New Delhi: Severely criticised as an ecologically disastrous venture, the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP), which aims to resolve the water scarcity issue in the arid region of Bundelkhand, has also been one of the longest-pending projects in the recent history of India.
On the one hand, various levels of society demanded extensive research into the KBLP over fears that it will leave widespread ecological destruction in its wake. And on the other hand, the two states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, in which the Bundelkhand region is located, were at loggerheads for several years over the issue of water-sharing under the project.
It appears that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not find the ecological aspect of the controversial project worthy of consideration, because all the major requisite clearances were granted to the project within three years of the BJP forming a government in 2014.
But the Union government took the water-sharing issue between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh seriously and set up a committee of Union and state officials to assess the water needs of both the states in order to negotiate between them.
Based on the committee’s report, a tripartite Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) on the KBLP was signed by the Union government and the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh in the presence of Prime Minister Modi on March 22, 2021, World Water Day.
Interestingly, however, documents accessed by The Wire under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, reveal that the secretary of the Ministry of Jal Shakti had disagreed with certain provisions regarding the allocation of water to the two states, claiming that these provisions would escalate the cost of the project.
The water-sharing dispute
The Modi government’s Ken-Betwa Link Project is based on the claim that the river Ken has surplus water and therefore, water from the Ken can be diverted to the Betwa basin, where there is an acute water shortage.
Even as experts raised questions over the veracity of this claim, the Uttar Pradesh government demanded 935 MCM of water from the project in the non-monsoon season (October to May), while the Madhya Pradesh government said it could only agree to provide 700 MCM of water to Uttar Pradesh in the lean season.
MCM stands for million cubic metres. One cubic metre is equal to 1,000 litres of water, while one MCM contains one billion litres.
In a meeting between the chief secretaries of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh chaired by the secretary of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (later renamed Ministry of Jal Shakti) on July 20, 2019, it was decided that there was a need to ascertain the accuracy of the demands of both the states.
Following this meeting, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), the agency of the Ministry of Jal Shakti which is implementing the KBLP, held a meeting on August 2, 2019, with the Irrigation and Water Resources Department of Uttar Pradesh at Jhansi. This was followed by field visits to potential tank sites, after which it was assessed that Uttar Pradesh does need 935 MCM of water in the non-monsoon season.
On August 30, 2019, a meeting took place between the director general of the NWDA and the principal secretary of the water department of Uttar Pradesh in which it was decided that Uttar Pradesh would receive 788 MCM of water in the lean season, while the remaining 147 MCM would be supplied by filling the tanks in Mahoba district during the monsoon season and constructing two new barrages across the river Ken in the downstream of Daudhan dam that would be filled in the monsoon.
The principal secretary then demanded that the cost of the rain water harvesting in Mahoba and the construction of the barrages should be included in the KBLP.
He added that if the Madhya Pradesh government agreed to release only 750 MCM instead of 788 MCM, then additional new storage should be made for the remaining 38 MCM.
The principal secretary also urged the Union government to bear the costs of the replacement, repair or strengthening of the Bariyarpur pick-up weir, the Parichha weir and Barwasagar dams because they are very old and have outlived their designed lives.
After this meeting, the NWDA wrote on a file noting of the KBLP that the inclusion of these expenses would hike the cost of the project to about Rs 5,000 crore. However, this note added, a detailed investigation and the preparation of a detailed project report would be required to estimate the actual costs.
On November 11, 2019, U.P. Singh, the then secretary of the Ministry of Jal Shakti, rejected Uttar Pradesh’s demands.
Singh wrote on the same file noting: “In my opinion, NWDA did not do the job it was supposed to do. It agreed that requirement of 935 MCM by Uttar Pradesh is justified. It was supposed to do field verification to ascertain present area under irrigation and proposed area under irrigation post project and work out realistic requirement of water adopting suitable norms for water requirement (sic).”
Singh also said in this note that if the other demands made by Uttar Pradesh were accepted, such as the construction of additional barrages on the Ken and the modernisation and upgradation of the Bariyarpur pick up weir, the Parichha weir and Barwasagar Dam, the proposed project would “go in another spin”.
However, he added: “We can at best include infrastructure required for filling up the tanks.”
Upendra Prasad Singh, a 1985 batch IAS officer from the Odisha cadre who is now secretary of the Ministry of Textiles, had handled much of the work on the KBLP when he was the secretary of the Ministry of Jal Shakti. The MoA of the KBLP was signed two months after Singh was transferred to the textiles ministry on January 23, 2021.
