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Linking Rivers – Delinking Life

Linking Rivers – Delinking Life

The late Shehla Masood wrote on June 14, 2010, to Jairam Ramesh, former Union Minister, Environment and Forests: “Panna showed signs of Sariska, but the insensitive authorities never paid heed to the signals, letters, research. Finally, Panna lost all its tigers.” Once again, in 2014, warnings about the destruction of Panna’s lifeline, the Ken river, are being willfully ignored.

Author: Kishor Rithe

In 2008 the world was aghast to learn that every last Panna tiger had been killed, just as Dr. Raghu Chundawat had warned. This report should be read in light of the massive human and financial cost we have paid for Madhya Pradesh’s bull-headed denial and the cost we are about to incur for a similar denial of the ecological consequences of devastating the Ken river. Photo: Kishor Rithe.

While serving on a Supreme Court-appointed committee for the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh, I had the opportunity to witness a major conservation success story. In 2008, news of the extinction of tigers in Panna shocked the world. But with concerted efforts by the wildlife staff of Panna, led by Field Director Rangaiah Sreenivasa Murthy, backed by the state government, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), the Wildlife Institute of India and the judiciary, Panna made a dramatic turnaround. A tiger re-introduction programme established a fresh tiger population from a handful that were translocated to the empty reserve. Today, 20 tigers including five breeding tigresses are present in Panna and they occupy the entire 576 sq. km. of the Panna Tiger Reserve, with some being forced to spill over into the buffer and the wildlife corridors outside the reserve. This was possible because as many as 13 villages have been relocated (with three more villages – Dhodan, Palkoha and Khariyani-Mainari asking to be shifted). The additional space available for tigers can only result in more security for these striped predators.

All excellent news. Why then, I wonder, is the new government hell-bent on undoing all this good work? For that is exactly what will happen when a huge chunk of land, comprising 28 per cent of the core of the recovering tiger reserve, is submerged by the ill-conceived Ken-Betwa river-linking project. The river-linking project is an old, hypnotic, but empty dream to squeeze out unavailable benefitsfrom India’s wounded river system. The idea was supported by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but plans were abandoned when experts realised the scheme was financially and hydrologically unviable, and that the destruction of forests and the displacement of humans would be hitherto on an unprecedented scale.

EXPERT SPEAK

Wildlife experts and conservationists Joanna Van Gruisen and Dr. Raghunandan Singh Chundawat, long associated with the Panna Tiger Reserve and deeply concerned about the fate of this region, detailed to Sanctuary the fatal flaws of this ill-conceived river linking plan. They say that this project neither properly assesses the water issues of the region nor adequately addresses them. For the Ken basin, more cost effective and less ecologically damaging solutions could surely be found. A summary of their evaluation is listed below:

1. While highlighting the huge environmental cost of this project, it is essential to understand that the project fails even on its own terms since there is no proper assessment of capacity and of the needs and impacts on the affected areas and communities. It manipulates flow figures and neither takes into account ground water availability nor looks at rainwater harvesting potentials.

2. Both the Ken and Betwa basins are recorded as having the same rainfall and climatic conditions, yet the Betwa area is referred to as ‘water starved’ and the Ken as ‘surplus’. A 2005 analysis of the project by the South Asian Network on Dams Rivers and People (SANDRP) points out that these terms are used at the outset even before the areas were studied. They also note that the figures used as water requirement for irrigated land are at least 16 per cent higher for the Betwa basin than the Ken, and the percentage of cultivatable area given is higher, thus bolstering the claims of “deficient” and “surplus”.

3. The Environment Impact Assessment report for the project was found to be nothing short of shocking. SANDRP responded to the report in 2010 and clearly outlined contradictory statements, biased view points, unwarranted conclusions and unverified data that was propagated in the report. This critique went so far as to call the EIA agency incompetent! This response is freely available online.

4. The Betwa is already dammed at several places but the data on river flow is conveniently listed as classified information, thus hindering independent investigations and analysis.

5. According to the Detailed Project Report (DPR) and EIA, the area of the Panna Tiger Reserve to be submerged is variously given as 41-58 sq. km. However, independent analysis based on the given dam height shows the submergence area to be 92 sq. km. The reservoir will also sever connection to the western forests of the park, so the actual loss to the tiger reserve will be nearer 200 sq. km. (nearly one-third of the park), not even including the de-linked adjacent territorial forests.

6. The official number of trees to be submerged in this area is estimated to be 49,000. This averages to only about seven-eight trees per hectare in these tiger forests. Reliable data from Panna suggests that tree densities would be closer to 800-1,200 trees per hectare. In this case the total number of trees that will perish is 100 times more than that stated by the project proponent if the area to be submerged is 49 sq. km.

