The phase I of the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project has received the approval of the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), according to various media reports. The Rs 9,393 crore project was given the approval at the meeting held on 23 August, chaired by Union Environment Minister Anil Madhav Dave. The standing committee of NBWL comprises of two members of NBWL, representatives of National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), Wildlife Institute of India (WII), state governments and user agency who was to visit the site and submit a report on the impact of the project on habitat and wildlife of the Panna Tiger Reserve. The Ken-Betwa river linking project will submerge almost 105 sq km of the Panna Tiger Reserve.
At Firstpost, we spoke with Valmik Thapar, author, naturalist and tiger lover who has been associated with tiger conservation for over four decades on his views on the submergence of the Panna Tiger Reserve, if the river interlinking project comes through.
Excerpts from the interview:
Your views on the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project
I don't believe in the manipulation of natural resources. I do not believe in river linkages. Man is continuously manipulating natural water regimes that have their origins from thousands of years ago. This could have short-term gains but long-term consequences could be disastrous. It is not our job to interfere through any invasive way with the natural world.
Around 105 sq kms of the Panna Tiger Reserve will be submerged when the project comes through
The Ken Betwa link will submerge a part of Panna Tiger Reserve. Panna faced a serious threat from poachers from 2003 to 2008 and all its tigers were poached. The park is slowly recovering by reintroduction of tigers from other areas. That ongoing recovery can be effected by submerging more than 100 sq kms of this tiger reserve.
Why has the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife agreed to the proposal?
The National Board for Wildlife has not met since this government has come to power. The prime minister is the chair of the Board. In the previous UPA regime too, there have been gaps in the holding of bi-annual meetings. The Standing Committee is a government selected body and the government keeps dealing with it instead of the Board.
I believe this decision should have been taken by the new National Board for Wildlife chaired by the prime minister. This body has not met in the last two to three years. Instead, its standing committee has convened to take decisions concerning Panna.
Submerging Panna Tiger Reserve is a big decision and therefore must be taken by the full board. The final decision on the project will go to the Supreme Court of India who will judge if this is in national interest.
There is so much of talk about tourism in India with the prime minister himself talking about its importance. On the other hand, we have a river linking project like the Ken-Betwa which will submerge a tiger reserve.
Those that do not understand tourism take decisions to restrict it. They do not realise that good tourism increases GDP and boosts local economies. Tanzania gets 17 percent of its GDP from wildlife tourism. We need to encourage it. It is a plank that our prime minister also believes in encouraging as it supports local communities. Therefore, instead of submerging Panna, we should create innovative tourism ideas for it that help locals and play a vital role to save our fragile wilderness.