Later, a team of officials from the NWDA, the Central Water Commission and Uttar Pradesh’s water ministry set up on the instructions of the Jal Shakti minister surveyed the region on February 19-20, 2020, to assess the state’s water requirements. The team came to the same conclusion as the original NWDA team and recommended finalising the deal on these provisions.
The scope of benefits
Meanwhile, the Madhya Pradesh Water Resources Department agreed only to the repair and strengthening of the Bariyarpur pick-up weir, the Parichha weir and the Baruasagar dam, whereas the Uttar Pradesh government had emphasised the replacement of these structures, with the costs to be included in the KBLP.
The Madhya Pradesh government also turned down the proposal to provide 788 or 750 MCM of water to Uttar Pradesh in the lean season, offering instead to sanction 700 MCM.
However, the MoA signed for the KBLP by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the Jal Shakti minister, Yogi Adityanath, the Uttar Pradesh chief minister, and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister, on March 22 contains all the provisions that had been contentious through the discussions on the project, including the provision of 750 MCM of water to Uttar Pradesh in the lean season, the construction of two new barrages in the state, the filling of tanks in Mahoba and the reconstruction or repair of old structures.
The NWDA had estimated the cost of these works to be about Rs 5,000 crore. It had also asserted the need for a thorough investigation to assess the costs. But this investigation was never carried out.
On September 22, 2020, a meeting chaired by Shekhawat was held between Tulsi Ram Silawat and Mahendra Singh, the water ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh respectively, to finalise the agreement on water-sharing. The conditions put forth by the Uttar Padesh government were accepted in this meeting.
But the minutes of this meeting reveal that the cost of the proposed construction of additional structures under the project had not been discussed. Nor were any such details available.
Interestingly, the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) of the Supreme Court which had been charged in 2017 with examining the KBLP and had submitted its report on August 30, 2019, had remarked that while the government claims that 2.51 lakh hectares of land in UP will be irrigated with the project, the existing Bariyarpur dam built on the Ken already has an irrigation target of 2.14 lakh hectares in the state, meaning that only 0.37 lakh hectares of Uttar Pradesh will profit from the Ken-Betwa Link Project.
Speaking to The Wire, Bhopal Singh, director general of the NWDA, said that on completion of the project, Uttar Pradesh will get 860 MCM of water from the river Ken in the lean season, of which 750 MCM will be from Daudhan dam and the rest from Rangawan dam.
However, documents show that Uttar Pradesh has been able to utilise only an average of 39 MCM of water from the Rangawan dam in the last 10 years.
Admitting that UP’s Bundelkhand district will not benefit much from the project, Bhopal Singh said, “As far as command [area] in Banda district in UP under existing Ken system of Bariyarpur Right Bank Canal [Ken Canal] is concerned, the project [KBLP] may not lead to much increase in the command area as the area is already developed.”
He added: “However the project would help in stabilisation of irrigation in 1,92,479 hectares of Ken system by repair/strengthening of existing system and improving water use efficiency by utilising micro irrigation system (sic). Regulated releases from Daudhan dam would improve the reliability and water use efficiency in the command [area] particularly during non-monsoon period when flows in the Ken River are reduced drastically.”
Is the KBLP worth its cost?
The Centre says that the estimated expenditure on the river interlinking project is Rs 35,111 crore, based on cost calculations done in 2017-18. However, once the demands of the Uttar Pradesh government are accounted for, the cost will increase.
Moreover, no studies have been carried out to assess the financial implications of the ecological and other damages that the new structures will cause. It appears from the documents accessed by The Wire that in its haste to execute the project, the government has violated several procedures.
The government claims that the project is incurring an annual loss of Rs 9,853 crores owing to the delay in its implementation.
After examining the KBLP, the CEC had already presaged in its August 2019 report that the project would incur an expenditure much higher than that estimated by the Centre.
The government claims that the cost-benefit analysis of the project has fixed the revenue at Rs 1.58 per each rupee.
However, the CEC said that the project proponents are required to establish a ropeway for the transport of men and material during the construction and post construction phases and construct animal passes across the river as well as canals.
The CEC said, “The revenue foregone from power generation and the cost of establishing ropeway and animal passes are not accounted for in the cost benefit ratio.”
The committee also said that the cost of the implementation of the Landscape Management Plan for Tigers and the species recovery programme for vultures and ghariyal are yet to be worked out and hence are not included in the benefit cost analysis.
The CEC specifically said: “The addition of the ecological cost of implementation of the Landscape Management Plan and species recovery programme for vultures and ghariyal, when considered in the Benefit Cost ratio, may make the project economically unviable.”
While granting the first-level clearance to the project, the environment ministry had sought a cost-benefit analysis report with ecological costs. But this report has not been submitted so far.
