It’s imperative to save millions of trees facing axe in name of development in these times of climate change

Ken-Betwa River-Link Project, green-lighted by Centre in the name of rejuvenating a drought-prone area, will entail chopping down of 2.3 million trees, besides disrupting wildlife in a protected zone

It’s imperative to save millions of trees facing axe in name of development in these times of climate change

Bharat Dogra

Considering that each tree helps conserve water to a certain degree, it is perplexing for the Union govt to go ahead with a project purportedly to reduce water shortage in a drought-prone area, which will in fact entail the chopping down of 2.3 million trees, besides disrupting wildlife in a protected zone and displacing thousands of villagers.

The fallacy of the so-called project benefits has been pointed out by eminent experts as well as a committee appointed by the Supreme Court of India. However, brushing all this aside, the Union Cabinet gave its approval to the Ken-Betwa River-Link Project (KBRLP) on December 8, 2021.

The Centre has committed to spend about Rs. 5500 crore (around 750 million dollars) on an average per year over the next 8 years, which comes to a total of Rs. 44,600 crore, or 6 billion dollars, ostensibly to help solve water scarcity in Bundelkhand, a region comprising of 13 districts in central India.

Essentially, the project entails the transfer of water from a river basin considered surplus (Ken) to another considered deficit (Betwa).

But as critics have pointed out, this basic premise of the project is irrational as the surplus water availability in river Ken has never been established properly.

In fact, this river and its tributaries have been ravaged and depleted in recent years by reckless sand mining carried out by politically well-connected mafia dons.

Besides, as both river-basins are adjacent to each other, together experiencing similar weather conditions of heavy or deficient rain, there is little justification for transfer of water based on notions of deficit-surplus.

Studies of water scarcity in Bundelkhand have highlighted deforestation as its leading cause. As such, seeking to solve water scarcity with a project involving axing of over 2 million trees appears foolhardy.

These studies, highlighting the rich traditional wisdom seen in many water conservation works of Bundelkhand, have called for their better care and promotion of water conservation based on similar understanding of local conditions.

Earlier, 30 experts, some of whom have held official positions, joined hands to prepare a document which stated that “the project has been plagued by sloppy, intentionally misleading and inadequate impact assessments, procedural violations and misinformation at every step of the way.”

Pandurang Hegde is an environment activist who worked very hard — and with much success — to save many trees from commercial felling in the ecologically-crucial Western Ghats area of Karnataka state. He says bitterly, “Before we could celebrate our success, even more trees started being cut in the name of big projects whose desirability and viability was not well established at all”.

In the Himalayan region, a very large number of trees are threatened even in river catchment areas by projects whose desirability and necessity has been questioned repeatedly. If we add together all such cases where a large number of trees are threatened, many in ecologically crucial areas, the numbers easily add up to the possibility of saving around four million trees in India alone.

Vimla Bahuguna, an activist who devoted her life to protecting forests in the Himalayan region, said recently, “The gains of the battles we won in the 1970s and 1980s are being lost now.”

When her husband Sunderlal Baguguna, the venerable leader of Chipko movement, died recently, the government paid rich tributes to him.

Just a few months earlier, I had visited their home to present them with my new book on their lifelong struggles to save trees and rivers in the Himalayas.

As we discussed the current situation, he almost broke down when speaking of the slaughter of trees in several places.

The Union government honours his memory, but will it honour his vision of making the best possible efforts to save all threatened trees and forests?

On the global level, of course, the potential for saving threatened trees is many times more. Hence, there is an increasing need for setting up international mechanisms for making best possible efforts to save trees threatened by dubious projects.

An agency can be set up in the United Nations and it could be made mandatory for any project in any country that involves axing of trees beyond a certain limit to inform this agency, and to at least obtain its opinion on possibilities of avoiding such a loss.

An effort should be made to get the best advice on the possibilities of saving trees by all countries. This will also help to establish reliable records for all cases worldwide involving heavy loss of trees. This need has increased all the more in these times of climate change.

(The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Planet in Peril’ and ‘Protecting Earth For Children’)

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