New Delhi: Before the implementation of any project that could have repercussions on the people and the environment of an area, there is usually a demand for an independent study on the utility and impact of the project. Such a study ensures that any undesirable effects of the project can be mitigated and damages may be judiciously compensated.
An independent study of this nature, conducted by experts in the relevant fields, usually takes months to complete. But one administrative official could end the study with just one phone call.
The scenario described above actually happened in the case of one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most ambitious schemes: the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP).
When the final tripartite memorandum of agreement (MoA) between the Union government and the Uttar Pradesh and the Madhya Pradesh governments for the KBLP was being drafted, some officials felt that a fresh study of the river Ken was necessary to update the comprehensive report on the project with the latest data.
But on the instructions of one official, the report retained the old data. And it was this old data that was the basis of the MoA on the Ken-Betwa Link Project signed by three governments.
This fact was uncovered in internal documents of the jal shakti ministry obtained by The Wire under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
A disputed claim
The Ken-Betwa Link Project is based on the claim that the Ken has surplus water which can be diverted to the Betwa basin via a dam at Daudhan village and a canal. However, the government has not so far released any data to support this claim.
Experts say that the reason the government does not make its study of the Ken public is because they know there is not enough water in the Ken to support the KBLP. The experts also allege that the study on Ken conducted by the government has many errors.
However, the government has rejected all these objections and is preparing to implement the KBLP in two phases. In the first phase, a 77-metre high and 2,031-metre-long dam will be constructed at Daudhan village located near the Ken and a 221-km long Ken-Betwa link canal will be built through which water from the Ken will flow into the Betwa basin. Two long tunnels of 1.9 km and 2.5 km will also be constructed.
A total area of around 9,000 hectares will be submerged due to the proposed dam of which 5,803 hectares lie within the Panna Tiger Reserve, which is considered to be the core habitat of tigers in the region.
The project was delayed for a long time because of disputes between the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh over water-sharing.
To resolve this issue, a meeting headed by U.P. Singh, the then secretary of the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation (later renamed the ministry of jal shakti) was convened on April 23, 2018, where Singh suggested that Madhya Pradesh may receive 1,796 million cubic metres (MCM) of water in the non-monsoon/lean season, while Uttar Pradesh may draw 788 MCM.
However, Uttar Pradesh demanded 935 MCM of water in the non-monsoon (October to May) months. One cubic meter equals 1,000 litres while one MCM contains one billion litres.
About a year and a half later, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), the agency of the ministry of jal shakti in charge of implementing the KBLP, opined that the availability of water in the Ken should be assessed in order to decide water-sharing between the states.
Therefore, Muzaffar Ahmed, the NWDA superintendent engineer, wrote a letter to the Lucknow-based NWDA chief engineer (north) on November 26, 2019, asking him to revise the comprehensive report of the KBLP by incorporating the updated working table of the Daudhan reservoir considering the latest inflow data and the provision of 788 MCM of water to Uttar Pradesh during the non-monsoon season.
This letter was also forwarded to the superintendent engineer of Investigation Circle, Gwalior, and executive engineer of Investigation Division, Gwalior/Bhopal/Jhansi of the NWDA.
However, the documents accessed by The Wire reveal that no new study was conducted on the instruction of the chief engineer (north) and the report that was forwarded to the NWDA headquarters retained the old data.
On January 7, 2020, executive engineer Raghavendra Kumar Gupta wrote a letter to the superintendent engineer of the Investigation Circle, saying: “We have received instructions to make necessary amendments and corrections in the comprehensive report by updating latest figures in the simulation study, water plan, etc., on allotment of 788 MCM water in the lean season to Uttar Pradesh under the Ken-Betwa link project.”
Gupta’s letter continued: “Thereafter, instructions have been received by the chief engineer (north) on phone to revise the comprehensive report and modify the simulation study and water plan without updating the said study on the basis of the data obtained in 2003-04.”
Simulation studies can ascertain the flow, amount of water, and other aspects of a river at different locations.
