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Ken-Betwa Link Project

While increasing water availability in Bundelkhand is a complex issue, government effort is focussed narrowly on increasing supply. The most ambitious and controversial project proposed is the Interlinking of Rivers (ILR) plan, developed by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA).

Envisaging transfer of waters from 'surplus' river basins to 'deficit' basins of the country, ILR if implemented in totality would be the largest water development project in the world, costing over Rs 600,000 crore.

The first of several links proposed under ILR is in Bundelkhand, between the Ken and the Betwa. The Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP) is being pursued as a 'pilot' for implementation of the national plan. One of the reasons for this choice is that the two rivers are quite close to each other.

According to a feasibility report prepared by NWDA - which is the only government document on the project prepared so far - KBLP aims to provide additional water to the areas of the upper Betwa sub-basin from the Ken basin, where surplus water is claimed to be available in large quantity.

As a first step, a 73.8 m high structure called the Greater Gangau Dam (GGD), is proposed on the Ken, at Daudhan, on the border of Chhatarpur and Panna districts, 2.5 km upstream from the existing Gangau weir.

Stored water is to be transferred to the Betwa through a 231.45 km long canal. The canal will terminate at Barwasagar reservoir in Jhansi district, on the small Barwa river that empties into the Betwa. (See 'Proposed Ken-Betwa Link’ map in Bundelkhand in Maps).

As a result, an area of around 6.45 lakh hectares, of which nearly 5 lakh hectares is in MP Bundelkhand, is expected to be irrigated, through four additional projects. Of the 6.45 lakh hectares, around 1.27 lakh hectares would be in the upper Betwa sub basin, 3.23 lakh hectares around the project site in the Ken basin and around 47,000 hectares would be along the route of the link canal.

Around 3.3 lakh people living in towns and villages along the canal are expected to get drinking water.

While Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh, Hamirpur and Jhansi districts are expected to get direct drinking water and irrigation benefits, Raisen and Vidisha districts of MP are expected to get indirect benefits through augmentation of existing reservoirs on the Betwa that meet water needs of these districts.

The project is also expected to have capacity to generate 72 mW of power.

The cost of the project was estimated at close to Rs 2000 crore at 1994-95 prices.

The feasibility report estimated that around 8,500 people living in 10 villages will be displaced and the submerged area of 8650 hectares will include 6400 hectares of forest land, most of it in the Panna tiger reserve (see Sanctuaries). 

The project was kicked off in on August 25, 2005, when the UP and MP chief ministers signed a memorandum of understanding in the presence of the Prime Minister, to take up work for preparing a detailed project report (DPR).

Around 75% of the construction cost is to be recovered from water users, who will be charged on the basis of area under cultivation.

KPLP has been severely criticised by environmentalists and NGOs on several grounds. As early as July 2003,  the project was 'rejected' at a 'Bundelkhand Water Parliament' held at Orchha by a group of NGOs including Vigyan Shiksha Kendra, Banda, Navdanya and Gram Sewa Samiti, with representatives from most Bundelkhand districts.

The objections to the project are around four main issues that need to be closely scrutinised when the DPR is released.

Firstly, estimates of 'surplus' water availability in the Ken have to be verified, across years, and across seasons.

Secondly, hydrological and environmental impacts like impact on aquifiers along the route of the canal and increase in erosion and degradation of water quality around the Ken project sites have to be projected and quantified in detail.

Thirdly, the impact on wild life in and around the Panna tiger reserve has to be understood in terms better than that described in the feasibility report, which makes remarks like: 'Wild life has got its own natural characteristic of moving to the interior forest areas…'

Fourthly, the impact of human life has to be considered. As in case of all large irrigation projects undertaken in India, estimates of number of people who will be displaced, and cost of rehabilitation are said to be gross underestimations.

The feasibility report does not even attempt to understand water and livelihood needs and concerns of people who will be affected. Even if local communities welcome the project, they face several problems. Villages along the reservoir face problems of waterlogging and the feasibility report itself admits that Chhatarpur and Panna districts are 'well known for endemic malaria'.

Even if the DPR and subsequent debates satisfactorily address the above four issues, KPLP faces several problems.

MP and UP have a rich history of water-sharing disputes (see Dams and Canals), and projects have dragged on for years, making all original cost-benefit estimates meaningless. As it is, KPLP faces major engineering problems and cost escalation, as the canal will pass through rocky terrain.

More fundamentally, KPLP goes against the poor long-term record of big irrigation projects across the world.

It will put highly vulnerable tribal families and marginal farmers of two of India's poorest districts at great, untested risk: they will be unwitting participants in an experiment that involves reducing the complexities of river basins naturally evolved over thousands of years to a simple arithmetic exercise of shifting water from one basin to another.

There are far less risky, less time-consuming and less expensive alternatives like checkdams that are available.

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