Ken-Betwa river link project boon or bane? Parched Bundelkhand residents hopeful but experts warn of ecological disaster

Editor's Note: This summer has taken a toll on large parts of north, north-west and north-central India. As the country witnesses extremely high temperatures ever, here is a look at the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh which has been hit by another drought, and several villages don't even have basic drinking water. This is the seventh in a seven-part series, which explores the situation in Banda, Panna, Damoh, Mahoba and Chitrakoot.

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Banda: Bitiya ho rahi hai parayi, babu le lo kanyadaan o babu le lo kanyadaan,” sang a blind Kallu in the wedding procession of 21-year-old Rekha, a resident of Narani village under Banda district’s Kalinjar block in drought-stricken Bundelkhand.

Rekha’s was a natural zero-waste wedding, complete with sapling plantation done as a gift for the newlyweds on 16 June. Rekha, who comes from a Dalit family, said she understands the pain of water scarcity, and that’s why she asked her father for such a wedding. “Girls are unable to go to school and learn important things because they have to walk at least two to three kilometres to fetch water. We know how hellish life gets when there is no water. Had the Ken-Betwa river link project started, our water woes would have ended,” she added.

The Kalinjar block, home to the iconic Kalinjar fort, is one of the most parched villages in Bundelkhand. The villagers are desperately waiting for the government to take some concrete action to end the acute water crisis plaguing the region.

Residents had got a glimmer of hope after the Union Cabinet, in 2014, gave its clearance for the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, but five years on, it is yet to kick-start, despite getting a no-objection certificate.

The budget earmarked for the project was Rs 18,000 crore; the aim was to divert water from the Ken river basin to the water-deficit Betwa basin. The quantity of water to be diverted through a concrete canal via several dams and a barrage was estimated at 1,020 cubic mm.

Experts term project an ecological disaster

However, contrary to residents’ hopes of getting some respite from this project, experts on river and ecology are wary.

 Ken-Betwa river link project boon or bane? Parched Bundelkhand residents hopeful but experts warn of ecological disaster

Representational image. Image courtesy: 101Reporters

RG Soni, former consultant for National Water Development Agency, said, “The Ken-Betwa project will severely affect Madhya Pradesh — around 4,000 sq km of land, including forests, will be submerged. In March 2018, when the central committee had visited Madhya Pradesh, it asked the two states — Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh — to first settle their dispute over water-sharing. Uttar Pradesh is demanding 1,900 MCM water twice in two different seasons, which is not feasible. Now, a solution is even more unlikely as governments in both states have changed; earlier, despite both state governments being of the same party, they could not arrive at a consensus.”

Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People, said this has become a political project that will cost both humans and the ecosystem.

“Linking the Ken and Betwa rivers is not going to help Bundelkhand; in fact, it will result in an ecological disaster. As per the official minutes of the forest advisory meeting, the project will need about 46 lakh trees to be axed down; this will destroy the Panna tiger reserve. Also, the linking of these rivers will actually take water away from Bundelkhand,” added Thakkar.

“The environment assessment done for this project was a complete fraud. Actually, all assessments done for this project are a scam. Ken river basin doesn’t have sufficient water in the first place; so how can any be diverted to the Betwa river basin?”

Thakkar further said, “Not just the Panna tiger reserve, but even the Ken Gharial Sanctuary will be affected due to this river interlinking project; human rehabilitation will emerge to be a bigger challenge.”

Warning of a more parched Bundelkhand

Renowned water conservationist and environmentalist Rajendra Singh called the project controversial and “a very big risk”. “The area from where the canal is supposed to pass is not suitable for building a canal. I am also not sure how the government plans to construct pillars in the Dhasan river. Ironically, the river-linking needs so much funding that it will increase the cost of water; not to mention it will worsen the dispute between MP and UP. This project is nothing but the biggest ecological disaster in the making,” warned Singh.

“I along with five reputed scientists had conducted a study on this project and found that it is neither socially nor ecologically feasible and will create a lot of issues for citizens as well as the government. It just seems to be a money-making scheme for a handful of people, who are least bothered about the ecological repercussions of it.”

Banda-based activist Ashish Sagar, who has been protesting against this project, said, “The fraud in this project started from Day 1. The government, on paper, shows that it has rehabilitated a few villages, but that’s not true. The residents are still there. And I fail to understand how the government has assessed that there is surplus water in Ken river, which itself is getting drier by the day. The water in Ken river remains below knee level nine months a year. The project will actually make Bundelkhand more parched. It’s more of a political project, and it will be the common man and nature bearing the brunt of its consequences.”

(Author is a Lucknow-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com.)

Read previous parts of the series here:

Part I: In MP's Panna district, villagers launch initiative to restore local water bodies as successive droughts give rise to malnutrition, migration

Part II: Villagers in Madhya Pradesh's Damoh are forced to drink from dirty pond frequented by animals due to water crisis

Part III: UP's Kabrai battles year-long dry period due to illegal sand mining; parched residents turn on each other for water

Part IV: Severe water crisis in Uttar Pradesh's Gopipur leaves bachelors in Chitrakoot's parched village without brides

Part V: Farmers in Uttar Pradesh's Banda change cropping patterns, restore ponds to make profits despite persistent drought

Part VI: District Magistrate's push for revival of wells, ponds brings hope in Banda; 471 gram panchayats join movement

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Updated Date: Jun 21, 2019 17:32:11 IST