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Unveiling the Controversies Surrounding the Ken-Betwa River Link Project: Legal, Ecological, and Socio-Economic Implications

GS paper 3, Environment

What ails the Ken-Betwa River link project?

  • Hydrological and ecological experts have concerns about the government’s plan for the project, which is based on a ‘surplus and deficit’ model that they say has little basis in science.
  • They are also concerned that the project will endanger the water security of Panna.
  • Environmentalist Ravi Chopra called the idea “nonsense” and conservation biologist Raghu Chundawat said that thanks to KBLP, “Bundelkhand will suffer for decades to come”.

What is the Ken-Betwa link?

  • The link will be in the form of a canal that will be fed by the new Daudhan Dam on the Ken, to be built within the Panna Tiger Reserve.
  • The national government has said that the dam will generate 103MW of hydroelectric power.
  • The linking canal will flow through Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh and Jhansi districts, with the project expected to irrigate 6.3 lakh hectares of land every year.

What Clearances Has the KBLP Received?

  • The Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court has found that the diversion of water into or outside of wildlife sanctuaries/parks is not necessary to improve and better manage wildlife in the park.
  • Additionally, the destructive impact of the proposed dam on the flow of water into and outside of the Ken Gharial Sanctuary (created to protect the critically endangered Gangetic gharial) should be immediately clear.
  • The CEC is quite firm in its report that “the Standing Committee of the NBWL has not considered the impact of the project on the downstream gharial sanctuary”.
  • The project is also reportedly still to receive full forest clearance.
  • A challenge to its environment approval is also pending before the National Green Tribunal.
  • Despite this, the national government announced the implementation of the KBLP in the 2022-2023 Union budget and allocated ₹1,400 crore for the project in that financial year.

What about its legality?

  • There are significant legal problems with the approval granted to the KBLP. The CEC has stated that the, “approval by the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife to the Ken-Betwa link Project has not been proved to be necessary for the improvement and better management of the wildlife therein as provided in Section 35(6) of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.”
  • The Indian government catalysed this approval despite an expert body created by the Standing Committee of the NBWL itself saying that “an independent hydrological study of river Ken is necessary” and that “no developmental project should destroy the ecology of remnant fragile ecosystems and an important tiger habitat in the country”.

How will Panna’s tigers be affected?

  • The Panna tiger reserve lost all of its tigers by 2009, requiring a remarkable effort spanning almost a decade to reintroduce them. Panna is an exceptional tiger habitat because of its deep gorges, which will be drowned if a new dam is built.
  • An illegal approval granted by a national board will bring to naught all the good, hard work of the past.
  • The government is also developing a larger ‘Panna Tiger Landscape’, but this is not the concession many believe it to be.
  • In fact, there may not even be enough water in the Ken, a non-perennial river, to meet the projected needs of the Betwa.
  • Independent experts have also said that it will be more economical and faster if the governments restored Bunderlkhand’s erstwhile Chandel-period lakes and ponds and if they replicated the successful field-pond schemes on priority.
  • Rushing the KBLP sans due diligence — both technical and legal — will intensify water conflicts between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh; dash locals’ longstanding expectations of irrigation and drinking water; and cost a decade’s labour and funds.

March 2024
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