Gupta said that updating the comprehensive report to incorporate data till 2019 would require re-editing the entire hydrological study, for which Roorkee’s National Institute of Hydrology (NIH) would have to be roped in.
“It will take about 6-8 months to complete the said work,” he argued in the letter. “Also, it is stated that both the states agree on 75% dependable yield of the river at 6,590 MCM and the issue is settled.”
The figure of 75% dependable yield refers to the amount of water continuously available in a water source for 75% of the time of the study period. Based on this formula, the Centre has claimed that 6,590 MCM water will be available at the Daudhan dam site in a normal year.
The executive engineer argued that conducting a fresh hydrological study to include data till 2019 may alter the river’s estimated annual yield, which may lead to a fresh row between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh over water-sharing and further delay the project.
Loss of fresh data
The old report on the Ken was based on data collected between 1981-82 and 2003-04. When the department was asked to revise and update this comprehensive report, it would have meant incorporating data for the years 2003-04 to 2018-19, that is, for a period of 15 years.
Had the fresh study been conducted, the department would have had to collect data on rainfall, upstream utilisation, gauge and discharge data (G&D) of Banda and Madla, a G&D sites list (list of Central Water Commission monitoring sites on the river) of existing, ongoing and projected projects, land use data and the existing cropping pattern in the catchment of the Ken basin up to the Banda G&D sites and so on.
Apart from this, the work involved in the revision of the comprehensive report of the KBLP would have had to include an analysis of rainfall data and the construction of a Thiessen Polygon monthly consistency test of rainfall series by double mass curve technique, the processing of runoff data by various methods, assessment of yield at gauging discharge sites by (1) transformation of the 10 daily flow series to monthly values, (2) estimation of upstream utilisation and virgin flow, and (3) analysis by flow duration curve and so on.
The department would also have had to evaluate the water need assessment in the catchment of the Ken basin up to Banda, including the computation of gross irrigation requirement using existing and proposed cropping patterns in the catchment up to the year 2050.
But when the fresh study was stopped, none of this took place.
The comprehensive report on the KBLP available on the NWDA’s website that was published in October 2018 thus contains hydrological data only till 2003-04. This was the basis on which the MoA between the Centre, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh was signed on March 22, 2021.
The detailed project report (DPR) of the KBLP on which the project is based was published in April 2010. The MoA was signed 11 years later.
According to the MoA signed this March, in a normal year, (when the annual gross yield in the Ken basin up to Daudhan dam is 6,590 MCM or more), Madhya Pradesh will utilise a total of 2,350 MCM and Uttar Pradesh will utilise a total of 1,700 MCM annually from Ken system.
The committed releases to MP and UP from the storage in the Daudhan reservoir during the non-monsoon period (November to May) will be 1,834 MCM and 750 MCM respectively. The basis on which 750 MCM was fixed for UP is not clear.
According to the minutes of a meeting headed by the secretary of the ministry of jal shakti on September 3, 2020, a joint team of officials of the Central Water Commission, the NWDA and the UP government had undertaken a study to assess the UP government’s demand for 935 MCM of water in the lean season.
The study found the demand to be legitimate as the amount of water requested was required for irrigation in the area. However, the Centre decided that UP would be allowed to draw 750 MCM of water and the remaining 185 MCM would be met through additional storage during the monsoon season.
The documents accessed by The Wire under RTI reveal that the decision on water-sharing between MP and UP was reached without a study to obtain the latest data on the actual amount of water in the river.
The MoA signed by Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat and the chief ministers of the two states in the presence of Prime Minister Modi on March 22 is only based on data up to 2003-04.
Even the NWDA was not convinced that the dependable annual yield of the Daudhan dam is 6,590 MCM as stated in the April 2010 DPR. An early draft of the agreement 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. But in the final draft of the MoA, the NWDA’s preferred figure of the annual yield of 6,188 MCM was replaced by the 6,590 MCM that had been stated in the April 2010 DPR.
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 early 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 the Daudhan dam will not suffice for both the states and will eventually render the entire project futile.
