EVERYTHING about this controversial project is low-key. The Ken-Betwa Link Project is the first link in a series of projects to build dams and canals between 30 of India's rivers, major and minor. In August 2005, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh signed a
Memorandum of Understanding for starting work on the canal to link the Ken and Betwa rivers.
The 427-km long Ken river rises in Madhya Pradesh, flows through the State for 292 km and then joins the Yamuna at Chilla in Uttar Pradesh. The districts of Chatarpur and Panna in Madhya Pradesh and Bandha in Uttar Pradesh depend on it for water via a network
of weirs and canals built a century ago. According to the MP irrigation department, these have all been declared defunct, having outlived their utility.
The Betwa is another tributary of the Yamuna that also rises in the same region as the Ken and flows north through MP for 232 km. It joins the Yamuna at Hamirpur in UP, upstream of the Ken. This is the larger of the two rivers.
The link proposal suggests building a 230-km-long canal to transfer 1020 million cubic metres (mcm) of surplus water from the Ken to the Betwa river. The canal will originate at the Daudhan dam, to be constructed a few kilometres upstream of two existing
(defunct) weirs. In addition, there will be four more dams. All of these will be built in the Panna National Park and will submerge a large part of this protected area.
The project will irrigate an estimated 3.7 lakh hectares of additional land, give 3.3 lakh people drinking water and generate 66 MW of power. It is estimated to cost Rs. 8,500 crore. 8.650 Ha of land submerged by the dams and the canal. The canal will be
linked to existing tanks and ponds en route to its destination to the Barwa Sagar, an old reservoir on a small stream near Jhansi that empties into the Betwa river. In addition to rains, Bundelkhand has a rich history of tank irrigation. The Chandelas and
later rulers built a network of large and small tanks by walling up streams, drains and rivers over the last millennium. These are largely functional even now and in many towns and villages are the main source of water for drinking, washing and irrigation.
Some are large enough to be used for fishing. Most hold enough water to last a couple of years without good rainfall. Most places along the likely route of the canal are already well irrigated by these tanks and other small rivers in the region, including
the Dhasan river. The canal is supposed to feed some of these tanks, while draining others.
The entire stretch that the canal is to pass through is hilly and very rocky. The land slopes from south to north and from east to west. All the rivers and underground aquifers flow in this general direction. The canal will block this natural flow of water,
leading to waterlogging in the southern part of the region. It will reduce water availability to the north. The canal also has to cross the Dhasan river. All this will make its construction a contentious and environmentally destructive activity.
In order to recover the construction costs, the project proposes to charge for the use of water, based on the crop grown per Ha. In order to pay these charges, farmers will have to change their cropping pattern to cash crops. Small and marginal farmers will
get edged out in the process.
Rajendra Parmar, who farms some 10 Ha outside Nowgong near Chatarpur, is sceptical about the canal. The land, he says, is very well irrigated with tanks, canals and tube wells. The extra water will only cause waterlogging.
Further, both the rivers flow through the same part of the country. They flood at the same time. The Betwa enters the Yamuna upstream of the Ken. If the Ken's waters are added to the Betwa, there will be regular floods along the section of the Yamuna between
Hamirpur and Chilla. Conversely, says Dr. Prakash, there will be droughts immediately downstream of Chilla. The project will not mitigate floods or droughts; it will exacerbate them.
There are enough examples of drought mitigation at the local level around the country. However, the drawback from the government and industry's perspective is that these are driven by local communities and do not benefit either babudom or industrialists.
A mega project is a feast for bureaucrats, politicians and businessmen. This alone will be sufficient reason to go ahead with river linking despite objections and agitations by local people.
Hindu Sunday magazine