On March 22, World Water Day, the Centre inked a tripartite agreement with the governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh to push forward work on the Ken-Betwa River Link (KBRL) project. Among other infrastructure, this entails the construction of a 2-km-long dam on the Ken river at Daudhan village in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur district. The water from the created reservoir will then be transferred via canal to the Betwa river basin in Uttar Pradesh.
The project was originally conceived in 1980, under what was then the Centre’s National Perspective Plan to transfer water from surplus regions to deficit areas via river-linking projects. To be built at a cost of about Rs 35,111 crore, it is expected to provide irrigation and drinking water to 13 districts across Madhya Pradesh (Raisen, Vidisha, Sagar, Panna, Chhatarpur, Shivpuri, Tikamgarh, Datia and Damoh) and Uttar Pradesh (Jhansi, Mahoba, Lalitpur and Banda). The Centre will bear 90 per cent of the cost, with the states putting up the rest. According to the Jal Shakti ministry, the project will supply irrigation to 1.06 million hectares, drinking water to 6.2 million people and 103 MW of hydro-electric power. However, it will also cause extensive environmental damage. According to a reply in Parliament by minister of state Rattan Lal Kataria, it will submerge 6,017 hectares of forests, of which 4,206 hectares lie within the Panna Tiger Reserve.
The agreement signed on March 22 seems to turn the page on some of the problems that have dogged this project since it began, such as disagreements between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh on water-sharing. However, environmental concerns and decades-old protests on those grounds seem to have been ignored. Activists say the battle is far from over, pointing out that major clearances are yet to be granted.
In terms of implementation, a big step was taken in 2005, when a water-sharing agreement was signed by the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. In 2017, the project hit a roadblock, with Madhya Pradesh demanding that this agreement be revisited. In 2019, after the formation of the Jal Shakti ministry, there was a renewed push, with Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat stepping in to break the deadlock. A major sticking point was Uttar Pradesh’s demand for 935 MCM (million cubic metres) of water during the lean water season, with Madhya Pradesh insisting it would only be willing to release 550 MCM of the projected 1,800 MCM expected to be available at that time of the year. A deal struck in January envisages Madhya Pradesh getting 1,050 MCM and Uttar Pradesh 750 MCM in this season.
When it comes to environmental consequences, two major issues remain unresolved. One relates to Stage I forest clearances already granted by the ministry of environment, forest and climate change. “These clearances were conditional, given on the grounds that there will be no power project inside Panna Tiger Reserve,” explains Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asian Network on Dams, Rivers and People. “But on March 22, the Union ministry said that a power project is part of the KBRL project, without saying whether it has been shifted outside the Panna Tiger Reserve. Secondly, clearance was given subject to land being made available for compensatory afforestation, a reassessment of the number of trees that would be lost and a cost-benefit analysis.” Thakkar says Stage II forest clearances cannot be granted till these conditions are met. The Stage I clearances have also been challenged in the National Green Tribunal.
On the Stage II forest clearances, the Supreme Court, while hearing a petition challenging the project, had asked the Central Empowered Committee (CEC), a body of experts under the apex court, to give its opinion on the matter. In August 2019, the CEC’s report said that alternative, lower-cost projects had not been considered, and that granting clearances to a hydro-electric project within a tiger reserve violated the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. It also noted that about 42 sq. km of the reserve’s 542 sq. km core area would be lost as a result, preventing the movement of wildlife through the area. Commenting on a proposal by the NTCA (National Tiger Conservation Authority) to set up a ‘conservation complex’ between the Rani Durgawati and Nauradehi sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh and the Ranipur sanctuary in Uttar Pradesh to offset the land loss, the CEC report noted that wildlife was unlikely to be able to freely move to this area because of the presence of large human habitations. “The [KBRL] project does not have all the necessary clearances and cannot proceed,” says Ritwik Dutta, an advocate representing petitioner Manoj Mishra, based on whose complaint the Supreme Court had sought a report from the CEC. “We will move the court for [another] hearing if project implementation begins.”
On March 22, Jairam Ramesh, former minister for environment and forests, took to Twitter to speak against the project, writing that it would ‘all but destroy the Panna Tiger Reserve in MP, a success story in translocation and revival’. On the other hand, Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has described the project as a panacea for the water-shortage issues faced by the Bundelkhand region, saying the project will “help 4.1 million people get access to drinking water”.