Ken-Betwa Project: Locals Waiting for Development Are Now on the Verge of Displacement

Under the Modi government's Ken-Betwa link project, ten villages in Chhatarpur district of Madhya Pradesh are to be displaced. Villagers fear that they will not get due compensation like many other projects.

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Note: This is the sixth in a six-part series on the Ken-Betwa Link Project. Read the firstsecondthird, fourth and fifth parts. 

Chhatarpur/Panna: Amna Ahirwal is now 70 years old. While the powers that be boast of making India a world leader or vishwaguru, he still hopes for the construction of a proper road in his village and the arrival of a mobile network in the area.

A resident of Sukwaha, Ahirwal resides in a tiny shack in the Panna Tiger Reserve area. Rainwater dripping from the thatched roof of his hut has left his cot completely drenched. Huddled in a corner, Ahirwal recounts how he once earned 50 paise in wages like most other people in his village. While elsewhere in the country wages increased and city-dwellers began earning in lakhs, not much has changed for Ahirwal and his village. If he falls sick, he still has to walk 15 kilometres through rocky terrain for medicine. He still waits for his village to be developed. But all that waiting, it seems, was in vain. Now the threat of eviction looms large over the residents of Sukwaha.

To implement its ambitious Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP), the Union government will have to displace the people of ten villages in Chhatarpur district in Madhya Pradesh, including Amna Ahirwal’s Sukwaha.

Ironically, the government that plans to spend Rs 35,000 crore on dams, barrages, canals, power stations and other structures as part of the KBLP could not install even a single mobile tower in the villages of the very people whose land will be acquired for the project.

When internet services are interrupted even briefly in a city like Delhi, social media users describe it as ‘an emergency situation’. In Sukwaha, to be able to make a phone call is still a luxury, something that the mainstream media has failed to notice.

The villagers can access the mobile network only about five kilometres outside the village, near a turn in the forest. Though the locals manage to make calls somehow, they cannot receive calls in the village.

Very few of the villagers of Sukwaha have benefitted from the Narendra Modi-led government’s flagship programmes, including housing, toilets, electricity, cooking gas connections and digital access. There is no work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005, for the locals either. During the nationwide lockdown imposed in 2020 to slow the pace of the COVID-19 pandemic, schemes like MGNREGA were like sanjivani (healing herb) for crores of migrants. But the villagers here remained deprived of even that.

The village has a government school which is in a dilapidated condition. This school has no provision for education beyond the fifth standard. “Had there been a system of higher education, we would have studied further,” claimed some of the young villagers.

Panna Tiger Reserve area. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

Now Ahirwal strongly believes that the village was deliberately ignored as part of “a well-planned conspiracy of the administration”, so that the locals can easily be driven away to make way for the KBLP.

“When there is development all over the world, why was our village left out?” Ahirwal asked. “We kept pleading, but no one heard us. All development work was stalled in the name of this project. The government says they will sustain the people by building a dam, but what about us? Our lives will fall apart.”

He has no plans to leave Sukwaha before he is forced to. “We have a saying here that calamity befalls the one who leaves home. When it has been home to our great-grandfathers, why would I want to leave the village? A bird is tied to its nest; it may fly around the world looking for food, but at the end of the day it always returns,” Ahirwal told The Wire.

Though the government has announced that the land will be acquired under the project, the villagers have still not been informed how much compensation they will receive.

“If we are not appropriately compensated, we will protest,” said Ahirwal. “We won’t stay quiet. In compensation, we need land and money for our livelihoods and to raise our children. The government should give us at least Rs 30 lakh per acre.”

Also read: The Adivasi Struggle Against Environmental Injustice

Displacement or submergence

Adjacent to Sukwaha is Daudhan village, locally known as Dhorhan. In the first phase of the controversial KBLP, a 77-metre high and 2,031-metre long dam is proposed to be constructed in the area, which will cost at least Rs 7,648 crore.