However, Bhopal Singh told The Wire: “In case of submergence due to Daudhan reservoir, value of eco-services of Rs 3512.8 crores in form of net present value (NPV) of submerged area has been added to the cost of the project apart from keeping liberal provisions for compensatory afforestation (CA) and catchment area treatment (CAT) as stated above. The provision of about Rs 6,053 crores has been included in DPR as the cost of land acquisition, NPV, CAT and CA. For the submergence of forest land of 5,800 hectares, a comprehensive environmental monitoring plan has been prepared, covering the land environment including catchment area treatment, biological conservations, public health management plan, air and noise pollution management plan under the pre and post project period and mitigation cost, [which] has been included in the DPR.”
In the first phase of the project, a 77-metre high and 2,031-metre-long dam will be constructed at Daudhan village, located near the Ken River.
In addition, a 221-km long Ken-Betwa link canal will be constructed which will divert water from the river Ken to the Betwa basin. Two tunnels of 1.9 km and 2.5 km length will also be constructed.
The Centre insists that water collected in the Ken basin up to Daudhan dam will be about 6,590 MCM, of which Madhya Pradesh will draw 2,350 MCM, Uttar Pradesh 1,700 MCM and the upper reaches of the basin in Madhya Pradesh will get 2,266 MCM.
In the lean season, Madhya Pradesh will receive 1,834 MCM of water while UP will draw 750 MCM.
But this distribution of water is based on data from an 18-year-old hydrological study conducted between 1981-82 and 2003-04.
In the process of finalising the deal, some officials had felt the need to update the comprehensive report of the KBLP and incorporate data beyond 2003-04 till 2018-19. But the NWDA officials had refused to do so, arguing that a fresh hydrological study would delay the project and spoil the deal between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.
Even the NWDA was not convinced that the dependable annual yield of the Daudhan dam is 6,590 MCM as stated in the DPR of April 2010.
A draft of the MoA obtained by The Wire shows that the agency preferred the figure of 6,188 MCM of water availability in the Ken basin up to Daudhan dam. This figure of an annual yield of 6,188 MCM came from a study that had been conducted by the Central Water Commission in 1995.
When the NWDA was questioned by the Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh governments regarding the figure of 6,188 MCM of water it had placed in the draft, the NWDA said: “Hydrology is a dynamic process and keeps on changing with time. It would be appropriate to stick to the figure of 6,188 MCM water availability of Ken Basin up to Daudhan Dam at 75% dependability and allocate water to both states for developmental needs accordingly.”
According to the MoA, at least 6,316 MCM of water is required to meet the irrigation and other needs of the two states. That is, 2,350 MCM for Madhya Pradesh, 2,266 MCM for MP upstream and 1,700 MCM for Uttar Pradesh.
So the NWDA’s 6,188 MCM annual yield of Daudhan dam will not suffice for both the states and will eventually render the entire project futile.
Meanwhile, experts allege that the government is reluctant to conduct independent hydrological studies of the river because its water content is low.
“It is noteworthy that the government has not conducted any independent study till date to verify the claim that the Ken has surplus water,” says Manoj Misra, a river activist leading the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan who had challenged the wildlife clearance granted to the KBLP in the Supreme Court.
Misra added: “Besides, the data from different studies undertaken by government departments varies. On which of them can we count?”
Apart from the water-sharing dispute that plagued the KBPL, the government has been lambasted over concerns that the project will leave ecological devastation in its wake.
A total area of around 9,000 hectares will be submerged due to the proposed dam of which 5,803 hectares lies within the Panna Tiger Reserve, considered to be the core habitat of tigers in the region.
Under the project, 6,017 hectares of forest land will be submerged, ravaging at least 23 lakh trees. In addition, the KBLP will also adversely affect the Ken Gharial Sanctuary and vulture nesting sites.
For a better picture, imagine an area equivalent to 8,427 football fields cleared of trees. The 23 lakh trees that will be cut down for the KBLP is 1,078 times more trees than the ones axed in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony in 2019 to clear land for the Mumbai Metro.
The CEC claimed in its report that the implementation of the project would lead to a total loss of wildlife habitat spread over 10,500 hectares which includes several animal species on the verge of extinction, such as tigers, leopards, vulture, chital and others.
The government claims that a total of 9.04 lakh hectares of land will be irrigated owing to the project. But the CEC pointed out that there are 11 major/medium and 171 minor irrigation projects already in place in the Ken basin and the goal can be achieved simply by expanding the capacities of the existing projects.
Translated from the Hindi by Naushin Rehman.
This story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.