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Ken-Betwa project: As it gets closer to reality, big questions still linger

Nitin Sethi / New Delhi 05 Jun 17 | 11:15 PM

The first among the ambitious interlinking of river projects, the Ken-Betwa linkage in Madhya Pradesh has reached its penultimate stage of clearance with the Ministry of Environment’s forest advisory committee giving its nod. It now requires only the approval of the environment minister to move into the implementation stage.

There is the Supreme Court's Central Empowered Committee to contend with as well but the government believes that may be an easy hurdle to cross considering that the committee has not yet raised any major objection to the project and asked for clarifications on some technical details.

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The piecemeal approach permitted for clearances under the existing green laws has ensured that the project did not require a 360-degree appraisal of all its components cumulatively. At the moment only stage 1 of the project has been approved. Project developers would be at liberty to seek clearances for other stages in the future, again on a piecemeal basis.

Clearance hoops, a formality?

The phase one of the river linking projects requires three clearances. One, under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, another under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1976, and yet another under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. As is the case with all projects, the environment clearance was dealt with separately than the forest and wildlife clearance. Documents submitted to the government show that even the data presented by the project authorities for the three clearances varied in places.

Before this, the state government too had smoothly recommended the project that will submerge several hectares of the state's Panna National Park — a popular tiger habitat where the cat population had been restored after poaching had wiped out the population.

Political leaders in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the state and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre, including the environment minister, had already publicly voiced support for the project even before it went through expert appraisal. Therefore, most observers saw the legally mandated clearances as just a formality.

This also meant that several of the expert panels, after raising fundamental concerns about various impacts of the project, settled back by imposing a few additional conditions to address those concerns.

The ministry officials contend that is not the case. "Each issue raised was deliberated upon and only when solutions were found or answers provided that the appraisal committee (for environment clearance) and the advisory committee (for forest clearance) recommend the project along with several additional conditions."

But a senior retired official who was at one stage involved in the appraisal of the project for its impact on forests and wildlife notes, "The writing was on the wall. We presented facts upfront but the second step was to see what one can rescue or protect if the project does go through."

Evidence of this is the manner in which the forest and environment clearance were given to the project without reducing the height of the dam, an initial demand of ecologists to protect some of the rich Panna National Park. Instead, the authorities asked the project developers to later provide money to mitigate the damage caused by the dam and for the forest department to take over other connecting revenue lands as compensation.

There are several experts of hydrology and ecology outside the government who have at various points in time raised fundamental, technical and legal issues about the clearances.

But it's the financial maths of the project that has slipped past without a deeper scrutiny. Initially, the project was proposed for Rs 1,998 crore at 1994-95 price levels. By the time it came up for appraisal in 2015, it had been pegged at just below Rs 10,000 crore but the project document does not explain if it’s at current price levels or not. Yet another document submitted to the government for clearances puts merely the cost of rehabilitation and resettlement of people and environmental management at a whopping Rs 5,072 crore. This was not considered as part of the cost-benefit analysis of the project while granting clearance.

Then there are the additional costs that the project would have to bear due to the conditions imposed during the clearance process. However, these costs are not required to be computed for assessing the project.

But then again, the river linking project would not be the first to face problems of cost escalations, years of delay and failure to deliver the benefits down the last mile. Many irrigation projects in India have gone through this cycle and yet come up. In fact, for the Ken-Betwa link a proposal has been mooted to increase the share of the cost that the Centre will bear.

The fiscal logic of the project has merely muddled the fundamental justification of the project that there is 'surplus' water in one river to transfer to the other, which remains entirely unquestionable as the data for this is not available to the public for scrutiny. Why? Because the hydrological data for the Ganga basin is not made public by the government.

To see if trusting the government with large irrigation projects works this time, the people would have to wait till the project culminates.

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