On World Water Day March 22 the signing of an agreement between the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh for implementing the controversial Ken-Betwa Link project in drought-prone Bundelkhand region of Central India was presented as a matter of celebration, but questions are being raised asking what achievement, even less joy, there is in going ahead with a project that involves the certain felling of 2 million, perhaps even more trees while its benefits remain hugely suspect.
What is absolutely, 100 per cent certain is that its proposed, fast escalating budget of over Rs. 30000 crore can be much more wisely spent on a number of small water conservation schemes to bring much greater, definite and durable benefits while also generating many more useful, creative livelihoods in the process.
While the desirability of the proposed aim of transferring water from Ken to Betwa river with the help of a dam and 250 km. canal has been questioned from the very beginning, with the passage of time this has become more and more suspect due to a number of reasons. Firstly, due to lower rainfall in several drought years the water availability in Ken river and in groundwater sources fed and recharged by it has decreased.
Secondly the excessive sand mining in Ken river system has further harmed its water retaining capacity. In many places heavy machines were carried to the river bed and the bed was dug up very badly, so that the capacity of river to retain water and to feed groundwater sources near it has been badly eroded. Thirdly, some of the smaller tributaries feeding the river have also been badly depleted due to a host of factors.
Hence in many way the water capacity of Ken river has been badly damaged. If earlier there were some questions about the desirability of transferring water from Ken to Betwa now there are many more and the entire concept of transferring water from Ken to Betwa should be discarded now.
Just because this happens to be the first sub- project of the gigantic inter-linking of rivers plan, itself a horribly disruptive plan , the Ken-Betwa link project is being promoted without any thought given to recent changes.
Has any one cared to make an estimate of the damage caused to river by sand mining? Perhaps more attention has been given to calculating how much illegal money has been earned in the process. It appears development processes are being pushed more by money earning than by any considerations of real benefits and viability.
If the project is so dubious then why inflict unnecessary displacement of people of several villages and the endangering of the habitats of several threatened animals and birds including tiger, gharial and vultures.
Earlier a letter signed by 30 experts and activists was sent to the Union Minister of Environment and Forests , registering a strong protest against this project and the arbitrariness involved in its implementation. This letter says, “The project has been plagued by sloppy, intentionally misleading and inadequate impact assessments, procedural violations and misinformation at every step of the way.”
The signatories to this letter included Dr. Bhartendu Prakash , the author of two extensive studies on the water-resources of Bundelkhand region and Himanshu Thakkar, Co-odinator of South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People who has written innumerable reports and letters on the issue of river-links. The signatories also include Amita Bavaskar, former member of Forest Advisory Committee and EAS Sarma, former Secretary, Govt of India.
This letter said that the project has been pushed in the name of helping people of Bundelkhand but on the one hand it involves transferring water from Bundelkhand to Upper Betwa region and on the other hand its adverse impact on groundwater recharge in the downstream areas of Bundelkhand region is being ignored.
This letter whose signatories included wild life experts also expressed serious concern about the very adverse impacts of this project on Panna Tiger Reserve and Ken Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary.
How ironic that on the one hand tribal communities are being evicted for such wild life protection areas and on the other hand the existing protection areas are allowed to be devastated by highly dubious projects.
I also spoke to some of these experts separately. Dr. Bhartendu Prakash showed me his well-documented studies in which several low-cost methods of solving the water-scarcity problems of Bundelkhand region have been described which do not also have any adverse side-effects.
Dr. Bhartendu Prakash also told me that basic questions about this project were raised at a very early stage and several well-informed persons and activists of Bundelkhand had organized a Jal Sansad or a Water Parliament in which the reasons for opposing this project were provided very clearly.
His own detailed reports on water resources of Bundelkhand region detailing low-cost alternatives were written first in collaboration with the IIT, Delhi and later in collaboration with the Madhya Pradesh Government. So all along the government was well-informed about these low-cost alternatives but opted instead for a highly expensive, highly dubious project like the Ken-Betwa link.
One of the low-cost alternatives recommended by Dr. Prakash related to the famous yet neglected Mangal turbine innovated by farmer scientist Mangal Singh. Dr. Prakash recommended its widespread use in suitable locations in Bundelkhand region but this has not been done yet while Mangal Singh has been badly victimized.
Several low cost efforts to find decentralized, local solutions to water scarcity have worked well in several villages. As an example we may mention several such projects implemented in the Patha area by a voluntary organization the ABSSS. These efforts were successful because villagers were closely involved in these efforts with the help of social organizations and activists who have the trust of villagers.
However as forest clearance is still awaited and there are other legal hurdles to be crossed by the project, it is possible that the enormous damage and waste of resources implicit in this project can still be stopped.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author. His recent books include Protecting Earth for Children and Man Over Machine.