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The government is determined to dig a canal to take the waters of the Ken River to the Betwa River through a protected forest despite the lack of water and local opposition

Ken River in Panna Tiger Reserve (Photo by Bhim Singh Rawat / SANDRP)

India’s Panna National Park might not, at first glance, appear to be terrain that could sustain many thousands of animals. Especially in the dry season, it’s a largely brown, sere land, dotted with spots of green. Nonetheless, in a short visit to this tropical dry forest—also called a monsoon forest—you can see large families of chital, or spotted deer, along with groups of gazelles. The park is also home to the nilgai and the sambar, both of which can weigh over 300 kg. The rotund wild boar clearly finds plenty to eat. A species of bear inhabits the park, along with leopards, monkeys, wild dogs and a colourful panoply of birds. Even families of the almost extinct vultures that used to live throughout India rest on the rocks of Panna.

Tourists delight in photographing the park’s array of creatures, whose tawny and umber hides blend in with the landscape. But most come to Panna to see tigers. Sometimes, with the help of one of Panna’s many guides, a few tourists will see a lone tiger and snap away.

Fewer tourists have any idea that the Indian government wants to inundate 60 square km of the park’s prime tiger habitat in order to construct a dam and irrigation project, which will, to say the least, stress the territorial tiger and the well-fed prey it hunts here. The dam would trap the water of the Ken River, which flows through the park. Indian government officials say that a reservoir in the upper reaches of the Ken River is the solution to periodic droughts in this region.

I have been watching for the past decade the progress — some might say the lack of progress — of this project called the Ken-Betwa (KB) Link. It’s only one part of India’s ambitious, river-linking plan. This “link” would join the Ken to a river to the west, the Betwa; theoretically the Ken has water to spare and would donate it to the Betwa so that irrigation water could be pulled onto thirsty fields in this region – Bundelkhand.

Local worries

Earlier this year, on my fourth visit to Bundelkhand, I spoke with residents there who are afraid of the damage the link could do to Panna National Park and the Ken River, said to be the cleanest river south of the Himalaya.

We met one pleasant afternoon on a shady veranda at the Ken River Resort. The owners, Shyamendra and Bhavna Singh, worry that if the KB link is constructed, the river that flowed lazily just below us would dry up and they would have to leave. They have run the lodge for almost 30 years, rebuilding it twice after Ken River floods in 1992 and 2007. They began actively opposing a dam on the river — which has been in the planning process for the past 15 years — six years ago.

Shyamendra has been active in wildlife tourism since before he and Bhavna started the lodge. He believes conservation must be an economically sustainable proposition in order to gain wide public support. “If something comes out of the forest, then the forest stays,” he says. In this case, much of what comes from the forest is the pleasure of the many paying Indian and foreign tourists who visit the park. They may catch a glimpse of the magnificent tiger, see the other animals, fish on the river, and enjoy the beauty of nearby Khajuraho with its temples and classical Indian dance festival. Tourism is one of the main economic engines in this otherwise poor region.

The Betwa River flowing past Orchha in Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

Ramratan Prajapati is part of a farming family in the village of Madla, near the Ken River Resort. Though he has left farming to become a guide in Panna National Park, he says his family and other villagers who still farm are worried that their river’s water will be taken and the water table will go down.

Vijay Omre, also a guide in Panna, worries about the tigers’ wellbeing. He feels the government “shouldn’t play around with nature. Things are working now, but if the dam comes the land will be disturbed and that will be bad.” The 35 to 40 tigers living in the park are thriving now, having bred from a small group brought from one of India’s other national parks. Tigers had to be imported because ten years ago the tigers of Panna went extinct due to poaching.

Sharing blues

Like many villagers in Madla, Swami Raikwar has a little land for farming but his livelihood depends on fishing. Swami also takes tourists to fish in the Ken; he says tourism is more lucrative than fishing for himself. He opposes a new dam because a small one built in 1956 still hasn’t delivered the irrigation water the builders promised. More than half the water goes north, to other districts, he says. “First look after our population; what is left we can share.”

Swami thinks the solution could be small check dams on the Ken instead of one big dam. That would create pools for fish and recharge groundwater for farmers. He says local men like him can supply voluntary labour, but first they need official support — permissions, engineers—to put such plugs in the powerful river.

Ankit Sharma agrees that new infrastructure doesn’t make sense because the existing dams haven’t accomplished their goal. Ankit is a lawyer and lives in Panna, a town of 80,000, 20 km east of the national park. In 2017 he spearheaded a demonstration against the link. He says that the reservoir behind the Bariyarpur dam — built by the British 100 years ago and situated downstream from where the proposed Daudhan dam would be — doesn’t fill up most years. So where is the extra water for a taller dam upstream, he wonders.

A canal being built to be part of the Ken-Betwa river linking project (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

This is the chief contention of a host of critics of the Ken-Betwa link — that the Ken River only has a surplus in years with heavy monsoons. And in those years the Betwa has plenty of water anyway. So why tamper with an ecosystem, destroy tiger habitat, inundate villages, and spend billions of rupees to re-engineer a river that in many years won’t have extra water? The current estimate for the project’s cost is INR 180 billion (about USD 2.44 billion). The cost of the project has steadily leapt up during the years of planning. In 2009 the estimate was INR 76 billion, less than half the current figure.

