New Delhi: On March 22, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the ‘Jal Shakti Abhiyan: Catch the Rain’ campaign on World Water Day, pointing out the importance of water conservation, he also witnessed the signing of the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) for the ambitious Ken-Betwa Link project (KBLP).
Eulogising Modi and his governance in his address, the moderator of the programme said: “All of us have seen buildings of development once they have been constructed, but very few of us are fortunate enough to see the foundation stone being laid. Today, all of us have the privilege to witness that historic moment in the august presence of Honourable Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the foundation stone is laid for what will later become an edifice of development.”
After this introductory address, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the Union jal shakti minister, Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, signed the tripartite agreement on the KBLP which had been pending for several years and is viewed as a grave environmental threat to the country by experts who have demanded its withdrawal.
Whether or not the project will mark a milestone in the history of India’s development, only time will tell. But the government certainly seems to be in a hurry to launch the KBLP, calling it the ‘Bhishma Pratigya‘ (passionate pledge) of the late former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and flouting several rules to implement it.
Such was the Modi government’s haste to begin implementing the KBLP that a clause for the construction of several new structures, including barrages and pick-up weirs, was incorporated in the MoA even though there had been no evaluation of the additional expenditure and ecological impact of these structures.
This provision found its way into the draft of the final MoA via jal shakti ministry’s manipulative choice of words, as revealed in documents obtained by The Wire under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005.
During the period from 2017 and until the time MoA was signed, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh had been at loggerheads over water-sharing during the non-monsoon or lean season, even after major requisite clearances were obtained for KBLP. This led to constant delays in the planning of the project.
The venture was also delayed due to environmental and ecological concerns raised by various sections of civil society.
A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on possible water-sharing in the future that had been signed by Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in 2005 had envisaged that Uttar Pradesh would draw 1,700 million cubic metres (MCM) of water from the project whenever the project was implemented.
But in 2017, when the Uttar Pradesh government demanded 935 MCM of the total allocated amount in the lean season, the Madhya Pradesh government strongly objected and agreed to provide only 700 MCM.
One cubic meter of water equals 1,000 litres while one MCM contains one billion litres.
To resolve the contentious issue, the Centre recommended measures that would involve the construction of many additional structures under the KBLP. However, clearances for these structures from the relevant environmental departments have not been sought.
The final agreement states that 750 MCM out of the total amount of water sought by Uttar Pradesh in the lean season will be provided from the KBLP, while the rest will be supplied from three sources: water harvested in tanks in Mahoba district, remodelled or repaired or strengthened hydro structures in the area and new barrages.
But none of these sources have been mentioned in the project’s environmental impact assessment report.
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 river Ken.
In addition, a 221-km long Ken-Betwa link canal will be constructed which will divert water from the Ken to the Betwa basin. Two tunnels of 1.9 km and 2.5 km length will also be constructed.
In view of the Uttar Pradesh government’s demand for 935 MCM of water in the lean season, the MoA provides for the repair or strengthening or remodelling of the Bariyarpur pick up weir, the Parichha weir and the Barwa Sagar dam along with appurtenant structures and a 7.1 km long Barwa Nallah to carry water from Barwa Sagar to the Betwa river upstream to the existing Parichha weir.
Additionally, two new barrages will be constructed. The existing tanks and their connecting links in Mahoba district will be renovated and a carrier system for the transfer of water from the Ken-Betwa link canal to the tanks will be constructed in order to enable Uttar Pradesh to store monsoon water for use during the non-monsoon season.
All this major additional construction work that has been assimilated into the project has been downplayed in the agreement.
For instance, rather than use the word ‘reconstruction’, the MoA uses terms like ‘repair’, ‘remodel’ and ‘strengthening’ in reference to the Bariyarpur pick-up weir, the Parichha weir and Barwa Sagar dam, even though the structures are so old and dilapidated that building them anew is the only option.
According to the documents accessed by The Wire, the Uttar Pradesh government had objected to the Centre’s choice of words.
In a letter dated September 23, 2020, the state government had said after a meeting with the jal shakti minister that the word ‘reconstruction’ or ‘replacement’ should be added to the MoA in relation to these structures.
However, in its response to this letter, the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), the agency of the ministry of jal shakti that is implementing this project, insisted on retaining the term ‘remodelling’, claiming that it implies ‘reconstruction of any structure, if required’.
This was not the first time that the Uttar Pradesh government had pointed out that these structures are outdated, have functioned beyond their stated life spans and have outlived their designed lives, leaving no scope for any modification or repair. The only solution is to rebuild them.
The Wire obtained a copy of the discussions held between a team of officials from the NWDA and Uttar Pradesh’s water department with the Central Soil and Materials Research Station (CSMRS) to ascertain the status of the Parichha weir. The Parichha weir is a 135-year-old British-era structure built in 1886 that supplies water to the Jhansi district for irrigation and other purposes.