7. Independent experts maintain that the Ken-Betwa river link will be disastrous for the ecology of the region. Certainly no proper attention has been given to downstream effects and there is no allocation nor concern given to environmental flow.

Dr. Raghu Chundawat warned in 2001 that a tiger he had radio-collared had disappeared. Not only was he ignored, he was punished by a conspiracy hatched by Madhya Pradesh State administrators. His funding was stopped. His permissions revoked. Madhya Pradesh had perfected the art of denial for a decade before they finally admitted that every last tiger had been wiped out in Panna. Seen above is a tigress named T-1, who was reintroduced to Panna from Kanha. Photo: Kishor Rithe.

ACCEPTABLE COLLATERAL

The Ken-Betwa Link Canal Project was conceived in 2004, as a joint project between the National Water Development Agency, Ministry of Water Resources, Central Water Commission and other agencies. A memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed on August 25, 2005, between Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and the Central Government. The National Water Development Agency completed its survey and investigations between November 2007 and July 2008, and released their Detailed Project Report (DPR) in 2010. This document recommended the construction of a dam at Dhodan village, with a reservoir fed by water from the Ken river. This would involve massive construction of two tunnels, two power houses and an entire irrigation colony... all inside the core of the Panna Tiger Reserve, where a herculean effort had just seen the return of tigers.

The proposed dam site is located about 2.5 km. upstream of the existing Gangau dam in Gangau Wildlife Sanctuary, which borders the Panna National Park. The DPR estimates the direct submergence of 58 sq. km. from the core of the Panna Tiger Reserve, with a total submergence of 200 sq. km. out of the 2,000 sq. km. tiger reserve. Another 70-80 sq. km. of revenue and drawdown area of the existing Gangau dam (constructed in 1905), that is frequented by wildlife, would also be submerged.

This is not a development plan. This is assassination.

The project envisages transferring water from the Ken river to Chattarpur and Tikamgargh in Madhya Pradesh, and Hamirpur and Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh. Some of the water is planned to supplement existing irrigation projects already constructed on the Betwa river. Ten villages (including four within the reserve) will be submerged and as of now a total of 1,709 families will suffer forced displacement.

In 1993-94, the project was estimated to cost just under Rs. 2,000 crores, with all manner of fanciful projections of profit, conveniently forgetting just how much the ecological damage caused by the project would cost the nation. The carbon released into the atmosphere and the consequent aggravation of India’s already erupting climate change impacts was not factored in.

In a comedy of errors, even as the Central Government goes about its ludicrous plan, the National Tiger Conservation Authority, after spending a fortune to reintroduce tigers in Panna, is now looking for a new home for the tiger populations that forest officers have so painstakingly nurtured over the past few years. Currently, a Daliesque search is on for yet another home for these ‘refugee tigers’.

The project poses a serious threat to the northernmost stretch of mixed, dry deciduous teak forests in India. With these teak trees will go a diversity of tree life that includes Terminalia arjuna (arjun), Ficus religiosa (peepal), Ficus benghalensis (banyan), Madhuca indica (mahua), Lannea coromandelica (Indian ash), Anogeissus latifolia (dhau), Diospyros melanoxylon (east-Indian ebony), Anogeissus pendula (kardhai) and Buchanania latifolia (chilla).

All this is prime tiger habitat and all this is to be sacrificed at the hands of human avarice, ignorance and arrogance.

THE GREAT KEN-BETWA RIVER-LINKING DISASTER

A major portion of the proposed reservoir and infrastructure lies within the core and buffer areas of the Panna Tiger Reserve. A total of 105.23 sq. km., including 56.23 sq. km. of the Kishangargh Range and 49 sq. km. of Bhusor and Palkoha circle of the Chandranagar Range on the western side of the Ken river will be totally fragmented. This will mortally wound the Core Critical Tiger Habitat in Panna. An adult tigress, Panna-222, has settled in the Palkoha-Sukwaha area of Kishangargh range and tigers named Panna-411 and 412 occupied the area of Bhusor between 2012 and 2013. The DPR blandly states that the construction will sever this crucial south-west wildlife corridor. That it will permanently damage a viable and breeding population of tigers, is not broached.

Linear projects such as canals have a disastrous impact on tiger landscapes. The canal network proposed by this destructive project extends across a length of 221 km. Many other animals, apart from tigers will die as a result. As things stand, the current 576 sq. km. Critical Tiger Habitat, which is so small that plans were afoot to expand it, will be virtually obliterated. This happens to be the only tiger source population in the Vindhya Range.

AND WHAT OF THE RIVERS?