Bhavna Singh of the Ken River Resort says, “The dam won’t benefit anyone but the contractors” who will be paid to construct it. But others say the water that can be stored behind the dam in wet years would be a benefit to farmers in dry years. And they say that it could help put an end to widespread suffering. Especially in the western, more populated part of Bundelkhand, near the Betwa River, poor farmers barely manage to sustain themselves in dry years and often end up in debt because of poor yields.

Government plans

Amarjit Singh was Secretary in the Ministry of Water Resources when I spoke with him in 2017 in Delhi. He said he had seen the terrible suffering of farmers in Bundelkhand’s frequent drought years, especially those who owned little or no land. He was sure the irrigation water promised by the KB link could end the starvation and extreme poverty of such farming families. Many small farmers have had to turn to wage labour in cities for part of the year, or leave their land altogether. I too met some of these farmers on my first visit to Bundelkhand.

Farmers are still hoping for the promised water, though even the ground breaking ceremony promised for spring of 2018 by union water resources minister Nitin Gadkari has not yet occurred. The complex clearances and permits such an undertaking requires are one reason for delays. Another is a disagreement between the two states that share the ancient and now poverty-stricken and drought-prone region called Bundelkhand.

Ken River at Raneh Fall (Photo by Bhim Singh Rawat / SANDRP)

The Ken and Betwa rivers flow from Madhya Pradesh (MP) to Uttar Pradesh (UP), before both join the Yamuna. The project proposed specific amounts of water sharing for each state as well as two phases of dam building on both rivers. The Daudhan dam on the Ken is the most controversial because it would inundate a portion of Panna National Park; but there are three small dams on the Betwa that are part of the overall plan. MP has insisted all be undertaken at once instead of in two phases as the original proposal specified.

The central government has now agreed to the change, but this could require a combined environmental impact report — which like the earlier one could be challenged before India’s National Green Tribunal. Meanwhile the plan does not yet have its final forest clearance and its wildlife clearance has been challenged in India’s Supreme Court. Perhaps more daunting, new estimates of the cost threaten to send it soaring yet again, from Rs 18,000 crore to Rs 28,000 crore.

A further impediment arose in May when UP demanded more water in the pre-monsoon months to irrigate crops sown in the winter. This issue remains unresolved. Nonetheless, earlier this year Gadkari said that plans to implement the major part of the project in three years are going forward so that people in the parched Bundelkhand region would start getting water before the country celebrates 75 years of independence in 2022.

Recent delays in the project have left Brij Gopal wondering whether officials in the two states that once desperately wanted the Ken-Betwa link are now losing faith in the project. Perhaps they are beginning to get cold feet about its astronomical and growing cost — though the central government promises to shoulder 90% of it. Perhaps they are unsure about the touted water surpluses in the Ken in the face of certain damage to Panna National Park. Even if some officials are losing faith in the project, saying so openly could lead to a loss of face or even political recriminations.

According to Gopal, a retired professor of environmental sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University, now the head of the Centre for Inland Waters in South Asia, there has been a fair amount of engineering in the region in the past century already — small dams, weirs, canals. But even with all this past and current intervention, only 20% of farmland in Bundelkhand receives irrigated water. Instead farmers rely on rainfall for seasonal crops and groundwater or even ponds for the rest of the year.

The alternative

Only in relatively recent years have some farmers of this region used the water in its rivers for irrigation. For 1,000 years and probably longer they caught the monsoon rains in thousands of ponds, which supplied irrigation water for their fields as well as water for animals and household use. The ponds provided water until the next monsoon and even sustained them during frequent dry years by recharging groundwater that would be accessible from hand-dug wells.

But from the time of British rule onwards, government intervention and centralisation of services supplanted centuries of local efforts. The promises of big dams, big water projects, water piped into kitchens or pulled up from the ground with free electricity sapped people’s will to manage their own resources. Now groundwater is depleted, tube wells can no longer reach what water is left, destroyed rivers and disturbed ecosystems can’t function to sustain the former water cycle.

While some farmers remain persuaded by promises of the abundant water the KB link might bring — and have been waiting patiently for at least ten years — others are finding solutions that recapitulate the subcontinent’s ancient wisdom.

Nripendra Singh is a farmer from Madla village. He’s not waiting for promises of irrigation water. Instead, he’s building a pond to capture the monsoon on his ancestral farmland. Nripendra sometimes uses a bore well to irrigate his crops, but intends to save water by setting up drip irrigation. Currently farmers in the region employ flood irrigation, which Brij Gopal says is wasteful because the crop uses barely 10% of that water.

Ponds like Nripendra’s could make most dams unnecessary, notes Gopal. But drip irrigation requires more work than simply flooding a field from a tap. Convincing farmers to practise this method would be easier with government support, and the government has promised to promote, but that promise has not translated into action in this part of the country.

