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New Delhi: A group of activists have raised a banner of protest against the environment impact assessment (EIA) carried out to implement the first river interlinking project connecting Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh.

The National Democratic Alliance government has repeatedly said work on the 10,000-crore project will start by December.

Now the activists’ group has written to the Union environment ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) demanding a fresh assessment report citing what it called inadequate assessment and a series of violations.

The group blamed the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), the implementing agency for the project, for faulty public hearings in its attempt to seek diversion of forest land for the project. It has now asked the EAC to reject the assessment report and reprimand NWDA.

In a letter dated 21 August, the activists also say the project will affect wildlife in the Panna National Park, which hosts endangered species such as tigers. Mint has seen a copy of the letter.

NWDA has sought clearance from EAC, which discussed the project at its latest meeting on 24-25 August.

“A final decision has not been taken on it as yet," said a senior environment ministry official, requesting anonymity. After EAC recommends or rejects a project, a final decision will be made by the environment ministry.

However, another official from the ministry said EAC has “favoured" green nod for the project, but the minutes of the meetings have not been finalized as yet.

An environment ministry spokesperson refused to comment.

The letter, signed by water rights activists such as Himanshu Thakkar, former bureaucrats E.A.S. Sarma and Ramaswamy R. Iyer, Bharat Jhunjhunwala and others, explains how the project, if it goes through, would cause irreparable damage to wildlife.

The ambitious plan to link India’s major rivers aimed at transferring water from surplus areas to deficit areas took shape during the first NDA government in 2002.

NWDA identified 30 links— including the Ganga and the Brahmaputra—to tackle the country’s water scarcity problem. 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 received a new lease of life after the BJP-led NDA came to power in May 2014.

The apex court order had noted that “national interest must take precedence over the interest of the individual states" and that “state governments are expected to view national problems with a greater objectivity, rationality and spirit of service to the nation and ill-founded objections may result in greater harm, not only to the neighbouring states but also to the nation at large".

For linking Ken and Betwa rivers, the 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 cu. m 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 the interlinking 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.

“This project is based on false premises and its impact has been inadequately assessed. EIA is grossly inadequate as described above and fresh EIA is required by a credible agency. EIA does not assess the damage, to a large portion of the population who are presently dependent on the Ken river, Panna Tiger Reserve, nor does it value the river or the Panna Tiger Reserve," the letter reads.

The activists pointed out that the public hearing conducted to secure consent from villagers for diversion of forest area in Panna and Chhattarpur districts violated legal norms by producing documents in English that villagers couldn’t read.

“It is clear NWDA has refrained from giving correct data and has, in fact, tended to give biased information, made unjustified assumptions, giving rise to a suspicion the figures are manipulated to justify an otherwise unjustifiable project," the activists said in the letter.

The activists also highlighted that Ken-Betwa river interlinking project is coming for environment clearance in parts, which is against established norms.

They further said the project does not assess the impact on Ganga. “Ken is an important tributary of the Yamuna and thus the Ganges river. Reducing the amount of water and sediment that flows to the Ganges could have deleterious effect on areas well beyond Ken’s project area. EIA does not assess these impacts," said the letter.

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