Apart from this, a 221-km long Ken-Betwa link canal will be built, through which waters from the Ken will be diverted to the Betwa basin. Along with this, two 1.9 km and 2.5 km long tunnels will be constructed.

A total area of about 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. Daudhan village, which lies within the tiger reserve area, will also be be submerged.

Shanti Devi, a 45-year-old resident of Daudhan, fears being displaced a second time. Her family had earlier been evicted from their native village after the administration acquired the land in the name of development. Even today her family runs from pillar to post, seeking compensation for the the loss of their home and land.

According to Shanti Devi, the government granted them neither land nor cash in compensation. The thought of having to bear the agony of displacement all over again is excruciating for her. “We are driven out of one place and relocated to another. But our plight does not change. What kind of development is this?” she asked.

The place where the disputed Daudhan dam will be built. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

“Take a look at the village,” Devi added. “Does it look like we are considered human beings? Here, if someone falls ill, they cannot even get to a hospital unless they have Rs 4,000 to Rs 5,000 cash in hand. This does not include the cost of medical treatment. Where can we get this much money in a forest like this? There is no electricity in the village to even light a bulb. A dam is to be built here, but why couldn’t they grant us these amenities instead?”

It is ironic that the people who have spent their entire lives in darkness because the government failed to electrify their villages will now be forcibly evicted to make way for power houses generating 78 MW of electricity at the proposed Daudhan dam site.

Although the Ken river flows less than a kilometre away from the village, the people of Daudhan still struggle to access clean water. Meanwhile, the government plans to divert water from the Ken to the upper Betwa basin for irrigation and drinking water purposes under the KBLP.

Already victims of the government’s neglect, the native tribal communities who chiefly depend on the river will bear the brunt of the ambitious project. Traversing rough and difficult terrain to fetch water from long distances is already an endless chore for the local women.

Owing to such pathetic living conditions, 40-year-old Kala could never go to school. She now wants her children to study and get good jobs. “The village school does not offer quality education,” she complained.

Kala added: “We do not want to leave this place. But our lives have been rendered miserable. It would have been better for us if they had developed this place and granted us facilities. Even so, leaving one’s land is always painful. Who would want to go? Even if the government drives us away by handing us compensation, we won’t find comfort elsewhere.”

For most of his life, 75-year-old Bhura Kumar has been tied to the forest. But the lack of basic facilities in his village has watered down his affection for it. The news that he and his fellow villagers are to be evicted because of a dam makes him feel totally dispirited; any happiness he has had in his life has come from living in the lap of nature. Now he feels that the only way for him to ensure a safe future for his children is to migrate from the forest.

However, he has not yet received any information about compensation.

“I am afraid of leaving my house,” he said. “I don’t know where the government will relocate us and what the conditions there will be. We do not want to go. We would prefer to stay here and go on with our lives. But how can we survive here when everything is submerged by the dam?”

Bhura Kumar, a resident of Daudhan village. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

Owing to the high illiteracy rate in Daudhan village, Gauri Shankar Yadav is the only person who can read the villagers’ documents. When officials visit the village to discuss displacement, Yadav speaks to them on behalf of his fellow villagers.

Dressed in a lungi and a shirt, with a cloth tied around his head, Yadav is immediately filled with pride at the mention of his village despite all the facilities it has been deprived of.

“We have been living here for more than 100 years,” said Yadav. “Even after 70 years of independence, there is no electricity in the village. No one finds work despite the MGNREGA scheme. Ever since Panna was declared a tiger reserve, we have become slaves. Our lives depended on these forests. We collected mahua and bamboo, and sold wood. Those who are now forced to migrate to big cities like Delhi could earlier earn enough here for survival. But after it was marked as a ‘reserve’ area, our cattle have had no place to graze.”

According to Yadav, now they are not allowed to even take wood from the forest. It has been declared an offence punishable with a jail term.