The Ken and its five tributaries are lifelines for the Panna Tiger Reserve. The Bearma and Sonar rivers are tributaries of the Ken and flow through the reserve. The healthy catchment of Panna contributes huge volumes of lean season water to these waterways. It is ironic that in a quest to obtain more water security, our short-sighted planners are destroying the very source of water – the forests. This can only end up bequeathing India with reservoirs that will inevitably be choked with silt. The controversial DPR reveals that in the pinch period between April and June, no water from the Ken will be available for wildlife. This will have a domino downstream impact on the Ken Gharial Wildlife Sanctuary (KGWS). KGWS which comes under the administrative control of Panna Tiger Reserve, home to a teetering population of critically-endangered gharials, is bound to be affected by regulated river flow.

All this is written off as acceptable collateral damage. It’s not just a forest, but common sense that isbeing drowned.

What goes through the minds of planners one wonders? Do they even understand that the very forests they are destroying are the sources of the water they hope to harness for human use? The seasonal flooding of the Ken gives rise to a unique shallow water (dabra) wetland near Gangau (similar to the Nalsarovar Ramsar site in Gujarat). This wetland is critical to the survival of the Panna ecosystem. Its aquatic floral diversity supports myriad species of fauna including fish and amphibians that have not even been fully documented. Bar-headed Geese, Ruddy Shelduck, Painted Storks, Black-winged Stilts, Asian Openbills, Black Storks, Black Ibis, Black-headed Ibis, Comb Duck, Spoonbill and raptors including Marsh Harriers and Grey-headed Fish-eagles frequent this wetland. The fertile silt deposited by the Ken nourishes grasslands of immense value, on which the herbivores of Panna thrive. In particular, the three relocated village sites, turned into predator magnets, because of the large ungulate populations they support.

Granting clearance to developmental projects by ignoring wildlife and environmental concerns, diluting four stringent wildlife, forest and environmental laws, displaying both ignorance and apathy towards forest and wildlife conservation imperatives, our government exposed its intent with the very first budget it announced. Simultaneously, knowledgeable scientists and conservationists were summarily thrown out of expert advisory bodies and the National Board for Wildlife, was replaced almost entirely by individuals who could be relied upon to rubber stamp official instructions and policies. The river-linking plan is yet another example of politicians brainwashing their constituencies to accept projects in the name of ‘development’ without attempting to look at the whole picture.

VULTURE PARADISE THREATENED

Photo: Kishor Rithe.

The meandering course of the Ken through Panna has created valleys and gorges along a 30 km. stretch upstream of the proposed Dhodan dam site. Panna’s terrain of high plateaus, deep rocky gorges and grasslands provide the perfect habitat for vultures to roost.

After the dramatic decline in vulture populations over two decades, Panna is probably the only habitat in the country that has emerged as a stronghold for at least seven of the nine vulture species found in India. In spite of the threat of local extinction in India, four vulture species – White-rumped Gyps bengalensis, Indian Gyps indicus, Red-headed Sarcogyps calvus and the subspecies of the Egyptian Neophron percnopterus ginginianus continue to breed on these cliffs. Griffons Gyps fulvus, Himalayan Griffons Gyps himalayensis and Cinereous Aegypius monachus are regular winter visitors and the vulture estimation by the Forest Department also recorded the European Egyptian Neophron percnopterus percnopterus in 2013.

Censuses conducted by the authorities in January every year from 2010 to 2014 have estimated a robust vulture population of around 1,000 individuals in the reserve. In January 2013, 1,074 birds were recorded from 37 sites. The vulture map of the reserve clearly indicates high density in the southern end. The proposed river-linking project will submerge vast feeding grounds as well as nesting cliffs and hence pose a great threat to this vulture paradise of India.

Author: Kishor Rithe, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXIV No. 6, December 2014.

 
 
 

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Bittu

January 6, 2015, 08:01 PM
 I have known Dr. Chundawat for well over two decades and it was heartbreaking to see his warnings of the imminent extinction of tigers fall on deaf ears until every last tiger was wiped out. The new management of Panna has done a heroic job of bringing the tiger back, but to what avail? To even contemplate drowning 100 sq. km. of prime tiger forest in this day and age is beyond comprehension. Future generations will label such acts as environmental crimes against humanity.
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Gaurav T. Shirodkar

January 6, 2015, 07:52 PM
 Thank you Kishor for sharing this with our readers. It is one of the most threatening issue not just for the forest but for the existence of the rivers and the people dependent on them. It is easy to say we have the engineering capabilities and to turn things around - but Nature has strikes back and with always the upper hand. It time to think, rethink, and think again before such steps are taken. Regret later will not be the solution. As they say Prevention is Better than Cure.
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Anirudh Nair

January 6, 2015, 07:51 PM
 First it was poaching that took a toll on the wildlife of Panna. Now it is the river-linking project. All the efforts to relocate tigers to bring Panna back to its former glory seems to be such a waste of time and resources.