In the era of fake news, should one be concerned if the PIB gets it wrong?
On December 26, a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release by the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR) announced a decisive move forward for the Ken-Betwa River link project.
The release, titled “Last Hurdle for Ken Betwa link over” announced that Union minister, MoWR, Uma Bharti had announced that the “wild life board has cleared the project and after deciding its funding pattern the formal construction work will start.”
There’s just one tiny problem with this release: it’s not accurate.
The Rs 9,393 crore project that plans to transfer surplus water from the Uttar Pradesh section of the Ken to the Betwa in Madhya Pradesh to irrigate nearly 7,00,000 hectares in drought-ravaged Bundelkhand has been in the works since 2004. The National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) entered the picture as the project will include 4,141 hectares of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh.
The 231-kilometre river link will provide 12 million cubic meters of water domestically and industrially with an installed power capacity of 72 MW.
However, what the NBWL issued was not a clearance, but a recommendation. As Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People explained, “The NBWL recommendation does not mean the final wildlife clearance as all recommendations for de-notification of protected areas are scheduled to go to Central Empowered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court”. While the Central Empowered Committee can act on the recommendation, a final decision is still some ways away.
In fact, the NBWL recommendation, touted by the ministry and reported by the PIB, was actually made in a NBWL meeting on August 23. “So this is clearly not a new development,” said Thakkar. “It is not clear why the MoWR is misleading the nation by putting this up on Dec 26, 2016 as if it is a new development,” Thakkar said.
This was corroborated by the Director General of the National Water Development Agency, the government body looking after the clearances. “It is a recommendation by the committee, but it is treated as a clearance,” Masood Hussain said.
Hussain also said that he felt that the issue was misreported in the mainstream media. Even the Times of India, which reported this on December 27 had quoted the information from the PIB release.
So how did PIB manage to get the facts so wrong? Newslaundry spoke to Samer Sinha, who handles the flow of information from MoWR to PIB. “The press release was written based on the speech given by Uma Bharti at the India Habitat Centre on December 26,” he said.
Although there is no recording of the speech, a Press Trust of India copy on the same event quotes Bharti as saying, “The moment the funding pattern is decided, the project will be launched.” Bharti’s words notwithstanding, the NBWL ‘clearance’ is far from the last hurdle for the project. It is actually one of the first ones.
“The Ken-Betwa river link is yet to receive environment clearance (EC) and both stages of forest clearance (FC),” Manoj Misra, of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan wrote in a letter to MoWR.
Additionally, the MoWR passed a notification on October 7, 2016 which is now a law. According to this notification, any project such as the Ken-Betwa link, planned on a tributary in the Ganga basin, would need clearances from the relevant district, state and National Ganga River Conservation Authorities. When Hussian was asked at what state the clearance process was at, he said he was unaware of the law.
Perhaps the inaccurate PIB release is a simple misunderstanding. Those opposed to the Ken-Betwa Link Project would argue that this is an attempt at influencing the decision of the committee that will meet today to discuss the project’s environment clearance. At a very fundamental level, however, there’s good reason for concern when an official authority like PIB ends up circulating news upon which the public cannot rely. In the age of fake news, where then should we turn to for accurate information?