Arunima Sen Gupta
The sanction for implementing the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, cutting through Panna tiger reserve, has been accorded in the latest union government budget despite the Supreme Court appointed ‘Central Empowered Committee’ earlier opined that “it would be best to avoid such projects”. Scientific studies pointed out that the project, if fully implemented, would submerge a significant part of the core area of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh; as it is likely to erode at least 6071 hectares of forest land and fell two million trees. “The implementation of the Ken-Betwa Link Project, at an estimated cost of Rs 44,605 crore, will be taken up” announced finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her budget speech recently adding that “…this is aimed at providing irrigation benefits to 0.9 million hectares of farmers’ lands, drinking water supply for 6.2 million people, 103 MW of hydroelectric and 27 MW of solar power.” Environment activists also claim that the project has been cleared with an eye on the ensuing Uttar Pradesh election.
The Ken-Betwa River Interlinking (KBRIL) project is meant to transfer surplus water from the Ken to the Betwa, both tributaries of Yamuna, for irrigating the drought-prone Bundelkhand region; a significant part of which falls within poll bound UP. “No developmental project should destroy the ecology of remnant fragile ecosystem and an important tiger habitat in the country. In an ideal condition it would be best to avoid such projects in such wilderness” reads the report filed by Amarnatha Shetty, member secretary of Central Empowered Committee on August 30, 2019 to the Supreme Court; a copy of which is with us. The apex court is yet to pass any directive on the report. A report submitted by a team of wildlife experts to National Board of WildLife, which has been referred to by the Supreme Court appointed committee in its report, mentioned that “functional impacts of the project are likely to be far reaching, beyond the conventional expectation around the project site”. The CEC report also pointed out that “the present proposal may not be the best possible option for addressing livelihood and development of the region using water resource from the river Ken”; pricking the fundamental claims of the government that the project is meant to improve the livelihood of the people occupying the region. “The clearance has been accorded despite the project still not having statutory forest clearance and being sub judice. It is just an election to garner votes in Bundelkhand area in Uttar Pradesh. Technically the project needs three statutory clearances; wild life, environmental and forest. While the wild life clearance, accorded in 2016, has been termed illegal by the Supreme Court appointed committee; the final forest clearance is still pending,” claimed Himanshu Thakkar from the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People. “Also, there is no surplus water in either the Godavari or the Mahanadi. If that is the case, there will be no water for either the Krishna-Pennar or Pennar-Cauvery. The Damanganga-Pinjal and Par-Tapi-Narmada had been part of the priority river links since 2003-04. They were among the top five links during the Vajpayee regime. Two decades later, there is no progress on them. And there is no consensus between Gujarat and Maharashtra on those two. Neither of them wants to give water to another state. Instead, they want to take water. So, it is a non-starter,” Thakkar added.
Sitharaman, in her budget speech, also said draft detailed project reports (DPR) of five other river links have been finalised, namely: Damanganga-Pinjal, Par-Tapi-Narmada, Godavari-Krishna, Krishna-Pennar and Pennar-Cauvery. “Work can proceed only when consensus is arrived at but there has been no consensus over the past four decades; and one has to keep in mind unless all involved states agree, which is highly unlikely, there cannot be any progress,” stated Nilanjan Ghosh, an environmental economist and head of think tank of the Kolkata chapter of Observer Research Foundation (ORF). Ghosh said the “so called detailed project reports can be hardly termed detailed as they are being built up on narrow engineering inputs targeting short term economic gains and hardly consider long term ecological implication”. “Polls are a primary driver. As far as Ken-Betwa is concerned, I really fail to understand how they can go ahead without a clearance from the Supreme Court? How can you go ahead in any project that is sub judice?” wondered Manoj Misra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan.
River cargo from Varanasi, Haldia to Assam’s Pandu likely to start from mid-2022
The movement of heavy cargo ships from Varanasi and Haldia to Pandu port in Assam through riverways is expected to begin by mid-2022, Union minister Sarbananda Sonowal recently said. During a media interaction here, the ports, shipping, and waterways minister said dredging work at critical junctures in the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers had already been initiated by his ministry to facilitate the movement of large cargo ships. “By mid-2022, I am hopeful that cargo ships of 2,000 metric tonnes from Haldia and Varanasi will start sailing to Pandu. This is going to be a major boost to trade and industry of the North-eastern region,” Sonowal said. Support from experts in Tezpur University, IIT Guwahati, and IIM Shillong would be sought to make the dredging work successful in the Brahmaputra, the minister said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had instructed the authorities concerned to make arrangements to dredge a stretch of 2-2.5 metre in the two rivers so that cargo vessels, passenger ships, and even seaplanes can use the water bodies, he said. “The potential of the Brahmaputra as well as other rivers of Northeast is huge and people will get direct benefit from the development of river tourism, cargo transportation, and an alternative economic transportation system,” Sonowal said. The Bangladesh government, with support from the Government of India, is working on a stretch of the Jamuna river to make the 2,000-kilometre-long waterway from Sadiya in Assam to Haldia in West Bengal, through the neighbouring nation, a smooth passage. The minister said the north-eastern region will play a critical role in reviving the economic prosperity of the country. Noting that there had been efforts to build waterways of the region and connect them to major ports in the Bay of Bengal, Sonowal said, it would not only unlock the economic potential of the region but allow the landlocked region direct access to international trading routes. “We are working to connect Mizoram, Tripura, and Assam to three strategic ports — Sittwe in Myanmar, and Mongla and Chittagong in Bangladesh,” the Union minister said.