New Delhi: The environment ministry’s wildlife panel has given the go-ahead to a project to interlink the Ken and the Betwa rivers, amid concerns related to the submergence of critical tiger and vulture habitats.

The proposed project, the first in India’s ambitious plan to interlink its major rivers to transfer water from surplus areas to deficit areas, will link the Ken in Madhya Pradesh with the Betwa in Uttar Pradesh. The 10,000-crore project 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.

The project also requires significant diversion of land in the Panna Tiger Reserve and loss of habitat for a highly endangered vulture species.

Environmentalists, convinced that the case would soon go to court, point towards discrepancies in the data used by the environment expert panel and the wildlife panel for clearing the project.

Himanshu Thakkar, an activist working on water-related issues, said the wildlife panel was informed in February that the proposed project would result in the submergence of 5,803 hectares of the Panna Tiger Reserve and the loss of 10,523 hectares of Core Tiger Reserve area. However, Thakkar pointed out, the environmental impact assessment (EIA) report submitted to the panel said that only 4,141 hectares of the tiger reserve would be submerged.

“This episode clearly shows that (the) ministry doesn’t want to take informed decisions and doesn’t want to follow the land of the law. It shows that the ministry is pre-determined to clear the river interlinking project. Decisions taken in such manner will have neither public acceptance, nor will it stand legal scrutiny," Thakkar said.

Business Standard first reported that the standing committee of the National Board for Wildlife had given its go ahead to the project at a meeting held on 23 August.

Minutes of the meeting, accessed by Mint, show that the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the nodal authority for the conservation of tigers in India, had conveyed to the wildlife panel its concerns regarding the direct loss of tiger habitat of 105 sq km and vulture nesting sites as a result of the project’s implementation.

Further, the conservation authority recommended the integration of Nauradehi, Rani Durgavati and Ranipur wildlife sanctuaries into the Panna Tiger Reserve to compensate for the loss of a significant area of the reserve.

It also sought that, “no new mining leases be allowed" in the tiger corridor and that existing mining leases be extended only if justified.

The water resources ministry, which is spearheading the project and was part of the meeting, gave an assurance that all power generating facilities would be established outside the tiger reserve and no fishing would be allowed at the dam site, as per two of the demands made by NTCA.

“The effort to integrate the said three wildlife sanctuaries within the PTR will be undertaken simultaneously and the management objective of these areas will be in context of treatment of the area as a part of tiger landscape," according to the minutes of the meeting.

Kanchi Kohli, legal research director at the Namati Environmental Justice Programme of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, said: “There are two key issues here. First relates to the failure of how project appraisals are carried out within the ministry. Two simultaneous proposals for the same project are reviewed by committees of the same ministry without any cross verification. Even if the law might not formally require it, good practice of cross verifying facts can surely be adopted by expert institutions within the ministry. Else appraisals remain only piecemeal and mere administrative formalities."

“The second issue is that of what is legally permissible. The EIA notification clearly says that false and misleading data makes the project liable for rejection upfront. Discrepancy in the basic land and impact area can clearly attract this provision," she added.

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