“Many officials have visited us regarding the river interlinking project. They make different promises of compensation but nothing has been given in writing. Even if they grant Rs 30 lakh to each of us, you cannot even get a flat in Chhattarpur for that amount,” Yadav told The Wire.

He added: “A tree cannot be uprooted from one place and planted in another. Displacement has never worked. They are trying to destroy this lovely nest of ours.”

He has mixed feelings about his ‘lovely nest’, though. “The government boasts that it has electrified every single village in the country. I urge them to visit our village and see for themselves. There is no electricity. We have spent our lives in darkness. But our children should not have to live the same way,” said Yadav.

People from other villages have been relocated by the Tiger Reserve administration in the past, Yadav remembers. But their condition has remained unchanged, he adds. “People were merely shifted from one place to another,” he explained.

“We do not want to leave our motherland,” he said. “It is painful to leave the mother in whose lap one has played, the soil on which one has grown up.”

Also read: The End of an Era of Indian Environmentalism

Is the dam justified?

On World Water Day on March 22, the memorandum of agreement (MoA) for the Ken-Betwa River Link Project was signed by Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, the Union Minister for Jal Shakti, Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Earlier, in 2005, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on possible water-sharing in the future had been signed between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh regarding the KBLP. Governments had changed several times after 2005, but the project remained in the pipeline for various reasons.

Girls carrying water from the Ken river. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

In April 2010, when National Water Development Agency, which is part of the Union water ministry, released a detailed project report (DPR) on the Ken-Betwa Link Project, Jairam Ramesh, the environment minister in the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, refused to grant approval to the project, claiming that it would leave widespread environmental destruction in its wake.

But the project gained a fresh impetus under the Modi government. Touted as the Bhishma Pratigya (passionate pledge) and vision of the late former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the project obtained all the major requisite clearances from the relevant departments within a couple of years of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) forming a government in 2014.

The KBLP is based on the claim that the water content of the Ken basin is high and therefore waters from the Ken can be diverted to the Betwa basin, which faces an acute shortage of water.

Although the Ken and Betwa rivers are naturally connected with each other and eventually join the Yamuna, the artificial way in which the government has proposed to connect them has been termed ‘disastrous’ by experts.

So far, the government has not made public any of the data it has gathered to support the claim that the water content of the Ken is high. No independent study has been conducted either to support this claim.

According to Ramsevak Yadav, a resident of Daudhan village who has lived by the Ken for more than 30 years, the river does not have enough water to be diverted elsewhere.

Ken river. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

“Its water level is moderate,” Yadav said. “When it rains, the water level rises. But when rainfall becomes less frequent, and winter sets in, the level goes down considerably.”

When Yadav was informed by The Wire that the government claims the Ken’s water content is high, he said: “Their (the government’s) job is to tell lies. They are determined to kick us out of here and ruin our lives at any cost. They failed to provide us with any amenities and now they are ready to destroy our houses too.”

Various hydrological studies conducted by different government departments between 1982 and 2010 on the water content of the Ken river differ in their findings which range between 4,490 MCM and 6,590 MCM. Because the data has not been scrutinised by independent experts, the veracity of the figures cannot be confirmed.

One cubic meter of water equals 1,000 litres while one MCM contains one billion litres.

The NWDA, the agency in charge of implementing this project, is not convinced that the dependable annual yield of the Daudhan dam will be 6,590 MCM as stated in the DPR of April 2010.

A draft of the MoA obtained by The Wire shows that the NWDA preferred to state 6,188 MCM as the estimated yield rather than the 6,590 MCM that was stated in the April 2010 MoA.

The figure of 6,188 MCM had come 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 said that since the hydrology of the river keeps changing, it is better to stick to a figure that will meet the requirements of both the states.

A house in the village to be displaced due to the project. Photo: Dheeraj Mishra/The Wire

Amit Bhatnagar, a social activist who has closely studied the results of the Sardar Sarovar Dam rehabilitation programme, believes that the KBLP is not a viable project.

