Of the three gatekeepers in the Environment Ministry, the National Board For Wildlife (NBWL) and the Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) recommended the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP) for clearance in 2016. Now with a favourable report tabled at a meeting of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) last week, the stage is set for statutory green nods for the project.
And yet, the validity of such clearances, if issued at this stage, may not stand legal scrutiny. That is because the recommendations of the NBWL and the EAC, in fact, call for a fresh project report, which, in turn, will require a fresh assessment of its potential impact.
On August 23, 2016, the NBWL cleared the KBLP following an assurance that “all the power generating facilities shall be established outside the TR (Panna Tiger Reserve) and the operations shall have minimal disturbance on the TR (tiger reserve)”.
While recommending the KBLP for environment clearance on December 30, 2016, the EAC for River Valley and Hydroelectric Projects noted that “all conditions stipulated in the NBWL clearance should also be included in EC letter”.
On March 30, 2017, the FAC also recommended that the proposed 78 MW power house “shall not be constructed in the forest area to be diverted”. The recommendation, it said, was “based on the strong technical conviction that it will create permanent, irreversible disturbance to the tiger habitat of Panna”, adding that the issue had been already discussed in the NBWL, and agreed upon by the Water Resources Ministry.
Since the present KBLP layout has the power station inside the tiger reserve, this requires chalking up a fresh project plan and getting its potential impact assessed for environmental concerns. Any clearance issued before this process is complete may not be legally tenable. The Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court is already looking into the wildlife clearance recommended for the KBLP.
On March 30, the FAC made a set of other recommendations, which too demand a fresh project report and subsequent assessment of project viability.
For example, the FAC recommended that the project canal should be realigned to minimise the use of forestland. It also concluded that the Benefit/Cost (BC) ratio did not pay “attention to eco system services lost due to diversion of unique riverine eco system”, and recommended “a detailed study and a fresh BC analyses by reputed institutions to take future action and modification if required”.
Noting that trees between 10 cm and 20 cm girth were not counted while arriving at an estimation of 23 lakh trees to be felled in the project area, the FAC observed that most of these trees would “move to above 20 cm diameter class” by the time they were felled in 7-8 years. So it recommended a fresh enumeration with increased sampling intensity in the entire project area.
If these recommendations stand in the way of summary clearances for the KBLP, the project itself is on shaky ground.
To begin with, the very justification of the project is ambiguous. While the KBLP is being aggressively pushed as a solution for parched Bundelkhand, the project is meant to actually divert water from the area. According to the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), the KBLP “envisages diversion of surplus waters of Ken basin to water deficit Betwa basin”.
In the upper reaches of the basin, the NWDA went on to elaborate, “an area of 1.27 lakh ha [hectares] in the Raisen and Vidisha districts of Madhya Pradesh will be benefitted by utilising 659 Mm3 [million cubic metres] (later revised to 591 Mm3) of water annually from this link by way of substitution.” Raisen and Vidisha districts belong to the Bhopal division in central Madhya Pradesh.
Along the way to Raisen and Vidisha, the link will also provide for Bundelkhand, but only 366 Mm3 (earlier 312 Mm3) to irrigate merely 0.60 lakh ha (earlier 0.47 lakh ha), according to the NWDA, in “the districts of Tikamgarh and Chhatarpur of MP and Mahoba and Jhansi of Uttar Pradesh”. There will be another 1,405 Mm3 of water to irrigate an additional 3.23 lakh ha in Chhatarpur and Panna districts of Madhya Pradesh under the project.
On December 30, 2016, the EAC based its recommendation for the KBLP on the ground that the project would “provide irrigation facility to 6.35 lakh ha area of land” in Bundelkhand. As areas to be irrigated by the project in Bundelkhand’s Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur, Panna, Mahoba and Jhansi — 0.60 ha and 3.23 lakh ha — do not add up to even 4 lakh ha, the 6.35 lakh ha claim makes up the numbers by taking into account 2.52 lakh ha already irrigated by Ken waters.
Indeed, 2.52 lakh ha in UP’s Banda district already get 850 Mm3 of Ken water which, the NWDA claims, will “get stabilised to an extent of 1,600 MCM [million cubic metres] after implementation of the project”. All these add up to a promise of over 4,000 Mm3 of water. Is there really so much surplus flowing down the Ken?
The 8-member committee’s report tabled at the FAC meeting last week acknowledged “the misgivings in certain quarters that there isn’t enough water in the Ken basin to warrant a dam of this height and that there is no point in clearing of the forest area which eventually would never ever get filled up”.
Then, it went on to merely assert that “the expert members present in the meeting totally disagreed with this view and further reiterated that the detailed hydrology studies were carried out and authentic data collected before deciding the height of the dam”.
These studies are not debated, apparently because Ken and Betwa are part of the international Ganga basin, and data on transboundary water systems are not up for public discussion. But considering a national treasure trove is at stake in Panna, a legally-mandated public scrutiny of the Ken’s water status may be in order.
KBLP AT A GLANCE
Forestland required — 6,017 ha
In Panna national park — 5,579 ha
Displaced families — 1,913 (ST 648)
Trees to be felled — 18-23 lakh
Project cost —Rs 9,393 crore (now estimated at over Rs 20,000 cr)
Irrigation benefit — 6.35 lakh ha
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