The pond dug a few years ago in Jignanda village of Hamirpur district still holds plenty of water despite scanty rainfall (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

Nripendra currently uses some chemicals on his 25 acres, where he grows chiefly lentils and wheat, but he plans to be fully organic within three years. He is a pioneer in this part of Bundelkhand. He learned some of his techniques from Prem Singh, a well-known progressive farmer in a part of Bundelkhand to the north, called Banda — a district downstream from Panna, and also on the Ken River.

The land surrounding Prem’s farm looks much like that in the rest of dry Bundelkhand. But the fourteen acres he farms with his family is literally an oasis, dense with fruit trees, shady and cool, even on a hot day in April. His fields are surrounded by low embankments. This is one of the techniques Prem is teaching other farmers in his district. The embankments keep monsoon rain from running off too quickly, allowing it to penetrate soil and recharge groundwater.

Like most farmers in India now, Prem started farming with chemicals, using all the Green Revolution that initially increased yields, but then left many in debt or dead from suicide as returns gradually diminished.

Through trial and error Prem Singh slowly developed a sustainable and profitable farm, and is now out of debt. He has divided his land into four main parts: fruit trees, fields for crops like lentils, a portion for livestock to graze and a pond. “If the crops don’t work, then the fruits will pay me.” Animal dung is the basis of compost for the crops. “The animals also bring me income and food through milk and other products,” he says, and adds that water-intensive agriculture is alien to Bundelkhand. “The historical record shows that the people here have survived better when livestock rearing was as important as cultivation.” In case of a weak monsoon that doesn’t fill the pond, he has a bore well and draws water up with a solar pump, but he prefers the pond water for his crops because it has more oxygen and minerals.

Part of the equation

Water is only one part of the equation, but a crucial one, and one that connects the others: choosing the appropriate crops for the soil and climate determine how much water is needed. The water guzzling sugar cane and rice that some proponents of the KB link promise is completely wrong for dry Bundelkhand, according both to farmers like Prem and to scholars like Brij Gopal.

Another farmer in Banda district, Pushpendra Bhai, says ponds are the best water source for Bundelkhand because “soil types change every few hundred metres and the land is undulating. Canals are not the ideal method to irrigate farms.” He worked tirelessly to convince state government officials to offer farmers substantial subsidies to construct their own ponds and continues to help farmers through an organisation called Apna Talab Abhiyaan (Own Your Pond Movement). In recent years farmers have dug 8,000 ponds in this northern part of Bundelkhand in Uttar Pradesh. Properly constructed, respecting the lay of the land, such ponds can capture the monsoon and sustain agriculture.

An old village pond in Hamirpur district still retains water because it was built keeping in mind the contours of the land (Photo by Soumya Sarkar)

Pushpendra’s explanation of why canals aren’t a good idea for Bundelkhand resonates with the contentions of many opponents of river-linking in general: that the nationwide dam and canal scheme doesn’t consider local conditions and what might be appropriate solutions for different areas.

With the initiative of farmers like Prem and Pushpendra, and support from the state government, ponds are proliferating in Banda and nearby districts. Though an Indian law technically makes large ponds (over half a hectare) the property of the State, the Uttar Pradesh government has been supporting farmers with a subsidy to cover half the cost of the pond, and allowing them to keep ownership. Prem Singh says that more than 4,000 farmers have constructed ponds just this year. In 2017, 1,900 ponds were built before the onset of the monsoon. Proposals have been submitted to UP’s chief secretary for tens of thousands more ponds to be constructed on farmlands.

The Madhya Pradesh government has not yet revved up comparable support for its portion of Bundelkhand, but if it did, a serious alternative to the staggeringly expensive KB link could start to materialise much sooner than ten years from now. Brij Gopal estimates that ponds throughout the region would cost less than Rs 2,000 crore. And ponds could be constructed much more quickly, taking advantage of good monsoons — as the ponds already dug are doing right now.

Unfortunately, the MP government seems headed in the opposite direction now, having ended a programme that employed local labourers to de-silt and deepen ponds. Even former secretary Amarjit Singh acknowledged that ponds should be constructed, as they would be needed even with the dam and canal project.

Ironically, this region is no more rain-starved than many other parts of India; Bundelkhand actually receives more rain than the national average. The problem, according to Brij Gopal, is that the rain runs off too quickly. A study by the National Institute of Disaster Management distinguishes meteorological from agricultural and hydrological droughts, noting that Bundelkhand’s drought stress has been as much manmade as weather-induced. Management is the key for the long term. Which leads back to the question: which is the best way to hold onto the rain that falls in Bundelkhand, a big dam or thousands of small ponds?

Obstacles to success of the latter are still substantial: the rocky ground of Bundelkhand in many places doesn’t make groundwater recharge easy, the population of the region has grown, the formerly forested region now has a dearth of trees. The tricky part is that it’s not just one thing that solves all the problems — as the long heralded and increasingly unlikely KB link supposedly would do. It involves careful choices, coordination and local involvement combined with state and central support. It means reviving traditional water management, choosing the right crops for the region, planting trees, and implementing drip irrigation.


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