Above: Ken River in PTR – Glimpse of long deep gorge (Photo by RS Murthy, former Field Director of PTR)
Guest Blog by Hemendra Singh Panwar (Padma Bhushan, director of Project Tiger (1981-85 and first director of Wildlife Institute of India (1985-94)
My professional conscience impels me to make this submission, challenged as it is by the reliance on half-truths and misinformation by the Project proponents to justify environmental and wildlife clearances for Ken-Betwa River Linking Project (KBLP) from the State and Union governments. Let me at the outset clarify that I am not and have never been an activist even to promote conservation, though I did strive my best to this end within the system. I also have no phobia against dams and canals but do carry the conviction that ill-conceived such projects using wanton half-truths to present a mirage of unachievable benefits can but severely impact ecological and field conservation status while failing to deliver the claimed outcomes.
For 37 years I was a public servant engaged in field protected area research, planning and management; national scale project management, as also establishing and running the Wildlife Institute of India, the last for nearly a decade as its first director. Hence this submission is meant only to alert the appraisal and clearance processes and the political decision makers at the State and Union levels, because to my best information there is an ongoing dubious attempt to waylay these processes and mislead the decision makers.
I beg pardon for starting by informing about the numerous recognitions that I have won nationally and internationally from government and UN recognized bodies for my work, capped by Padma Bhushan at the hands of the Honorable President of India. The only reason for this mention is that I deserve to be heard in the interest of the cause of conservation of Nature as well as of the taxpayers’ money. I submit as follows:
- Panna Tiger Reserve & National Park (PTR) with River Ken as its coronary artery is the best functional conservation unit and has much scope for further development in the vast Vindhyan tract spanning Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. It is the wide and long Ken gorge that embellishes and distinguishes the PTR from all other Vindhyan PAs, several of which do stand out.
- Riparian habitats mainly along Ken and its tributaries are the nuclei around which the larger expanse of hill and plateau forests support a multitude of larger and smaller prey species (sambhar, nilgai, chital, chousinga, porcupine, hare and wild boar) that sustain the larger and smaller cat and canid predators (tiger, leopard, wolf, wild dog, fox). Sloth bear is frequently seen. Jackal, ratel and hyena are scavengers. The only four-horned antelope species chousinga is relatively abundant.
- Ancient scree agglomerations resting at the base of precipitous escarpments with rich water regime form the most productive fringe-belt within the riparian habitats. This feature is unique to this segment of the Vindhyas. These are rich repositories of biodiversity including several mesophytic elements, both floral and faunal. The avifauna of PTR again is diverse and includes ground nesting, tree and cliff nesting birds that are frugivorous, insectivorous, predatory and scavenging.
- The PTR lies in dry deciduous forest region with numerous leaf and fruit forage trees, shrubs, forbs, grasses and bamboo. With its extensive riparian habitat the overall forage value is high for fauna from micro-organisms to birds and mammals and hence the prey-predator diversity and abundance.
- Indian biodiversity is rich and unique due to her unparalleled diversity of ecosystems stemming from coming together of three out of seven global centers of origin of life, a feature bolstered by the diversity of landforms and climatic regimes. Very briefly, if one visualizes Ladakh cold desert to the scorching Thar, from Himalayan glacial region and lakes to coastal lakes and the unique Rann of Kuchch, visualization is still only partial. What about the steaming mangroves of Sunderbans, and the majestic evergreens of the Western Ghats and the northeast, the rich coniferous and broadleaf Himalayan forests, alpine floral valleys and grasslands, gurgling mega rivers, the terai floodplains and bhabhar forests and grasslands, the semi-evergreen, moist and dry deciduous forests and grasslands of central highlands and the peninsula. This note is too short for many more.
- The point to make here is that this biodiversity thriving on diverse ecosystems is county’s treasure trove to be secured for now and for posterity, not just as Nature’s bounty but also for sustaining development, mitigation of climate change as well as water security and economic wellbeing.
- Protected areas in India follow an ecosystem approach laid at the outset by the pioneers and while the whole network goes along this approach, reserves under Project Tiger readily exemplify it. Management along ecosystem approach enhances forest conservation and also boosts aquifer recharge leading to sustainable water security. It also secures conservation of biodiversity and wildlife including endangered and threatened species of flora and fauna. For realistic EIA and clearance of development interventions these values should be the defining criterion. PTR should hence be seen as a rare integrated Vindhyan ecosystem with tiger as its flagship, not just any PA.