Bhatnagar told The Wire: “It is a stupid, illogical and unscientific plan. The Ken river flows at a lower level than the Betwa. How can its water flow towards Betwa? The destruction it entails is beyond evaluation. Ruining such an environmentally rich region will only bring further destruction.”

He added: “If the government had spent even a quarter of the budget of the proposed irrigation system on existing minor projects in the village, the environment would not be harmed and neither would wildlife and human life be endangered.”

Bhatnagar alleged that all development and construction work in Daudhan village has been stalled for more than 15 years owing to the Ken-Betwa Link Project. Not only are they [the government] meddling with the lives of common people, but they are meddling with nature too, he said.

“It is not just about the displacement of these ten villages. We are going to lose one of the country’s richest forest covers which no amount of restoration efforts could revive,” he says.

The implementation of the project would mean the submergence of 6,017 hectares of forest land, which is equivalent to 8,427 football fields.

As a result, 23 lakh trees will be washed away, which is about 1,078 times more than the 2,141 trees that were uprooted in Mumbai’s Aarey Colony in 2019 to make space for car sheds for the Mumbai Metro.

The felling of the trees in the Aarey Colony had led to widespread protests. A series of petitions filed in various courts and extensive media coverage had forced the newly elected Shiv Sena-led government of Maharashtra to reverse the decision after the elections.

Tree species found in the Panna Reserve forests include teak, mahua, bel patra, achar, jamun, khair, kahwa, shisham, jungle jalebi, gully, and Indian gooseberry.

In addition, the project will also adversely affect the Ken Gharial Sanctuary and vulture nesting sites.

Also read: How Khori Gaon Residents, Now Facing Eviction, Were Forgotten During the Pandemic

‘Already displaced on paper’

Bundelkhand resident Ashish Sagar, who runs a local news portal, has made efforts to educate the people about the project’s disastrous nature.

Eleven years ago, Sagar had filed a detailed RTI application seeking information from the NWDA regarding the people affected by village displacement.

The response he received from the NWDA on July 1, 2010, was shocking. According to the NWDA, “Out of ten, four villages (Mainari, Kharyani, Palkoha and Daudhan) have already been relocated.”

The villagers were aghast on learning of the government agency’s response. “We never got wind of it,” they said. “It should be investigated. The Supreme Court must be made aware that our village is still inhabited and we have not received even a single penny as compensation.”

According to Sagar, compensation was promised to the people displaced from the Narmada Valley as well, but they eventually received nothing. He fears that since the government has already marked the villages as displaced on paper, there is little chance that the villagers will be compensated.

“The government is promising to provide water by building a dam, but what about the dozen dams already installed in Lalitpur?” asked Sagar. “Why is there a drought there? Or in Hamirpur? Or in Mahoba, where the Arjuna Sahayak Irrigation Project is underway? These dams are a testimony to the government’s failed measures and destructive policies. Yet the same mistakes are being repeated.”

Pointing towards the gharial sanctuary situated in the clear waters of Ken river, with hills on both sides, Sagar said, “The river linking project will completely destroy this because when the Daudhan dam is built, the river flow will be hindered, resulting in a declined water level. The crocodiles will thus lose their habitat. There is also a plan to relocate the tigers from these lush green forests to Ranipur Sanctuary, a region that is facing an acute water crisis. The project is nothing but a laboratory of destructive experimentation.”

Will there be compensation?

It is believed that the Ken river was formerly known as the Karnavati and flowed through the forests where the Pandavas were ​​exiled. According to mythology, the Pandavas lived in a village called Pandavi, now Padui, adjacent to Banda.

As there are no industrial plants installed in the Ken’s vicinity, its water has remained quite unpolluted, except for sand mining. The river is home to a number of freshwater animal species on the verge of extinction.

The Centre said that the rehabilitation and resettlement of displaced families is the responsibility of the state government under the 2013 Land Acquisition Act.