According to this document, the water storage capacity of the reservoir is reducing due to the deposit of silt. To improve the storage capacity of the reservoir, barrages with gates will be needed in place of the weir.
The CSMRS was tasked with conducting non-destructive tests of the weir to decide whether it needs renovation, repair or consolidation.
Interestingly, U.P. Singh, the secretary of the jal shakti ministry (then called the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation), had rejected certain provisions regarding the allocation of water to the two states, claiming that accepting these demands would divert the project from its course.
To ascertain the accuracy of Uttar Pradesh’s water demand, the NWDA had called a meeting with the state’s irrigation and water resources department. After surveying the area, the NWDA supported the Uttar Pradesh government’s demand for 935 MCM of water in the non-monsoon season.
But according to the estimates made by the jal shakti ministry, Daudhan dam will not have enough water for Uttar Pradesh to receive 935 MCM in the lean season.
Since this is the Modi government’s ‘dream project’ and the government is adamant on its implementation at any cost, the NWDA recommended providing Uttar Pradesh with 788 MCM or 750 MCM water from the project during the lean season, with the remaining 147 MCM or 185 MCM to come from storing water in tanks in Mahoba district during the monsoon, as well as two new barrages.
Uttar Pradesh’s demand for the replacement or repair or strengthening of the Bariyarpur pickup weir, Parichha weir and the Baruasagar dam were also accepted by the NWDA, although Singh said that it would “throw the KBLP in another spin”.
However, Singh acceded to the Uttar Pradesh government’s demand that the Centre should bear the cost of storing rainwater in the Mahoba tanks.
According to the official notes of the NWDA, the agency had estimated the cost of these works at about Rs 5,000 crore, but had also asserted the need for a thorough investigation to assess the actual costs. However, this investigation has not yet been carried out.
The Centre says that the estimated expenditure on KBLP is Rs 35,111 crore, based on cost calculations done in 2017-18. Once the demands of the Uttar Pradesh government are accounted for, the cost is bound to escalate.
A costlier project would mean that the government’s cost benefit evaluation and data presented before the environment ministry are flawed.
After examining the KBLP, the Supreme Court’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) had already presaged in its August 2019 report that the project would incur an expenditure much higher than the Centre’s estimated cost.
The MoA includes a clause for the construction of two powerhouses under Phase-I of KBLP, which will generate 78 MW of electricity and cater to Madhya Pradesh.
However, the Standing Committee of the National Board for Wildlife (SC NBWL) did not agree to the construction of the power houses while granting its clearance to the project.
The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) also gave Stage-I clearance to the project on the condition that the power houses are to be kept out of the Panna Tiger Reserve’s (PTR) forested area.
“The state govt. and the user agency shall ensure that the proposed Powerhouse, which have the capacity of 78 MW, shall not be constructed in the forest area to be diverted to avoid constant disturbance in the PTR (sic),” the FAC said.
However, documents reveal that the government has proposed to build two power houses, one with a capacity of 60 MW and the other with a capacity of 18 MW in the vicinity of the Daudhan dam under the project. A large portion of the Panna Tiger Reserve will be cleared for the construction of this dam.
The UP government had sought power supplied from these plants, but the request was dismissed.
Himanshu Thakkar, the coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said that this is a direct violation of the conditions put forward by the FAC.
“Under no circumstances should the power houses be installed in this area,” said Thakkar. “If the government wants to set up a power plant, it will have to redesign the entire project as the previous plan was turned down by the FAC. They will also have to conduct an environmental impact assessment again. Complying with the conditions of forest clearance will not be easy for them.”
Thakkar challenged the environmental clearance granted to the project on August 25, 2017 in the National Green Tribunal. He said that the environmental impact assessment of the project had already been carried out in an arbitrary manner. Adding new structures to the project without evaluating their impact would be an additional violation.
Thakkar alleged: “The environmental clearance granted to this project is illegal, arbitrary and illogical. All the facts had been ignored in its preparation, public hearings and clearances, which violates the concept of inclusive development. Now the government plans to construct additional barrages and reconstruct old structures which will have serious repercussions, but no assessment has been carried out. The documents clearly show that the government will construct additional structures, but they are close-mouthed about it.”
There are considerable differences between the detailed project report (DPR) of April 2010 and the comprehensive report of October 2018. New structures have been provided for in the comprehensive report, as well as substantial changes in the structures that were already approved.
For example, compared to the 2010 DPR, the design and other aspects of the Ken-Betwa link canal were revised in the 2018 report. The 2018 report lists additional pumping stations, rising main, pressure tanks and transmission lines for pressurised or micro-irrigation.
