Explained: The Cost, Benefit, And Consequences Of Ken-Betwa Link Project That UP-MP Have Agreed To Build With Centre’s Help
The Ken-Betwa river link project is again in news. Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have decided to bury their differences and build this ambitious canal which intends to irrigate lakhs of hectares of land and fulfil drinking needs of millions.
But is the project worth its cost in money and otherwise?
The state governments of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) Monday (22 March) to complete the Ken-Betwa river link, a four decade-old proposed project aimed at ending the water scarcity in parched Bundelkhand region that falls in both the states.
The pact was inked via video-conferencing in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose government at the Centre will be financing majority of the project.
In the 1980s, when the Union government had first envisaged interlinking of rivers to take water from surplus regions to those facing deficit, this region was also promised a project - the linking of the Ken and Betwa rivers, tributaries of Yamuna. The cost was estimated to be slightly above Rs 1,900 crores (1994-95 prices).
Many prime ministers and chief ministers passed but the project didn’t move beyond the feasibility reports and detailed project reports.
Meanwhile, the cost of this infra project, considered so crucial for the region, kept shooting up.
Currently, it’s estimated to be upwards of Rs 30,000 crore - a 15-fold penalty.
In a sense, its trajectory is similar to many other infra projects which have suffered due to apathy of the governments whose cost has to be ultimately borne by the taxpayers.
The project got revived after the BJP government came to power in 2014 and took the Supreme Court judgement of 2012 seriously which had directed the Centre and States to start working on interlinking rivers saying that these projects were in ‘national interest’.
The Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP) envisions construction of a dam at Daudhan, a village on the Ken river. From here, it will divert the river water from this reservoir through a canal to the Betwa river.
The project is aimed at providing irrigation to all the areas through which the link canal passes, downstream area of the Ken River and downstream areas of the Betwa river. In total, 10 lakh hectares of land in both the States.
Apart from this, the river-link hopes to serve the needs drinking water of millions of people in the region. There is a hydropower component to this project as well which will generate just over 100 MW of electricity.
However, many actors - from environmental activists to Supreme Court appointed committee to government bodies such as National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) - have raised serious concerns about the potential damage the project will do to area’s ecology.
The Standing Committee of NBWL had said that ‘functional impacts of the project are likely to be far reaching, beyond the conventional expectation around the project site‘ which falls in the core area of Panna Tiger Reserve and that it is not possible to ‘compensate the loss entirely because a large portion of submergence area falls in a riverine habitat which is unique and cannot be replicated elsewhere’.
The Committee then went on to give 15 recommendations including scrapping the power generation part of the project which was anyway not main objective to be achieved via the KBLP.
Later, the Supreme Court appointed Central Empowered Committee (CEC) was asked to submit a report on the KBLP to the apex court after some activists raise concerns. The CEC’s report was even more adversarial than that of the standing committee.
It questioned various claims of the government regarding the KBLP such as surplus water availability from Ken river, projected figures of benefits in terms of increased irrigation in the region, incomplete estimates of costs of first phase of the project, impact on aquatic fauna apart from the ecosystem of Panna Tiger reserve and so on.
Based on these, it recommended to the court that not only a thorough study is conducted on the project’s long term negative impact on the environment but also that alternatives to proposed benefits of the project vis-a-vis irrigation are explored to alleviate the poverty of people of Bundelkhand (read the full report here.)
For long, KBLP has been sold as a panacea that will solve all the problems of water-scarce Bundelkhand, especially that of lack of irrigation which is said to be main reason behind impoverishment of the region’s population that still depends on agriculture. However, not all seem convinced.
Many experts believe that transferring water from ‘surplus’ river basin to ‘deficit’ one is too simplistic a proposition. Moreover, this assumption is based on annual average flows of water and ignores monthly fluctuations.
Ken river, considered the bountiful of the two rivers, itself remains dry in parts of the year, experts argue.
A group of researchers had also conducted a study many years back analysing the cropping patterns of farmers of Bundelkhand. It also looked at the irrigation availability to farmers in both the kharif and rabi season.
The main aim of the Ken-Betwa link is to provide irrigation and augment farming during the kharif and rabi seasons. But few farmers in the region need irrigation during the kharif season when some farmers prefer to keep the fields fallow in preparation for wheat cultivation during rabi season while others prefer crops such as oilseeds and pulses which require less water, have a shorter cycle, and give as much income as paddy.
This evolution may not be because of unavailability of water because, the study found that, even in areas where groundwater was plentiful, farmers preferred crops which had shorter gestation period.
Given this, the biggest benefit that is touted by the proponents of KBLP - that of increased farm productivity due to increase in irrigation - is in question.
Moreover, farmers may move to water intensive crops like paddy if they have more irrigation facilities. This won’t do much to increase farm productivity or incomes but will certainly be an addition to long list of farmers producing water guzzling crops that India doesn’t need.
While the Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh governments may have agreed to bury many of the differences over water-sharing, the cordial conditions may not last forever and disputes might arise in future when there are governments of different parties in Lucknow and Bhopal.
In light of all this, the government has decided to go ahead with this project which will cost more than $5 billion and will be completed only by 2029.
It’s a big bet.
One hopes that the skeptics are wrong and the benefits to Bundelkhand and its people far outweigh the projected costs - financial as well as environmental.
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