Several states, including Kerala, Bihar, Punjab, Karnataka, and Sikkim, have expressed reservations on inter-basin water transfer, and with good reason.
On World Water Day, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan signed a Memorandum of Understanding to interlink two rain-fed rivers, Ken and Betwa. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was present when the MoU was signed.
The decision is shocking because the project goes against the basic tenets of science. How can a smaller river like the Ken, which dries up for two to three months during the hot weather, provide 2,800 million cubic metres of water to the much-larger Betwa river? Both rivers are tributaries of the Yamuna river.
Environment activists warn that linking the two rivers will submerge 6,017 hectares of forest land right in the heart of the Panna Tiger Reserve. The reserve will be bifurcated in two and endanger the Ken Gharial Sanctuary.
The project sounds very impressive on paper, for it lays down a plan to irrigate 6,35,000 hectares of farmland at Rs. 38,000 crore in six districts, Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh, and Panna in Madhya Pradesh and Mahoba, Banda, and Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh as also provide jobs in the construction and tourism sectors. It is the first project to be executed under the National River Interlinking Project.
Himanshu Thakkar, convenor of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, says, “It is a Rs. 38,000 crore proposition and is being executed to service the existing political economy of money that is the leitmotif of the present dispensation.” When asked what justifies the project, he says, “On paper, sadly, one can justify anything.”
Thakkar cites a report of the state Forest Advisory Committee, which estimates 4.6 million trees would have to be chopped for the project. Yet, scarcity of water would only increase in the water-deprived region.
Eminent conservationist MK Ranjitsinh, who helped shape wildlife conservation policies for the last five decades, also opposed this project. He had resigned from the state Wildlife Board over the interlinking issue in 2015. He told this author in a 2016 interview that either the interlinking project would survive or the Panna Tiger Reserve. He had said as much to the Chief Minister as well: “you cannot have both”.
Ranjitsinh belonged to the Madhya Pradesh cadre of the forest department. He warned of the risks when governments ignore wildlife boards or “manipulate” them into favourable decisions. Several water experts say their primary worry is that river-linking will worsen the water situation.
Ranjitsinh also referred to a survey of irrigation projects executed between 1955 and 1990. It found that only 55,000 hectares ended up irrigated, against the promised one lakh hectares, while the cost escalated manifold.
R. Sreenivasa Murthy was a field director at the Panna Tiger Sanctuary in 2009. He, too, objected to this interlinking project, which he submitted to the government. He was immediately transferred from there. Murthy had been sent to Panna to facilitate a project to translocate tigers—a brainwave of Congress leader and former environment minister Jairam Ramesh. The reserve had no tigers in 2008 as they had all been poached. Today, the reserve has 54 tigers and is a major international tourist destination.
Bhopal-based Murthy said in a phone interview, “Interlinking will be a catastrophe for the Panna Tiger Reserve. The plan to build a dam on the Ken and a connecting canal between the rivers is highly misplaced. The Betwa already has seven dams on it and none provide the kind [amount] of water for irrigation as was claimed by the irrigation department.” The proposal also violates the Wildlife Protection Act and will “destroy the ecology of this region,” says Murthy.
Experts question the modus operandi employed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to gain clearances. The MoEF, it is reported, employed a Mumbai-based company that was not on its approved list for agencies that can conduct an Environment Impact Assessment and had little knowledge of the ecology of this region.
The assessment report incorrectly said there are Sal forests in the Panna reserve. It said that the Manipur Brown Antler deer, although they are found only on the Indo-Burmese border.
Aquatic ecology experts also question the statistics of the National Development Water Agency. Brij Gopal of the Centre for Inland Waters in South Asia has refuted the NDWA claim that the Ken river has an extra 1,074 million cubics of water to share.
Gopal, a former professor of environmental sciences at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, believes that the NWDA has relied more on modeling than on-ground observations. Gopal asks that if the river has surplus water, why do villages in Panna struggle to find drinking water during the summer months.
Prof Vikram Soni, a retired physicist from the Jawaharlal Nehru University and water activist, says, “We must not interfere with nature which has different ecologies for each region otherwise this will foster climate change. Rivers also have an ecological identity which has evolved over millions of years and once damaged cannot be reclaimed. Already, our rivers are hopelessly overdrawn, silted and polluted and we cannot afford to cause further injury to the health of our river basins.”
Soni also emphasises that the Gangetic rivers must be allowed to maintain their environmental flows. “All our Gangetic rivers need a 50 to 60 per cent environmental flow in order to perform their intrinsic functions or else the rivers will get destroyed,” he said.
In the present development paradigm, the government first submerges a vast chunk of virgin forest, then spends millions on a Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority. “Surely there are other ways of providing irrigation to water-deprived sections of Bundelkhand,” an activist says.
Conservationist Ranjitsinh believes our present sanctuaries and tiger reserves are the “last havens of hope with mother nature, where our natural heritage will survive. Why should Panna and Kaziranga be less sacrosanct than the Taj Mahal and Ajanta-Ellora? We have tiny havens left—only four per cent of India’s landmass. This is a Rubicon that should not have been crossed.”
Ranjitsinh laments that if the government wants to fulfill every “need and greed of people, there would be no forests left”.
Several states including Bihar, Punjab, Karnataka, Kerala, and Sikkim, have expressed reservations on inter-basin water transfer. From the start, Kerala had taken the stand that long-distance inter-basin water transfer would not work. The state’s rivers depend on monsoons, and Kerala needs water to feed its channel networks, especially during summer. Bihar has also questioned the rationale of interlining. Since all its rivers emanate from Nepal, diverting them would require the permission of a neighbouring nation.
Water experts, including Magsaysay awardee Rajendra Singh, are vehemently critical of this project and warn that entire villages and towns will disappear apart from destroying millions of acres of forest and agricultural land.
“Each river has its own geological character, and different flora and fauna. By interlinking river basins, everything will be destroyed,” said Singh.
The problem is that the central and state governments have bypassed expert opinion and relied on bureaucrats to push through a project in the name of development.
In its study on the Economic Impact of Interlinking of Rivers Program, the National Council of Applied Economic Research had pegged the cost of 30 linked rivers at Rs. 5,60,000 crores at 2002-3 prices. Costs may well have tripled in the last two decades.
It also needs to be emphasised that forests are the primary source of water in a water-deprived country. After the Palamau Wildlife Sanctuary in Jharkhand was notified as a Tiger Reserve in 1973, the foresters there began to measure the water flow of the rivers and rivulets. Two years later, the quantum and period of flow in them had increased significantly.
The last word on this issue must go to Ranjitsinh, who had helped found and notify the Panna National Park. When asked how he felt when he heard the park was threatened, he says, “I had helped notify nine new national parks and 14 new sanctuaries in Madhya Pradesh. I do not want to sound subjective [but] all our protected areas are going to suffer, and unfortunately, most of these development projects will not even deliver [what they promise].”
Rashme Sehgal is an independent journalist. The views are personal.