The Indian river linking project of Rs. 560,000 crore ($200b) has now been elevated to the level of a creation myth by referring to it as “Amrit Kranti”, invoking the imagery of Sagar Manthan – the creation story of Indian mythology in which the gods and demons churned the ocean which led to the separation of the “amrit” (nectar) from the “Vish” (poison). This is the symbolism with which the project is referred to in the new brochure produced by the Task Force on Interlinking of Rivers.
It was also the metaphor used by Shri Suresh Prabhu, Chairman of the Task Force, at the C.I.I. organized meeting “Interlinking Rivers: A win-win situation” on October 29, 2003. While mythic imagery is being used to promote the project, the debate on River Linking has been presented as emotion vs science — those raising ecological and social issues are defined as “emotional” and they have to be convinced by the “science” of river linking.
However, the river linking project seems to be based on pseudo science, not science.
The flawed science becomes evident in the first link that is to be implemented in the River Linking Project — the Ken-Betwa link, in the Bundelkhand region of U.P. and M.P.
At his speech on Independence Day, August 15, 2003, from the historical Red Fort in Delhi, the Prime Minister promised that the ambitious project to link all major rivers of the country will start by the end of this year. While the first project will link the Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh, the second will connect the Parvati, Kalisindh and Chambal rivers in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
The prioritisation of the Ken-Betwa link was also reiterated by Suresh Prabhu at the CII meeting on river linking.
The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and ecology has carried out an assessment of the Ken-Betwa link– on hydrological, ecological and social criteria. This case study provides a framework for assessments of other river links.
The myth of “Surplus Waters”
At the core of the science of river linking is the idea that water will be diverted from “surplus” rivers to “deficit” rivers, thus ameliorating floods and drought and improving food security by creation of new irrigation facilities. However, in the case of the Ken-Betwa link none of these assumptions hold.
Ken is the smaller of the two rivers. Water is being diverted from the basin draining 5344 MCM to a larger basin draining 9130 MCM. On what criteria is the smaller river surplus and the larger river deficit? The criteria is clearly not based on science and ecology. The “surplus” basin is a river system which has been used sustainably. The “deficit” basin is one in which water resources have been used non-sustainably, and the demand has been allowed to outstrip sustainable supply. It would therefore be more accurate to refer to sustainable and non-sustainable water use in river basins, rather than surplus and deficit rivers.
In any case, the assessment of “surplus” waters in Ken river available for diversion to Betwa is scientifically flawed. The Ken-Betwa project is based on diverting 1020 MCM of water from the Ken river to the Betwa river. However, according to Madhya Pradesh Government’s comment on the National Water Development Agency report of 1995 on the feasibility report of Ken-Betwa link, “the next quantity of water from Ken Basin to Betwa Basin is 342 MCM onlyâ€¦.. Hence, it is recommended that Ken-Betwa link project may be dropped”.
A project that the government itself recommended be dropped has suddenly became the priority scheme in the new “Amrit Kranti” of river linking.
The primary benefit of the project is claimed to be reduction of floods and drought and increased irrigation. However, both Ken and Betwa arise in the Vindhyachal range. When one river is in flood the other is in flood. When one basin experiences drought, the other experiences drought. Therefore, the claim of reducing flood and drought impact does not hold. Floods will in fact actually increase by adding more water to the Betwa which already affects Hamirpur district with the highest food occurrence in Bundelkhand. 360201 ha land, 262337 persons and 160 villages in Hamirpur are flood prone. Adding more water to the Betwa basin will increase the flood proneness of these villages.
The river link will also increase drought in the Ken basin. Banda district experiences scarcity of water in summer season due to decrease in the level of water in Ken river which is the main source of drinking water and irrigation in the district. The diversion will also drain water from indigenous water systems including Sarori Tal, Gora Tal and Gajadhar Tal in Naugaon village, Sukh Sagar in Maharajpur, Kotra Tal and Dhanera Tal in Palera, Nandsagar in Isanagar, Bahast Tal in Jatara. These water systems were built by the Bundelas and have had a major role in drought proofing in the Bundelkhand region.
The only benefit of the river link is to provide water to 4 dam projects in the Betwa basin which have been rendered infeasible due to non-availability of water. These failed dam projects are Barari, Neemkheda, Richwan and Kesuri dams.
These failed dams are the “target command” of the Ken-Betwa link. As the project report states “With the transfer of water form Ken to Betwa river these four projects of the upper Betwa basin can be taken up. Otherwise these projects cannot be implemented due to shortage of water in Betwa Basin”. Instead of shelving projects for which water is not available, these non-sustainable projects are being made artificially viable by rendering the Ken basin ecologically and economically unviable.
