Ken-Betwa river linking gets further delayed

Panel refused to clear project until alandscape management plan is finalized and reviewed by independent experts

New Delhi: The National Democratic Alliance’s (NDA) ambitious Ken-Betwa river linking project will have to wait longer. The environment panel of the Union ministry of environment, forest and climate change has refused to clear the project until a landscape management plan is finalised and reviewed by independent experts.

The 10,000-crore project to link Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh will require diversion of a significant area of the Panna Tiger Reserve and the construction is expected to take nine years. The government had earlier planned to start the project by the end of December.

Even after all clearances are in, the project may face legal hurdles since environmentalists have said the project will seriously harm wildlife.

The ministry’s expert appraisal committee (EAC) for river valley and hydroelectric projects, which considered the project at its meeting on 26 and 27 October, noted that several representations had been received against the project from non-governmental organizations and E.A.S. Sarma, a former secretary to the central government.

“Compliance to these representations should be submitted by the project proponent. The EAC has observed that the landscape plan is being prepared by WII (Wildlife Institute of India), Dehradun. In the absence of a plan, the committee cannot examine the proposal," said the minutes of the EAC’s meeting reviewed by Mint.

EAC also noted that after completion of the plan, “obtaining a second opinion on the landscape management plan from an external expert will be desirable" and once that is done the project “will be reconsidered again for environmental clearance".

At the meeting, the committee was informed that the Madhya Pradesh state wildlife board (SWLB) had decided to recommend the proposal to the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) seeking wildlife clearance.

The ambitious plan to link India’s major rivers aimed at transferring water from surplus areas to deficit areas first took shape during the first NDA government in 2002. At that time, NDA identified 30 links— including the Ganga and the Brahmaputra—to tackle the country’s water scarcity problem, but nothing much happened on it in the next 10 years.

In February 2012, a Supreme Court bench headed by the then chief justice of India, S.H. Kapadia, ordered the Centre to implement interlinking of rivers in a timebound manner. The project further lagged, after the BJP-led NDA came to power in May 2014.

The Ken-Betwa river interlinking project envisages a dam on the Ken river near Daudhan village in Chhattarpur district of Madhya Pradesh, which will allow the diversion of nearly 1,074 million cubic meters of surplus water to the Betwa river basin every year. It is expected to help irrigate 6.36 lakh hectares, generate 60 megawatts (MW) power and provide drinking water to several villages and towns through canals.

The project requires diversion of 5,258 hectares of forest land for the Daudhan reservoir. Out of this, at least 4,141 hectares fall in the Panna Tiger Reserve.

Environmentalists and wildlife activists say it would cause irreparable damage to wildlife in the famous Panna Tiger Reserve. One such group had written to the EAC in August, pointing to inadequate environmental impact assessment and a series of violations. The activists had also said the project is coming for environment clearance in parts, which is also against the established norms.

“There are serious flaws in the project and I don’t think that government can go ahead with such bungling. The project is not going to stand legal scrutiny. Even when Madhya Pradesh’s State Wildlife Board cleared it, there was no mention of dissent notes by experts like Ranjit Singh and Belinda Wright," said Himanshu Thakkar, water rights activist.

“The project doesn’t have wildlife, forest and environmental clearance...How can it go ahead?," Thakkar asked.

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