New Delhi: The expert forest panel of the environment ministry has cleared the Ken-Betwa project, India’s first river-linking project, ignoring environmental concerns, including the diversion of around 5,500 hectares from the famous Panna National Park.
The expert panel’s approval comes after several months of discussions on the controversial project. Under this, the Ken in Madhya Pradesh will be linked with the Betwa in Uttar Pradesh. The first phase of the project will cost around Rs10,000 crore and is expected to help irrigate about 600,000 hectares of land and provide drinking water to 1.34 million people in the two states, according to government estimates.
It also envisages a dam on the Ken river near Daudhan village in Chhattarpur district of Madhya Pradesh which, apart from helping in diversion of water, will also generate 60 megawatts (MW) power.
“FAC is a recommendatory body and a final nod has to come from the environment minister. It is pending but that won’t be a problem. The project will face no issues now," said a senior official of the environment ministry, requesting anonymity.
The plan has been controversial from the start because it involves diversion of around 6,000 hectares of forests, mostly from the Panna tiger reserve.
Environmentalists say the project will threaten endangered species such as the tiger, gharial and several kinds of vultures. About 1.8 million trees are to be felled for the project.
The environment ministry has already given the so-called wildlife clearance to the project. With the approval of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), the project is now ready to roll. The FAC’s approval needs to be cleared by the ministry, but given that the project has the blessings of the government, that is likely to be given immediately.
The project, which is expected to be completed in nine years, was discussed by FAC during its recent meeting on 16 May.
According to the minutes of the meeting, which have been reviewed by Mint, the committee brushed aside an earlier recommendation of decreasing the height of the dam by 10m, noting that it cannot be done due to “technical reasons".
FAC, while recommending the project, observed that species such as “tiger, vultures and gharial are key flagship species that are likely to be impacted by the project" and asked for the creation of a so-called species recovery programme after assessing the population status, response to disturbance and habitat loss.
“Task of consultancy for preparation of action plan for conservation of vultures in affected area of Panna Tiger Reserve shall be given to Bombay Natural History Society and the programme for species recovery programme for gharial shall be done by the Wildlife Institute of India and the cost for these species recovery programmes shall be borne by the project developer," the minutes say.
FAC also recommended that a dedicated team of the Madhya Pradesh forest department, National Tiger Conservation Authority, Wildlife Institute of India and the project developer oversee the project. It also said that 5% of the project cost should be used exclusively for funding conservation and administrative activities in Panna.
Experts criticized the move.
“The Ken-Betwa river link will mean the end of Panna. The project, whose efficacy has been questioned by experts, will destroy swathes of old growth forest, a valuable carbon sink at a time when we are facing the brunt of climate change. It will drown our national animal, which we are committed to conserve, and vultures, of which populations have crashed between 97-99%; the loss of this scavenger is a health emergency," said Prerna Singh Bindra, former member of the National Board for Wildlife.
Ken-Betwa is one among 30 links—including one between the Ganga and the Brahmaputra—identified by the central government to tackle the country’s water problem. The links were first identified in 2002 during the then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s rule, but nothing much happened to the plan in the following 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 plan was revived and got a fresh start after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA came to power in May 2014.