The ecological costs of the river link
The Ken-Betwa link involves building a dam on Daudhan on Ken river, and diverting the water to Betwa. The Ken-Betwa link project which is a diversion cum storage comprises of :
A 73.40 m high and 1468m long earth dam access river Ken near Dandhan village
A 326 m long side channel spill way on left flank.
An underground powerhouse with 3.20 MW installed capacity
A powerhouse at the end of the 2km tunnel with 2.6 MW installed capacity.
A 231.45 km long canal for transferring water from Ken river to River Betwa.
The construction of the proposed dam at Daudhan village in Chattarpur district of M.P. will lead to submergence of 17419.75 ha land and 1056 families will be uprooted. There is no cost estimate for resettlement of these villages. Displacement issues are addressed in only 4 lines in the entire feasibility report. “As the entire submergence area lies in Madhya Pradesh, a majority of the oustees will be settled in Madhya Pradesh. However, it is proposed that some of them may be settled in Uttar Pradesh since Uttar Pradesh is also one of the beneficiaries of the project”.
The Daudhan dam is situated in the Panna National Park, and will have a severe impact on wildlife and biodiversity. Panna is the twenty second Tiger Reserve of India and fifth in the State of Madhya Pradesh. It is situated in the Vindhya Ranges and spread over Panna and Chattarpur districts in the North of the State. The Ken River which flows through the Reserve is a home for Gharial and Magar and other aquatic fauna.
About 200 species of birds have been identified in the park. Besides tigers, the park has Leopards, Sloth bear, Wolf, Wild dog, Wild boar, Hyena, Sambhar, Cheetal, Neelgar, Chausnigha, Porcupine, Jungle Cat. Many of these species are endangered species. While posing a severe threat to endangered species, the M.P. Government’s comment on the feasibility report carelessly states:
The impact of the project on the wild life will be nil, as the wild life has got the natural characteristic of shifting to forest areas adjacent to the project area.
The project will also lead to severe erosion of agricultural biodiversity. Existing crop diversity in the Ken and Betwa basins and along the proposed canal include Kodikutke, jowar, urad, arhar, oilseeds, wheat. In the Betwa basin 48.52% is under high value rainfed wheat and 26.9% under pulses. The indigenous wheats of Bundelkhand sell at twice the value of Green Revolution varieties. And Bundlekhand is one of the remaining pockets of pulses production. The project envisages a shift from these high value water prudent crops to low value water intensive crops such as paddy, sugarcane and soya bean.
Thus the project will erode biodiversity and lead to non-sustainable water use. Water wasteful agriculture is the most important factor in non-sustainable water use. Instead of promoting conservation of biodiversity and water, the project promotes water waste and destruction of biodiversity in one of the last remaining pockets of crop-biodiversity.
At a time when conservation should guide water resource planning, an obsolete paradigm of non-sustainable water use and water management is being pushed through the river linking project. The real “Amrit Kranti” needs support to biodiversity and water conservation, organic farming, and rejuvenation of rivers and groundwater. The pseudo science of river linking needs to give way to the science of living sustainably with our water systems. Going further to tap more distant rivers will not convert non-sustainable use to sustainable use. It will merely expand the scope of non-sustainability.
The Ken-Betwa link will also increase conflicts over rivers. U.P. and M.P. already have a number of water disputes. Of the 10 water conflicts, 2 are over Betwa river waters, 2 are over Ken river waters, 1 over Yamuna and one each over Banne and Urmil rivers.
People’s voice: The Water Parliament on Ken-Betwa
Peace and prosperity through water can only be achieved through sustainability and democracy. That is why on the basis of its study the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology had organized a “Water Parliament” on the Ken-Betwa link at Orchha on July 23, 2003, the birth anniversary of Chandra Shekhar Azad, a freedom fighter. The people of Bundelkhand passed the following resolution at the Water Parliament –
“The residents of the district of Hamirpur are of the opinion that the proposed link will further worsen the flood situation in the flood prone districts of the Bundelkhand region as most of the rivers are flooded in the rainy season.
According to farmers of Banda, the project will catalyse the drought in the region as the already existing dams on Ken and Betwa rivers get dried during the summer season.
In the opinion of farmers of the region the proposed cropping pattern will result into diminishing of the traditional crops having high nutritious value. According to them these are being grown in the region for ages.
The natives of the villages which will be subjected to submergence due to the linking of Ken and Betwa rivers are not ready to leave their fertile land for any compensation offered to them by the Government. According to them their land is highly fertile and the value of this land cannot be estimated. It is invaluable for them.
Ecologically and economically, the cost of the project will outweigh the benefits. We therefore call on the government not to rush ahead with this destructive project and instead invite the people of Bundlekhand to prepare and participate in a sustainable and equitable water plan for the region.”