Designing a disaster: why Ken-Betwa river linking project is a terrible idea

The river linking project seeks to fell 3-4 million trees, displace people in 21 villages, build a 250 kilometre canal and submerge part of the Panna tiger reserve

Locals protest use of heavy machines for sand mining on the Ken river bed in Bundelkhand (photo: Bharat Dogra)
Locals protest use of heavy machines for sand mining on the Ken river bed in Bundelkhand (photo: Bharat Dogra)

Bharat Dogra

Away from media attention and the public eye, another ecological disaster is developing in Bundelkhand. Sand mining, the ugly underbelly of construction, is devastating the river Ken, a tributary of the river Yamuna. Regular spells of drought have depleted the water level, reducing the river to little better than a thin stream in the lean season.

The river-linking project seeks to fell 3-4 million trees, displace people in 21 villages, build a 250 kilometre canal and submerge part of the Panna tiger reserve to channel ‘surplus’ water to the Betwa river in Madhya Pradesh.

A recent visit to Bundelkhand, the backwaters of Uttar Pradesh, turned out to be an eye-opener.

Villagers were protesting against indiscriminate, mechanised and illegal sand-mining conducted with the complicity of the police and politicians. They are also protesting against the futility of the river-linking project at the extravagant initial estimated cost of Rs 44,000 crore. Both sand mining and river-linking involve mega bucks and the mafia.

The patience of villagers in Kolawal Raipur in Banda district, however, finally ran out.

Farmers whose land had been taken over to make roads to facilitate the movement of sand had not been paid; villagers helping in mining and loading of sand were being paid low wages at irregular intervals, and water levels in the Ken river had gone down, affecting water-availability for humans and animals alike.

There were reports of stray cattle in the district dying not of hunger, but thirst. Villagers demanded that predatory methods of mining with heavy machines be stopped; they favoured excavating the sand manually so as to ensure higher employment.

Coercive police action drove them to protest on the river bank; several protesting women waded into the water, prayed, and raised slogans. Their numbers swelled and apprehensive of the snowballing protest, the administration relented, conceding most of the demands to buy peace and time.

This minor victory of the people is confined to a solitary mining point even as sand mining continues unabated elsewhere. There is growing apprehension that in the lean season, the Ken and its tributaries like the Ranj and Gharar may well dry up; this would affect the farmers and those growing crops like watermelons and musk melons on the river bank.

The heavy machinery being used for mining dig deep into the river bed and temporary barriers are put up to stop and slow the flow of water. The ability and capacity of the river to absorb and retain water, to link with aquifers and replenish them, is also being severely affected, said an expert.

All this is bad news for aquatic life, including fish and fowl, as well as tigers, vultures, the gharial and several endangered species. Water scarcity is a harsh reality for humans, domesticated animals and wildlife alike.

The project will be disastrous, warn scientists. Cost-escalation, they believe, is inevitable in a project that involves the construction of several dams and a 250 km canal to ferry water.

Large-scale deforestation in the area is already visible. This is the first of the 30-odd projects of the highly contentious national river-linking project. Most of the trees being felled fall within the protected Panna tiger reserve.

The earlier estimate of 2.3 million trees being felled was arrived at under the assumption that trees with a girth of less than 20 cm would be left alone. Not only is this figure understated, because smaller trees have been felled since, but it relates only to the submergence area. It will be a lot higher if the dams and canals are also taken into account. Each one of these trees is a silent conserver of water.

Studies by the Vigyan Shiksha Kendra (VSK) in collaboration with IIT, Delhi, identified deforestation as an important cause of water scarcity in Bundelkhand.

Experts also question the premise that there is surplus water in the Ken river. The district magistrate of Panna had communicated to the Planning Commission over 15 years ago that the Ken basin could not be said to have surplus water. The depletion of the water level, accentuated by prolonged periods of drought, and illegal and mechanised sand mining would have made the situation worse.

A study titled ‘Strategies for Water and Food Security in Bundelkhand in the face of Climate Change’ by professors Brij Gopal, Dinesh K. Marothia and Bhartendu Prakash (2017) stated: "Ironically, the Ken-Betwa Link project is being promoted to provide irrigation and drinking water to some parts of Bundelkhand, without realising that the river Ken had gone bone dry for two years…"

The report had gone on to add, "…if that is not sufficient ground to think over the management strategy, the project is designed to create a 78 metre deep reservoir with a submergence area of over 100 sq km of Panna’s dense and biodiversity-rich forest… the river may not have enough water to feed the link canal if current projections of climate change also become a reality."

The study also mentioned that rainfall trends over the past century had shown that in the Ken river basin, the frequency of droughts had doubled while the total annual rainfall had declined.

A letter signed by 30 experts and activists had also drawn the attention of the Union minister for environment and forests to the poor project planning and lack of transparency.

"The project has been plagued by sloppy, intentionally misleading and inadequate impact assessments, procedural violations and misinformation at every step of the way," it read.

The signatories included Bhartendu Prakash, author of two extensive studies on the water resources of Bundelkhand; and Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People.

Amita Bavaskar, former member of the Forest Advisory Committee and E.A.S. Sarma, former secretary to the government of India, also endorsed the letter. Basic information about water availability in the rivers, they pointed out, had been withheld from the project-affected people.

A very strong case for withdrawing this project, the letter added, could be made even on the basis of the sparse information available on the project in the public domain.

Tragically, say the experts, at a fraction of the project cost, the chain of several thousand dried up tanks in the region, dug during the reign of the Chandela and Bundela kings, can actually be restored to help mitigate the water scarcity in Bundelkhand.

(Bharat Dogra is honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now) 

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