A view of the Ken river. Photo: A.J.T. Johnsingh/Wikimedia Commons CC BY SA 4.0
An expert panel of India’s environment ministry has deferred environment clearance for the Lower Orr Dam, which is part of the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, and sought fresh data to decide whether a new public hearing is expected for the project or not.
Identified as a national project, it is part of the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project and envisages construction of a 45 metre high and 2,218-metre long dam across Orr river near village Didauni in Madhya Pradesh to provide irrigation facility to 90,000 hectares of area.
The project’s estimated cost is about Rs 30.65 billion and requires 3,730 hectares of land, of which 968.24 hectares is forest land. It is expected to submerge about 2,723.70 hectare area including seven fully affected villages and five villages partially. It was considered for clearance in the meeting of the expert appraisal committee (EAC) for river valley and hydroelectric projects on October 29, 2020.
The project was first appraised by the expert panel in its meeting in February 2016 and May 2016 after which the EAC recommended environmental clearance to it. However, as it involved forest land, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) asked the Madhya Pradesh government and the National Water Development Agency to get the forest clearance for processing the recommendation of the expert panel.
Subsequently, the forest clearance was recommended in February 2019 by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the MoEFCC allowing diversion of 968.24 hectares of forest land. The project proponents finally submitted the forest clearance in October 2020 to seek a final environment clearance which was recommended to them in 2016.
But the expert panel in its latest meeting noted that as per the rules governing green clearance to the projects, if forest clearance is “not submitted by the project proponent within the prescribed time limit of 18 months” such project would be “referred to the EAC for having a relook, in case the primary data used in the preparation of the EIA (environment impact assessment) report is more than three years old.”
The rules state that in such a situation, the “EAC may get the fresh data collected and on that basis and after due diligence, either reiterate its earlier recommendations or decide for reappraising the project proposal on account of valid reasons, as the case may be.” It also holds that in case the expert committee decides to reappraise the project it may also decide on the “requirements of information for reappraisal as also the need for a fresh public hearing.”
In accordance with the rules, the EAC noted that Lower Orr dam project was granted forest clearance in February 2019 “after almost 31 months” of the environment ministry’s July 2016 letter regarding environment clearance.
“Primary data used for the EIA preparation is more than three years old. EAC therefore considering all facts related to the project and regulatory provisions, deferred the project for … to decide whether reappraisal including the need of public hearing is required or not,” noted the minutes of the EAC’s meeting.
The expert panel held that “one season fresh baseline data shall be collected for all the environmental attributes” and that “anticipated environmental impacts shall be studied using fresh baseline data.”
It also sought “an updated environment impact assessment/environmental management plan report” and details of the commitments made by the project proponent to address the concerns raised during the public hearing.
Ken-Betwa river interlinking has been a controversial project
The expert committee’s caution is unsurprising given that the Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, since its inception, has been contentious.
Ken-Betwa river interlinking project is the first among the 30 identified river interlinking projects identified by the central government – an effort that started in the early 1980s. It envisages a transfer of surplus water from river Ken’s basin in Madhya Pradesh to river Betwa’s basin in Uttar Pradesh to provide water in areas in the upper Betwa basin that are facing water shortage. It involves submergence of over 9,000 hectares of area and out of that 5,803 hectares are prime forests of the Panna Tiger Reserve (PTR).
In 2019, a Supreme Court committee had questioned the basis on which wildlife clearance was granted to it and questioned its economic viability as well.
As the project would lead to submergence of prime forest area, which is also the habitat of endangered species like tiger and vultures, it had faced stiff opposition from the wildlife experts and conservationists.
Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), a network of organisations and individuals working on issues related to the water sector, said Lower Orr dam project is part of phase-II of the Ken-Betwa project.
“But in a scenario where the viability of the Ken-Betwa project has been questioned then what is the point of actively looking and clearing the projects in phase-II. The expert panel has rightly sought fresh data, in accordance with the rules. In fact, the projects in phase-II are pursued on the understanding that phase-I projects are viable and will bring surplus water. So, the phase-II projects like the Lower Orr dam project should not get a green signal until the air is cleared on the future of phase-I projects,” Thakkar told Mongabay-India.
The EAC, in the meanwhile, also sought details of any wildlife sanctuary, national park, eco-sensitive area and of species that have the highest protection under India’s wildlife laws in the study area. “Conservation plan for Schedule-I species shall be prepared and submitted for approval,” noted the EAC in its minutes while also seeking land acquisition details.
Madhya Pradesh-based wildlife activist Ajay Dubey said the time for huge dams is long gone.
“No one is against development and in fact, water is an important issue. But the time for huge dams is long gone and for solving water woes the governments can opt for smaller projects or other innovations. Why is it that the government is not respecting the conservation success it had with the relocation of tigers to Panna? Why is the government trying to build these dams on top of a dense forest? Such projects are only going to create more destruction and displacement,” Dubey told Mongabay-India.
The Supreme Court’s committee in its report had noted that the cost of implementation of the landscape management plan for tiger conservation and the species recovery programme for vultures and gharial is yet to be worked out and once included in the cost-benefit analysis, could make the Ken-Betwa project economically unviable.