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Chhatrasal: Assassination of a national park

Ecological clearance for the Ken-Betwa river linking project ignores the fact that public hearings on the proposed dam threw up a slew of objections



There is no water in the dry river bed. And no water flow for over six months. Just placid stretches of unconnected pools fed by the brief monsoon. No surplus water and campaign of "aviral dhara" for the depleted Ken river. This already defeated river has been chosen for the ambitious Rs 10,000-crore Ken-Betwa river inter-linking project ('K-B project').

What water will be sent by means of the proposed 224-km canal from the Ken to the Betwa when there isn't enough water for irrigation in the Ken basin itself? Neither is there enough water for the four upstream dams approved in 1956 (re-approved in 2006) in Panna district. Nor is there sufficient water to maintain commitments to canals in Chattarpur and Jalaun districts being irrigated by the existing Rangwan and Gangau dams. The ponds behind the Gangau dam have already been dry since November. This is not going to be the case of water transfer from a surplus to a deficit basin - this is from deficit to deficit!

This accounts for why both the UP and MP governments have consistently rejected projects on the Ken in the past, separately stating insufficient water supply as the reason. The two states have also failed to share the benefits of the existing Gangau and Rangwan dams, given reduced availability of water. Given 90 per cent Central funding for the revived K-B, today they have no objection. Never mind that this is a zero-sum gain for Chattarpur and Tikamgarh versus a loss for Panna, Banda, Damoh, and Ajaigarh districts.

The loss is most egregious for Panna, which accounts for 87 per cent of the course of the Ken. Once the K-B project is taken up, there will no scope for any upstream irrigation projects in Panna. Panna district already has one of the lowest irrigation coverages in MP, just five per cent. The only two dams on the Ken (Gangau, Bariyarpur) benefit Banda district in UP, while the Shahnagar and Pawai blocks of Panna are completely unirrigated.

The K-B project will soon get environmental clearance on the basis of the EIA having been prepared and public hearings having being conducted. The forms of these mandatory steps have been respected, but unfortunately not the substance.

The EIA does not cover key conditions specified by the terms of reference clearance (TOR) of the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC). As the most glaring omission, the TOR specified a study of the hydrological cycle, to cover 'likely change in the regime of the river', and all aspects of surface and ground water. Unfortunately, the EIA has chosen to specifically exclude 'water balance studies.' So we simply don't know if there is adequate water in a given year, what happens in a drought year, and what the impact is on downstream reservoirs and irrigation. Additional misses to the TOR include the impact of 20 million cubic metres of muck on river hydrology, the impact on tourism, an assessment of alternative sites and a 'no project option', and ecological flow (e-flow) to be measured over three seasons.

The number of trees to be cut in the core area of the park is estimated by the EIA at 32,900 - only seven trees a hectare! Even Rajasthan's desert districts have more trees in a hectare. The EIA actually fails to mention that the dam site is part of Panna National Park's Core Area, with brow-antlered deer, sal trees, hedgehogs, bison, and barasingha being found here. It ignores the impact on just-recovering tiger and vulture populations, or on endangered local fish populations, which support enormous local employment.

Clearly a classic cut-and-paste job, but enough paper by volume to serve the official purpose. The most loyal EIA even goes on to state the project would benefit the environment and reduce pollution.

Public hearings were held in only two districts out of 11 affected by the project, and were replete with public objections to the project. The procedure for public hearings was simply not followed: the EIA and EMP were to be displayed on the website of the state PCB/NWDA, and advertised in newspapers/displayed at the Collectors' office, a month before the public hearings on December 24/27. This was not done.

The concept of environmental flow or aviral dhara was assumed in the TOR, which said 'prevailing norms shall be strictly followed specially with respect to environmental flows'. The B K Chaturvedi report by the erstwhile Planning Commission recommends 30 per cent environmental flows for all river valley projects, which the Ken does not have today, even before this dam project. If aviral dhara is now being mandated for the Ganga, why not for its sacred tributaries?

The Supreme Court had argued in Godavarman (2000) that not even a blade of grass should be removed from a National Park. Here 28 per cent of Panna NP (or 163 sq km) stands to be lost, either by submergence or fragmentation. The Ken Gharial Sanctuary and famous Raneh Falls cataracts would be obliterated. And about 6,000 families would be living inside the heart of the park for 10-15 years, making park management nigh impossible.

The water rights and livelihoods of thousands of people living by the Ken (yes, including those illegally mining sand downstream in UP) would be curtailed, and arbitrarily distributed to other districts. We don't even know how numerous forest villages which have only been partially resettled by the Park would be treated. Unfortunately, the EIA deliberately ignores all these issues. Kishore Rithe of the Satpuda Foundation says, "this is not a development plan. This is assassination."

Rather than proceeding with a blueprint developed in toto by the previous government and planning system, an imaginative new politics would redesign the K-B project into a transformational project for change in Bundelkhand. This would necessarily include upstream dams and irrigation canals in Panna district, modification of the dam at Daudhan to ensure aviral dhara and reduced submergence of park forests, and redesigning the linking canal to the Betwa to include as many tanks as possible. Recharge and desilting of the water tanks of the Chandelas would use ancient knowledge to boost agriculture. The small Panna National Park (576 sq km) could also be expanded westwards with corridors to Bijawar and Kishangarh.

If all this is done in an integrated, smart plan, with wide public discussion among affected parties across the entire Ken river basin, the K-B project could truly contribute to sustainable development: development without destruction. The alternative is surely the assassination of reason.

First Published: Sat, April 04 2015. 21:48 IST