Above: A fabulous view of Ken river. Nesting sites of Long-billed vultures are to the right. All will go under water if Ken-Betwa linkup is carried out, PHOTO by: AJT Johnsingh
It’s a curious case of Dam fundamentalism: now manifest as ILR fundamentalism. On June 7, 2016, (as widely reported by media[i]) Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti “threatened to go on hunger strike if the Ken-Betwa river linking project is further delayed and termed the attempt to delay the project by environmentalists as a “national crime”” as reported by Business Standard. The threat was directed against all those raising questions about Ken Betwa River Link proposal of her ministry.
It may be noted at the outset that many of those who are opposing Ken-Betwa are actually official agencies. A senior Union cabinet minister making such threats is a clear subversion of the regulatory apparatus, and is a vitiation of the atmosphere and officials and members of the statutory committees will find it difficult to take decisions under such threats. This also amounts to unduly influencing the process.
For a project that so far has no statutory clearances, no proper environment impact assessment, no proper public consultations, whose environment management plan is still being formulated by some official committees, whose environmental appraisal is incomplete, whose hydrology is under wraps, and has seen no peer reviewed but is highly questionable going by all available evidence, the minister has categorically asserted, as reported by The Hindu, “The dam will be built and if there are further delays I will launch an agitation”! In the same report, she acknowledges that impact assessment and management plan are incomplete when she says: “We have asked the Bombay Natural History Society to help us with the vultures”. She could have added that the Wildlife Institute of India still preparing the Landscape Management Plan, which would have taken two years, but may take longer since there is no reliable environment impact assessment available.
It may be added here that Ken Betwa project will facilitate transfer of water from Bundelkhand to higher rainfall Upper Betwa basin and for whatever little benefits parts of Bundelkhand may get from this project, better options are available. Moreover, when the project in any case is not the least cost option, the Minister is trying to create a people vs tigers & vultures conflict where none exists, when she says: “People however must come first”.
The minister claimed that 70 lakh people will benefit from the project and even the 7000 affected (both figures are highly questionable) are for the project. She goes on to ask, who are they (the expert committee members) to stop this? By this token, we do not need any regulators, since the minister will certify who are or can be for and against project!
It may as well be added that there is NO implementation agreement for the project between the two participating states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, eleven years after the MoU, only for preparing the Detailed Project Report was signed. The Minister may also like to know about the letter of Panna collector to the Planning Commission that mentioned how the Bundelkhand districts of Panna and Damoh will remain permanently backward if the Ken Betwa project were to come up!
This is further reinforced, as Business Standard reported the minister saying: “I will save the tigers, the vultures, the deer, and the affected people, please give us environmental clearance. But, I will not consider reducing the height of the dam.” So just based on minister’s assertion, we are to take it that the tigers, vultures, and everyone will be saved! Why do we even need wildlife or environment clearance if minister’s statements were sufficient for everything?
As The Economic Times reported, the Union Minister called herself “the biggest environmentalist”, and asked how can her intentions be doubted when she pitches for initiating work on the project and derided members of an expert committee under Ministry of Environment and Forest! In another report by the same paper, the minister “added that she will also look into the issue of ‘gidh’ (vultures) and tiger rehabilitation if required.”
So now we have the developer of the project who asks us not to bother about vultures and tigers since minister is looking into it! Do we really need an environment ministry?
Further, the minister is quoted saying: “I have told them that tiger population will increase, with the region getting more water. Further, 97% of the vulturenests are going to be above the maximum water level.”
So now we have a new paradigm: Submergence, bifurcation, destruction of tiger reserve is good for tigers! On Vulture habitat, while the official minutes of the National Board of Wildlife quotes officials saying that 50% of the Vulture habitat will be destroyed and when BNHS is NOW being asked to do a study, we have the word from the minister, no less, that only 3% habitat will be affected!
The minister would of course not bother to mention about the impact of project on downstream Ken Ghariyal Sanctuary or the fish population in Ken River of how the river itself will be affected by the massive deforestation in the catchment. And how all this will affect the already ravaged Bundelkhand in changing climate.
So in future when the Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects considers Environment Clearance to Ken Betwa River link, or when the Forest Advisory Committee meets to consider forest clearance to the project or when the National Board of Wildlife meets to consider wildlife clearance to the project, or when media were to write critically about the project proposal or when the Bundelkhand people or civil society groups were to question the project or when Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court or any of the judicial institutes were to consider any legal challenge to the project, they all will need to keep in mind that such actions are National Crime and that they could be facing protest action from the Union Minister herself!
These statements are clearly wrong and unacceptable on so many counts. We sincerely hope she will immediately and publicly take back the threats and all these statements and apologise for deriding the statutory processes and calling any opposition to the Ken Betwa link as National Crime. Since the minister’s threats are going to remain in the background, even if withdrawn, the only way to somewhat correct the vitiated atmosphere is possibly for the minister to step down so that all the regulatory committees are able to do their tasks without any fear or threats of agitation from Union Minister. People’s diminished hopes in these processes will stand completely shattered if this does not happen.
Himanshu Thakkar, SANDRP (firstname.lastname@example.org)
PS: An edited version of this article has been published in CIVIL SOCIETY magazine of July 2016, see: http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/column/water-watch/minister-in-needless-hurry/
[i] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/uma-threatens-stir-over-delay-in-kenbetwa-interlinking/article8701708.ece, http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/uma-bharti-threatens-hunger-strike-over-ken-betwa-project-delay-116060701096_1.html, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/policy/delay-in-ken-betwa-project-uma-bharti-threatens-to-go-on-fast/articleshow/52638296.cms, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/uma-bharati-threatens-hunger-strike-if-concerns-for-tigers-and-vultures-affect-linking-of-rivers-ken-and-betwa/articleshow/52645697.cms, http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-delay-in-ken-betwa-project-uma-bharti-threatens-to-go-on-fast-2220915, there has been no retraction or corrective statement from the Union Minister or her ministry, so one can assume that she indeed made these statements.