Locals unaware of project
Speaking to The Wire, NWDA director general Bhopal Singh said that the project will also provide 494 MCM of water annually for ecological needs.
Thus, the annual yield required for the project is 6,810 MCM instead of 6,590 MCM.
This puts a question mark on the government’s claim that water availability in the Ken is high.
However, Bhopal Singh claims that due to this project, additional water will be available for ecological needs.
He said, “Madhya Pradesh will get 2,350 MCM, while UP shall utilise 1,700 MCM annually from the Ken system. Thus more water shall be available for the ecological needs of the river against the assessed requirement of 494 MCM.”
But Singh did not explain the basis on which he claims there will be surplus water.
Various studies carried out by different government departments on the Ken between 1982 and 2010 have furnished different data on water availability, ranging between 4,490 MCM and 6,590 MCM.
The credibility of these figures has been disputed as they have not been reviewed by independent experts.
Activist and researcher Siddharth Agarwal, who in 2018 undertook a journey on foot along the length of the Ken to document the river and the lives of people tied to it, told The Wire that anyone who visits the region can easily see that the water in the river is not enough for it to be diverted elsewhere.
“First of all, many people in the villages along the Ken River are not aware that such a project is in the offing,” said Agarwal. “Of those who do know, only a handful are aware of the entire scenario. Most people have the notion that once the rivers are connected, water from the Ken will fall into the Betwa and vice versa; so a dearth of water in any one river will be compensated by the other. But this is far from the reality.”
Agarwal said that when locals were educated about the project, most of them agreed that it would adversely affect the river.
Another issue pointed out by Agarwal is that the project sheds no light on the development of the upper reaches of the Panna Tiger Reserve, where people, mostly from tribal communities, carry out organic farming. The implementation of the project will push them towards chemical farming, he warned.
Questions raised by the CEC
The Central Empowered Committee (CEC) constituted by the Supreme Court had submitted a report on August 30, 2019 after conducting a detailed assessment of the Ken-Betwa Link Project. The report claimed that the implementation of the project will lead to a total loss of wildlife habitat spread over 10,500 hectares, which is the core area of the Panna Tiger Reserve.
Under the project, 6,017 hectares of forest land will be submerged, ravaging at least 23 lakh trees. In addition, the project will destroy the Ken Gharial Sanctuary and vulture nesting sites.
Taking cognisance of a number of such adverse effects, the CEC recommended that the government find alternatives to achieve its goals.
The government claims that a total of 9.04 lakh hectares of land will be irrigated owing to the project, including 6.53 lakh hectares of land in MP and 2.51 lakh hectares in UP.
In addition, 62 lakh people in both the states are expected to get access to drinking water owing to the project.
Responding to this, 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 met simply by expanding the capacities of the ongoing projects.
The CEC also questioned the design of the entire project, saying: “It is to be noted that deficit of 384 MCM projected in DPR in upper Betwa basin is a result of similar commitment of all available water of Betwa basin for development of lower Betwa basin command in the earlier irrigation projects of Betwa basin.”
The CEC said that this faulty planning in the development of irrigation facilities in the lower Betwa basin at the cost of upper Betwa basin is proposed to now be rectified by substitution of water from the Ken basin.
The committee observed: “What is more, the commitment of entire water available from river Ken through KBLP phase-1 to develop Ken lower basin and upper Betwa basin in future is bound to deprive the farmers in upper Ken basin catchment area even to go in for minor irrigation projects (sic).”
The CEC thus concluded that the projection of the availability of surplus water in the Ken basin for transfer to the Betwa basin without first exhausting possibilities for the development of irrigation facilities in the upper Ken basin appears to be premature, particularly considering that an investment of thousands of crores of public funds is involved.
Apart from this, the committee also said that the catchment of the river Ken and the river Betwa on an average receive about 90 cm of rainfall only. This has a serious implication because during drought years, the availability of water in both the river basins may be much less than what has been projected in the various studies.
But the Centre has ignored all these warnings and is prepared to go ahead with the Ken-Betwa Link Project.
This story was supported by the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
Translated from the Hindi by Naushin Rehman.