The MoA on the KBLP states: “R&R [Rehabilitation and Resettlement] of projected affected families and land acquisition for the projects within their territorial jurisdiction would be carried out by respective state governments in a time bound and transparent manner as per Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 or as per the respective state policy and as per approved Environmental Management Plan (sic).”

Documents related to the KBLP acquired by The Wire under the RTI Act, 2005, reveal that 1,913 families or 8,339 people across 10 villages face eviction. However, this data is inaccurate, claim the villagers. The government figures are based on the 2011 census. The 2021 census is yet to take place, but the head count is bound to increase.

According to a comprehensive report on the KBLP published in October 2018, the rehabilitation and resettlement of these villagers under the 2013 Land Acquisition Act will cost Rs 248.84 crore.

Even if the government data on displaced persons is taken into account, only Rs 2.98 lakh will be spent on the displacement of each person, which is much less than what the villagers expect as compensation.

Meanwhile, according to the documents acquired by The Wire, an amount of Rs 324 crores will be spent on acquiring land for the construction of Daudhan dam under the project.

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. Out of this, Rs 27,018 crore will be spent in the first phase, under which the Daudhan dam, a link canal, and a power plant will be constructed.

The project’s second phase involves the construction of the Lower Orr dam, the Kotha barrage and the Bina complex multipurpose project.

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 Madhya Pradesh and 2.51 lakh hectares in Uttar Pradesh. In addition, 62 lakh people across both the states are expected to get access to drinking water

However, the project, which is being peddled in the name of development for Bundelkhand, will cater only to ten out of 13 districts in the region, including Panna, Tikamgarh, Chhatarpur, Sagar, Damoh, Datia, Banda, Mahoba, Jhansi and Lalipur. On the other hand, some of the districts that will benefit from the KBLP fall outside the Bundelkhand region.

The structures planned under the KBLP Phase-II will cater to Shivpuri, Vidisha, and Raisen, which are districts located outside Bundelkhand.

Experts allege that the real target of the project is not the Bundelkhand region because its districts are already covered under previously installed irrigation systems.

Manoj Misra, a river activist leading the Yamuna Jiye Abhiyan, had challenged the wildlife clearance granted to the KBLP in the Supreme Court in 2017. He claims that the real purpose of the venture is to divert water to the upper reaches of the Betwa basin, which is outside Bundelkhand.

“When a reservoir is constructed upstream on the Betwa River, the water availability in lower areas will be affected,” Misra explained. “The government is planning to connect the Ken and the Betwa to compensate for that. The construction of a dam will address the water shortage in the Betwa basin. It is totally unscientific.”

The CEC’s observations

The Central Empowered Committee (CEC) constituted by the Supreme Court to investigate the government’s claims after Misra’s petition, said in its report submitted on August 30, 2019, that the Ken basin already has 11 major/medium and 171 minor irrigation projects and the project’s target can be achieved by expanding their capacities.

The committee had said that the existing Bariyarpur dam on the Ken river already irrigates 2.14 lakh hectares of land in Uttar Pradesh. As such, only 0.37 lakh hectares of the state will profit from the KBLP. Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh is yet to utilise the dam’s maximum irrigation potential.

In addition, the CEC pointed out, it had been agreed that Uttar Pradesh would draw 1,019 MCM from the Rangawan dam on the Ken river during the Rabi season. However, on an average, Uttar Pradesh has been able to utilise only 39 MCM of water from the Rangawan dam in the last 10 years.

The CEC report pointed to several such instances where the potential of the existing projects in the region has not been fully utilised because of which the irrigation target is not being achieved.

In view of this, the CEC had recommended that the construction of the Daudhan dam and the resulting ecological damage could be avoided since the target can be achieved merely by the capacity expansion of existing projects.

Yet, rejecting all the facts and warnings, the Modi government has signed the tripartite agreement and decided to go ahead with the Ken-Betwa Link Project.

Translated from the Hindi by Naushin Rehman.