Earlier, the project had envisioned flow irrigation through the canal. This has now been switched to lift irrigation, by which water is supplied to the fields via pumps. Experts do not consider this irrigation method very effective.
Similarly, the length of the Ken Left Bank Canal was 57.30 km according to the 2010 DPR. But the 2018 report says that the length of the canal will be 90 km and it will be dug through a telescopic pipeline. Lift irrigation will be employed here as well and additional structures will be installed.
Earlier, it was estimated that the canal would irrigate about 1.72 lakh hectares in Madhya Pradesh. However, although both the length of the canal and the expenditure on it have been increased, the target has been reduced to 1.39 lakh hectares employing micro irrigation/pressurised irrigation techniques.
Meanwhile, the Panna and Hatta (Damoh) lift irrigation systems have been added to the project’s comprehensive report of October 2018 to irrigate an additional 90,101 hectares of land in Madhya Pradesh. This had not been mentioned in the 2010 DPR.
Work on these structures is bound to increase the total cost of the project. Earlier, the cost-benefit ratio was estimated at 1.70:1, that is, a profit of 70 paise per one rupee. However, in the 2018 report, the ratio has reduced to 1.58:1.
According to the documents accessed by The Wire, switching from flow irrigation to pressurised or micro irrigation which involves pumping systems, transmission lines, BPT tanks and so on has increased the project budget by a further Rs 5,835 crores.
An additional amount of Rs 1,668 crores has been incurred due to a change in the distribution channels of the water (U-distributaries). These figures are based on calculations till October 2018 and therefore may rise further if calculated again.
Is the KBLP viable?
The Ken-Betwa Link Project is based on the claim that the water content of the Ken basin is high and its flow can therefore be diverted to the Betwa basin by constructing a dam at Daudhan and a canal.
Various studies carried out by different government departments on the Ken River between 1982 and 2010 have furnished different data on the figure of 75% dependable annual yield, ranging between 4,490 MCM and 6,590 MCM.
A study conducted by the NWDA in 2010 stated that only 3,830.1 MCM of water will be annually collected at 100% dependability at the Daudhan dam site.
The figure of 75% or 100% dependable yield is the amount of water continuously available in a water source for 75% or 100% of the study period.
The draft MoA of the KBLP and the final agreement signed on March 22 are also quite contradictory. For instance, the MoA claims that the dependable annual yield of Daudhan Dam will be 6,590 MCM whereas the draft mentions 6,188 MCM as the dependable annual yield. Such conflicting figures raise serious questions over the credibility and utility of the project.
All the studies have been conducted by government departments and the data has not been scrutinised by any independent team of experts. The CEC strictly reprimanded the government about this.
The CEC said in its report that the catchments of the Ken and Betwa rivers receive only 90 cm of rain on an average. This can have dire consequences in times of drought because much less water will be stored in the basins of the two rivers.
However, the government insists that collecting rainwater under the project will solve the water scarcity issue in the whole Bundelkhand region. The Centre claims that the net live storage capacity available in the reservoir on October 1 of any year will be 2,584 MCM, out of which 1,834 MCM will be given to Madhya Pradesh and 750 MCM to Uttar Pradesh in the lean (November to May) season.
Rejecting these claims, the CEC 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 (sic).”
The CEC said that this faulty planning in the development of irrigation facilities in the lower Betwa basin at the cost of the upper Betwa basin is proposed to now be rectified by substitution of water from the Ken basin.
The committee observed that the commitment of all the water available in the river Ken through Phase-1 of the KBLP to develop the Ken lower basin and upper Betwa basin in the future is bound to deprive the farmers in the upper Ken basin catchment area of even minor irrigation projects.
Therefore, launching a project to divert ‘excess’ water from the Ken basin to the Betwa basin without exploring all the possibilities of better and cheaper irrigation facilities in the upper reaches of the Ken basin is premature, especially as it also involves a huge amountof taxpayers’ money, the Supreme Court committee said.
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 and adversely affecting the Ken Gharial Sanctuary and vulture nesting sites.
When The Wire asked Bhopal Singh, the director general of the NWDA, about the CEC report, he said that there can be no better project than the KBLP for the development of Bundelkhand.
Bhopal Singh said: “The Bundelkhand region is prone to frequent floods and droughts. As most of the rainfall occurs in a few days during the monsoon period and water availability during the non-monsoon period is very scarce, the region faces recurring shortages of water during the non-monsoon period.”
He added: “Therefore, there is a need for a project of a scale which will help in harnessing the floodwater during the monsoon period and stabilise the water availability in the region in the lean period, particularly during drought years. The Ken-Betwa Link Project is the only best option available to meet the irrigation and drinking water needs of the area and will provide relief to the drought-prone Bundelkhand region.”