- Prof Brij Gopal, a competent river ecologist, has given a cogent note highlighting incompetence of the EIA agency that has suppressed facts and made misleading statements on river appropriation aspects. I will hence limit myself to wildlife ecology and PA management impacts of KBRLP.
- The rich Ken valley forest-grassland complex below cliffs along with areas in and around thirteen villages relocated by Park management in past ten years are a powerful habitat for the prey of tiger and other predators. Such high prey density segments in a PA get soon occupied by prime adult tigers and tigresses, the latter looking for adequate food and protection from rival males for their young by owing allegiance to territorial males. Such breeding foci form the nuclei around which in medium grade habitats, sub-prime adults of both sexes compete for a foothold as they await their moment to win a territory in the nucleus by dislodging an occupant of the same sex. These dynamic attributes define tiger ecology making tiger the symbol of ecosystem conservation. Such critical ecosystem values ordain an uncompromising EIA and not this shoddy misleading one.
- Ken River features a 30 km long deep gorge amid rocky cliffs on both banks upstream of Dhoudan Dam site. These rocky cliff banks offer ideal nesting habitat for highly endangered vultures listed in Schedule I viz. Long Billed, Egyptian, Red Headed and two of migratory Griffon. Near 400 live nests and a rock nesting vulture population of around 1000, give an invaluable ecosystem attribute to PTR. This entire length of gorge will be submerged and with it the crucial vulture habitat. Ironically these sky masters would be marooned by the Ken reservoir on the same Ken that nestles them now like a mother. This also because stagnant reservoir water will upset the present diurnal temperature regime essential for having ascending and descending air pockets (eddies, or thermals), which these raptors use for going up and for linear traverse with minimum effort in a foraging radius of over 50 km. The role of scavenging vultures as nature’s sanitary brigade in the rural-forest landscapes is indisputably vital. PTR also supports a good population of Peregrine Falcon, which is a predator often raiding rock nests and preying on vulture chicks. It is hence seldom far from cliff-nesting vultures. Besides PTR has fairly good populations of tree nesting vultures too.
- Inconsistency and suppression of information mark this EIA report. Information on land is misleading and report suppresses that two PAs are impacted. The DPR and New EIA are at variance on the basic issue of project components and land requirement for these from two PAs viz. Panna National Park and Ken Gharial WLS. As per DPR project components are:
a) Earth filled cum Concrete Dam
b) Upper level Tunnel
c) Lower level Tunnel
d) Power House I (Phase-I)
e) Power House I (Phase-II)
f) Tail Race Canal. Items a) to g) are to be within the core area of PTR
g) Bariarpur Barrage on Ken River inside Ken Gharial WL
Yet new EIA omits new item g) inside Ken Gharial WLS. The facts of larger land requirement and that not one but two PAs are impacted are masked again. This wanton masking of truth to hide cascading impacts on two PAs is unacceptable and calls for a fresh DPR and EIA.
- There are several other significant impacts for wildlife e.g. truncation of contiguous tiger habitat and submergence of highest quality tiger breeding habitat by the reservoir; mining/ quarrying for rock, sand and soil and the frightening noise of blasting and earthmoving and tunnel drilling heavy machines; that shall have to be reckoned when a comprehensive fresh EIA surfaces. Also there are fundamental issues regarding projected ‘water balance’, net water availability for impounding and intrinsic incompatibility of Environmental Flow downstream to Gangau barrage due to a lower ‘dead storage’ level.
- The farmland of people of the rural tract around PTR as indeed in this hilly and undulating tract all through in Panna and adjacent Chhatarpur districts is marginal and hence the tract itself needs farmland improvement and supplementary irrigation for the kharif and for suitable farmland in rabi cropping seasons. Picture is similar in upstream districts of Sagar and Damoh, if somewhat less adverse. But the fact remains that these catchment districts have a prior right to make use water of Ken and its upstream tributaries. It is a indeed a travesty that the project should seek even inter basin transfer of Ken water to irrigate other far off Bundelkhand districts in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh disregarding the first claim of these catchment areas. Panna in particular is left to suffer all the adverse impacts while its water is sought to be exported.
- Because of dire past impacts on PAs from ill-conceived projects backed by poor EIA, provisions under Wildlife Protection Act have progressively become more stringent for both State and Union level clearances under the watchful eye of the SC. Any deficiency in these processes can potentially land the proponents and permission givers in avoidable protracted litigation. Ten years of construction phase is also too long later to locate and fix those accountable. Hence the advised caution now.
H.S. Panwar (09999257886, email@example.com) 26th October, 2015
Note: This is a slighted edited version of the submission sent by the author to the EAC of MoEF&CC on Oct 26, 2015.