New Delhi: The 3rd Asia Ministerial Meet on Tiger Conservation was held in April in New Delhi with delegates from 14 tiger range countries including Russia, China, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, China, Myanmar, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and India in attendance.

Addressing the biggest international inter-governmental level meeting on the tiger, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “I would like to emphasize that conservation of tigers is not a choice. It is an imperative. As we all know, the tiger is an apex consumer in the ecological pyramid and food chain. It requires a large amount of prey, supported by good forests. Therefore, by protecting the tiger, we protect the entire ecosystem and the ecological services, which are equally crucial for the well-being of human beings."

“In fact, the benefits from tiger conservation are enormous but intangible. We cannot quantify this in economic terms. Putting a price tag on nature is difficult. Since Mother Nature has bestowed them for its own conservation, it becomes our bounden duty to conserve them. In India, the tiger is much more than just a wild animal. In our mythology, the mother goddess, who is the embodiment of Mother Nature, is depicted sitting on a tiger. In fact, most of our gods and goddesses are associated with some animal, tree or river. In fact, sometimes these animals are put on the same pedestal as gods and goddesses. No wonder, the tiger is also our national animal. I am sure, other tiger range countries would have some cultural legacy associated with tigers," Modi emphasized (To read the PM’s full speech, click here).

At the same meeting, environment minister Prakash Javadekar made all those present take a pledge “to protect the tiger and its wild habitat to ensure crucial ecological services for posterity".

A month later, in a complete volte face of what the Prime Minister and environment minister promised, the government decided to give a go-ahead to the earlier proposed Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, which will pass through crucial tiger habitat in the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh. The standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) cleared phase I of the project even though an expert committee constituted by the same board is yet to submit its site visit report.

It is feared that the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project will cause a total loss of approximately 200 sq. km (core and buffer areas combined, see table) in the Panna Tiger Reserve. The river linking project violates Sections 29 and 35 (6) of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.

Ironically, at the international tiger meet, Panna Tiger Reserve was presented as a case study, showcasing it as an example of India’s conservation efforts. In 2008, poaching wiped out the entire tiger population in the Panna forest. Years of conservation efforts saw translocation of a few tigers from the Kanha Tiger Reserve. Heavy monitoring and round-the-clock protection measures put in place by the park authorities have taken Panna’s tiger population to 51.

Hence, the current move by the government in the name of development has left many befuddled.

According to conservationists, the proposed Daudhan dam—a part of the river-interlinking project—will submerge crucial tiger habitats and the efforts to repopulate the area with tigers will go waste. The disturbance caused by construction activities in the tiger reserve will unsettle the tiger population dynamics, further creating conflict within the existing tiger population as well as endangering the labourers working on the project. What is critical is that almost 50% of the present habitat of breeding tigers will be lost—a huge setback for the nascent tiger population in the reserve forest. The conservation efforts at Panna Tiger Reserve, which has earned international kudos, will come to naught.

However, on paper, projections show that only 41.41 sq. km of tiger habitat in Panna will be affected. “The reality is different from what is projected on paper. Apart from direct loss of a large chunk of tiger habitat owing to submergence, the project will also cause indirect loss due to bifurcation of critical tiger habitat and disturbance due to mining and dam construction," says a senior forest officer on condition of anonymity. Officially, the project will submerge an area around 90 sq. km, most of which lies in the “critical tiger habitat" of the reserve forest.

According to a review report by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), six large dams are to be constructed under the project, but basic information about these dams, except the Greater Gangau dam, has not been published. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report has been widely criticized by experts as fictitious, incorrect and factually misleading. For example, the EIA report says the project area has Sal forests while in reality it does not have any. Instead it has Kardhai forests, a fact not mentioned in the EIA. Another factual error is the mention of Barasingha and Brow antlered deer, which are not found in Panna.

The Ken river flows through a gorge of more than 30 km and on both banks of the river, the rocky cliff banks are excellent nesting habitats for the critically endangered vulture. Estimates put the number of vultures in the Panna Tiger Reserve at around 1,300. Once the project is implemented, the nesting sites and vulture habitat will get drowned.

The proposed Dhaudan dam will change the river ecosystem into a reservoir ecosystem. This will adversely affect the Ken Gharial sanctuary, located downstream, due to the stoppage of freshwater flow into the Ken river.

Water woes and interlinking the Ken and Betwa Rivers

Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP) is one of the 30 river links proposed by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), involving Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in the Bundelkhand region. Under KBLP, a 231 km long canal will be built to link the Ken and Betwa rivers. The project involves construction of underground tunnels, two powerhouses, link canals, construction plants and staff colonies. This has been planned as a solution to the perennial water problem in the drought-prone Bundelkhand region. KBLP is estimated to cost 10,000 crore.

“The Ken-Betwa link, in essence, will facilitate transfer of water from the Ken River Basin (Bundelkhand) to Upper Betwa Basin (outside Bundelkhand), so it is actually exporting water out of Bundelkhand. The entire exercise might end up benefitting only a small part of Bundelkhand," points out Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator, SANDRP. “It will make the existing benefits to the Bundelkhand region of Ken basin uncertain since the priority use of available water is likely to be transfer to Betwa rather than assuring the downstream areas of their existing use."

To solve the drought problem of Bundelkhand, Thakkar suggests alternatives focused on rainwater harvesting; rejuvenating local water systems; groundwater recharging; sustainable use of forest and natural resources for livelihood; ensuring proper cropping pattern; stopping unsustainable use of forests and mining and creating more local water systems.

“Large-scale engineering projects cannot solve ecological issues. It is waste of resources," says Thakkar.

Diamond vs tiger

A threat that looms large over Panna’s wild landscape is from the global mining giant Rio Tinto, which has business interests in the tiger corridor between Panna Tiger Reserve and Navardehi Wildlife Sanctuary. The multinational company has planned a 2,200 crore project to mine diamonds in this corridor, which will involve felling of around 500,000 trees.

The threat of diamond mining to wildlife conservation is not new around Panna Tiger Reserve. The Majhgaon mines, located just outside the park, were closed down by a Supreme Court order in 2005. According to a report by the Centre for Science and Environment, ‘Mining: A Guide to India’s Wealth, its Resource Curse’, Panna is the only producer of diamonds in the country. The region accounts for 31.7% of the 458,0336 carats of deposits in India. Only 20% of the mining here is legal. While licences were given for 1,339 shallow mines, over 3,000 illegal mines exist, extracting about 16,000 carats. Over 90% of the diamonds mined are illegally sold or smuggled out of Panna. Unchecked mining activities also affect the ancient rock paintings found in the forests, including those of the pre-Gupta period Chatturmukh temple, the 500-year-old Rupni temple and the Jain site of Shriyansgiri. Further, tailings from the diamond mines run by National Mineral Development Corporation pollute a stream running into the Ken River, which feeds the Panna Tiger reserve.

Coming to the fact that a mere 2% of India’s land mass is dedicated to conserving the tiger, the implementation of such development measures on that small percentage of land is preposterous. The tiger, as the Prime Minister said, is the barometer of a country’s ecological health and wealth. Today, the future of Panna is uncertain and so is the future of the tigers. Will the Prime Minister step in to keep his promise and look at alternative measures of development?

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