cost of Rs 7-10 lakh. If they do that, there’d be no need to grab land, or link rivers, or build massive dams.”

Bhaiya has seen how the plans that read as well-conceived on paper can end up being disasters in reality. “I visited a village near Panna where they [the government] had made some arrangements for moving the displaced people,” he said. “They had made a few houses. In the fields, they put six inches of soil as the area was very rocky. There was a well which was empty, but they brought in tankers and filled it with water, and they installed just one hand pump. They brought in villagers in the night and showed them the soil on the fields and told them it would be good for farming. Then they got a bucketful of water from the well and made them drink it, to show that the water was safe.”

The ruse obviously didn’t last long. “When it rained, all the soil in the fields was washed away. Eventually, the water in the well was used up. When people drank water from the hand pump, some of them fell ill. This was the situation there. It forced the people who were moved to turn into labourers from farmers,” Pushpendra said.

If the project isn’t going to help the farmers in Bundelkhand, why is the government so insistent on going forward with it? Thakkar believes the government is bowing to the will of “lobbies that want to push this [the interlinking plan]”. “For the whole interlinking of rivers project, the cost was Rs 5,50,000 crore long back,” he told Newslaundry. “It’s such a lucrative cow.” Bhaiya echoes Thakkar’s views. “All this is being done for the benefit of foreign agencies, those who build machinery, those who are contractors and also for those in the government. Not for the common man,” he said.

The figure quoted by Thakkar is from 2002. The total cost of all interlinking projects is supposed have doubled by now.

“In our water resource development, there is no democracy, no transparency and no accountability,” said Thakkar. “There is no question of participation of anyone. So, they’re able to get away with anything.” He suggested methods like rainwater harvesting, regeneration of traditional water bodies, recharging of groundwater and watershed development, along with appropriate cropping patterns and methods. “There is a huge potential if they really want to do something about Bundelkhand,” said Thakkar. But for such methods to be adopted, the government would have to be more inclusive and sympathetic to the real needs of the people.

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