Panna's fate is sealed. The Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife, chaired by Minister for Environment and Forests, Anil Madhav Dave, approved a project to link the Ken and Betwa rivers.
The 1,645-square kilometres Panna Tiger Reserve is home to 30 tigers, and the River Ken, running south to north across the reserve, is its lifeline. A 220-km long canal will siphon off about 660 million cubic metres of water from the River Ken to River Betwa. A 77-metre high dam across the Ken inside the tiger reserve will submerge more than 100 sq.km of Panna's forests, destroying tiger habitat and nesting sites of vultures. About 10 percent of the core area, or the critical tiger habitat, will go underwater as will 10 villages. This engineering feat was said to cost Rs. 9,000 crores in 2008. The current estimate remains unknown.
According to the Ministry of Water Resources, the dam will irrigate 6,000 square kilometres in both states, provide drinking water to 13 lakh people, and produce 78 MW of power. To compensate for this loss of land, approximately 80 sq.km of barren land will be reforested.
In previous meetings of the Standing Committee, environment and wildlife experts argued for lowering the height of the dam. This would reduce the extent of forest to be submerged. But the water resources experts were not for it.
At the committee's meeting held on 23 August, VB Mathur, Director of the Wildlife Institute of India, agreed that a smaller dam wouldn't do. It might reduce its capacity by 32 percent. He also says the forest would be submerged for three months only and would remain dry enough for animals' use the rest of the year.
The National Water Development Agency (NDWA) thinks connecting the two rivers would provide water to thirsty Bundelkhand. It says Ken has more water than the Betwa. Connecting the two is a win-win situation. But NDWA's portrayal of Ken as water-rich is wrong, said a report by Himanshu Thakkar and Bipin Chandra Chaturvedi in 2005.
This is how the Feasibility Report's arithmetic goes. The full hydrology figures are still not public. The Feasibility Report assumes that one hectare of irrigated land in the Ken basin needs 5,327 cubic metres of water. While the same area of land in the Betwa basin apparently requires 6,157 cubic metres. Why do Betwa farmers need 16 percent more water is a mystery. These numbers appear to be pulled out of thin air. In fact the rainfall regimes for both river basins are similar. When one floods or faces drought, so does the other.
The NDWA also assumes only 57 percent of Ken basin is arable while the figure for the Betwa basin is 68 percent. Using these assumptions – lower water needs and smaller irrigated area in the Ken basin – the agency makes the case for surplus water in the Ken and deficit water in the Betwa, allege Thakkar and Chaturvedi.
The NDWA also plans to export 3,854 million cubic metres of water from the so-called deficit Betwa basin. If the area has low water, why would the agency siphon off water? Thakkar and Chaturvedi say if this volume of water isn't extracted, Betwa won't be water deficit. This artificially created shortfall is in the upper reaches of the Betwa, outside the Bundelkhand. In essence, the NDWA's maths is based on manipulations and unscientific assumptions.
Besides, MP and UP are at loggerheads over this project. UP feels the interlinking project wouldn't protect its investments in other dams along the Ken. It would reduce the potential of these dams to generate power and irrigate fields. In August 2005, UP, MP, and the Union of India signed an agreement to prepare the Detailed Project Report of Ken-Betwa link. Eleven years after that first agreement, the parties haven't agreed on the project's implementation. How is it going to start without such an agreement?
The Betwa basin has better options of obtaining water, says the Thakkar-Chaturvedi report. These don't need the destruction of Panna Tiger Reserve or Ken River.
Panna is just regaining its lost glory. Poachers wiped the park clean of tigers in 2008. The authorities repopulated it with tigers from other forests. These cats established themselves and raised offspring. Today, approximately 30 tigers, cubs and adults, call the forest home. Panna has dug itself out of a hole to become a key tiger forest once more, an effort costing nearly Rs. 5 crores over five years. This investment and nurturing will be for nothing if the forest itself goes under.
Vultures suffered a catastrophic decline across the subcontinent for three decades. But the scavengers staged a comeback in Panna, one of the few such places in the country. The Ken is one of the 3 or 4 rivers with gharial, the iconic fish-eating crocodilian that is critically endangered. Central India has a scattering of small reserves and each is an essential part of the whole. Tigers routinely walk from one park to another. Tampering with Panna would unravel the achievements of the past years.
Now that the project has wildlife clearance, it needs environmental and forest clearances. Just as the Feasibility Report, the EIA, based on which the environmental clearance is given, is also shoddy. The final document submitted in July last year is no different from the previous draft. The NDWA's submissions to the Standing Committee and the EIA present different areas for submergence. At least one activist plans to challenge the clearance at the National Green Tribunal.
By submerging a part of Panna, the project is shooting itself in the foot. This is the catchment of the River Ken. Destroy the forest and the interlinking project itself is compromised, a fact not foreseen by its EIA.
For all these reasons, this first project in the grand river interlinking scheme is lose-lose for people and wildlife.