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UP, MP sign 'historic' Ken-Betwa river-linking deal

Backers of the project are elated with the inking of India's first interstate river-linking deal. They claim this is the first step to solving India's water problems. Environmentalists, however, who oppose the linking of rivers on ecological and human rights grounds, are planning to agitate against it

The Ken and Betwa rivers in the states of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP) are to be linked under an historic agreement that marks the first such project in India's ambitious and controversial national river-linking project.

On August 24, the governments of UP and MP signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to link the two rivers. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and Madhya Pradesh's Babulal Gaur signed the MoU for their respective states; the tripartite deal was also signed by Union Water Resources Minister Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi on behalf of the Centre.

The first Inter Linking of Rivers (ILR) initiative in the country, the project aims to enhance irrigation and potable water supplies in both states, at an estimated cost of over Rs 4,000 crore. It envisages the diversion of surplus water in the Ken river basin to the water-deficient Betwa basin through the construction of a dam on the Ken and a canal to transfer the water.

The Betwa in Uttar Pradesh, which flows into the Yamuna, will receive surplus water from the Ken that originates in Uttar Pradesh and then runs south across Madhya Pradesh. The Davdhan dam is to be built on the Ken near its source.

Once extra water from the Ken basin is transferred to the Betwa it will make possible the construction of four additional medium irrigation projects in the upper Betwa basin where irrigation levels are extremely low. Irrigation benefits will also accrue en route by way of additional irrigation/stabilisation in the downstream Davdhan dam.

The Ken-Betwa Link Project will ensure irrigation and water supplies to Chatarpur, Tikamgarh, Panna, Raisen and Vidisha districts of Madhya Pradesh, and Hamirpur, Banda and Jhansi districts in Uttar Pradesh.

The first stage of the project involves building a 231 km canal to divert water from the Ken river to the Betwa in northern Madhya Pradesh. And to build the Davdhan dam and small hydroelectric plant in the middle of the Panna Tiger Reserve, one of the country's most successful tiger reserves.

Dasmunshi explained that certain reservations the UP government had regarding the feasibility report for the Ken-Betwa Link Project, prepared by the National Water Development Authority, "would definitely be addressed at the DPR (Detailed Project Report) stage". He added that UP's concerns with regard to the environment, relief and rehabilitation and the riparian zone in the Jhansi area would be taken into account while preparing the DPR.

River-linking was a pet project of India's former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and his National Democratic Alliance government. However, it was put on the back-burner by the present government that came to power in April 2004. The $ 200 billion initiative was first proposed by the British more than a century ago, as a solution to the problem of water scarcity in some areas of India and too much water in others. In independent India, it was proposed 30 years ago by the Congress government.

The reason why the Ken-Betwa link was the first to get off the ground is that it is the shortest. The Ken is the last tributary of the Yamuna before it joins the Ganga -- 87% of it lies in Madhya Pradesh and 12% in Uttar Pradesh. The Betwa is an interstate river that rises in Raisen district of Madhya Pradesh -- 68% of it lies in that state before it flows towards Jhansi district in Uttar Pradesh. This too is a tributary of the Yamuna.

Describing the signing of the interstate agreement as an "historic step" that would benefit people in both states, Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav told the media that it would be a role model for other states to resolve their river disputes. Madhya Pradesh is already in talks with neighbouring Rajasthan for a link-up of the Chambal and Parvati rivers.

According to Dasmunshi, four river-linking projects were already in the pipeline. He expressed confidence that an agreement on another would be "clinched" soon. "We have been able to take a small but significant step forward in this direction. I hope we shall be able to make further strides to concretise other link projects," he said.

Proponents of the scheme say the river-linking project, which will eventually see 30 links across India, will provide irrigation, improve crop production, increase drinking water supply, provide hydroelectric power and help minimise floods and drought. Almost three-quarters of farmland in India is not irrigated, hostage to the annual monsoon as the major source of water.

However, strident critics of the project, including high-profile rights activist Medha Patkar and environmentalist Vandana Shiva condemn the scheme, calling it a recipe for ecological disaster and violence from those whom it will force from their homes. They also allege that it will undermine the country's food security, submerge villages and roads and ruin vegetation and wildlife on both rivers' banks.

Over 8,500 farmers and villagers will be forced out of their homes in order only to build the dam, and an unknown number by the canal. "It's really about spending money," says Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology that has carried out its own detailed study and is helping organise grassroots opposition to the Ken-Betwa project.

Patkar, India's foremost anti-dam activist, has contacted anti-dam protestors in both states and may visit the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, part of which is expected to be submerged.

In Uttar Pradesh, Magsaysay award-winner environmentalist Sandeep Pandey and his wife Arundhati will visit the source of the Ken in Banda district to put together a group of protesters. V K Joshi, former regional director of the Geological Survey of India is also critical of the project, saying it will damage the ecosystems of both rivers.

The agreement was signed on the basis of a rough feasibility report; a detailed project report has still to be prepared. The feasibility report concedes that the project will lead to the submergence of around 100 sq km in Panna, Chatarpur and Damoh districts -- including 19 villages and around 37.5 sq km of forest land -- as well as a 30 km road in Gangau-Shahpura in Madhya Pradesh.

To this, green activists add a list of further devastation. They say the Ken river supports endangered aquatic fauna and flora as it passes through Madhya Pradesh. The dam will reduce its flow, depriving animals in the forests flanking it.

As for the floods that the project will allegedly help prevent, Joshi says that unlike man-made floods, natural floods serve a purpose. "Peak discharge and flooding are natural hydrological events that restore the ecological balance of the river valley; any major interference with this system is a recipe for disaster," he says.

For more read:
River linking plan needs greater transparency, concludes debate
Water activists oppose river linking
River linking only if benefits outweigh costs: Prabhu
The hidden impact of riverlinking: widespread waterlogging and salinity

Source: Reuters, August 29, 2005
The Telegraph, August 27, 2005
www.newindpress, August 27, 2005
www.outlookindia.com, August 24, 2005