The Standing Committee of National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) at its 39th meeting held on 23 August in Delhi has given the wildlife clearance to the proposal for the ambitious ₹ 2,00,000 million Ken-Betwa Link Project- Phase I (Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh) proposed to be taken up primarily to address the issue of drought in the Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh.
This is a significant development prior to the mandatory Environment and forest clearances that area required from the Union Ministry of Environment, forest and Climate Change before launching the first phase of the Ken-Betwa Link Project.
For this project, to be implemented by Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA), the project proponent will pay for the Net Present Value (NPV) of forest that would come under submergence. Since this is a national project, 90% money will be born by Centre and 10% by concerned States. According to estimates, ₹ 2700 million are to be spent on Catchment area protection plan, ₹ 6000 million on compensatory forestation besides the cost for rehabilitation of 10 villages which will be submerged and 6 villages falling in the core area and other money required for mitigation measures for using park area for submergence.
Before the Standing Committee of NBWL met for its 39th Meeting, the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) had to examine the proposal under the Wildlife (Protection) Act and Standing Committee of NBWL also discussed the proposal and was of the opinion that the project site must be visited to understand the proposal. Hence a combined site inspection was undertaken by NTCA, Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and two members of the Standing Committee of NBWL.
The observations of the combined inspection team were discussed in the 38th meeting. At this meeting, while agreeing in principle, it was decided that in view of the differing opinions on the height of the water impounding structures and resulting impacts, including hydrological implications of the project, the matter should be discussed further with irrigation and engineering experts.
Hence, deliberations were organised and after the meeting of the group with experts, a report was prepared incorporating the views of the Hydrology expert on height of the dam, vilability of the project and planning concerns, the project relevance with respect to climate change, phases of the project, impact on cave and cliff dwelling species, i.e., vultures, and consolidation of the Greater Panna Landscape for ensuring viability of the tiger population. NTCA was then requested to present their views to the Committee on the combined report.
According to the minutes of the 39th Meeting of the Standing Committee of NBWL, the Director WII, while presentng the findings, indicated that the group was convinced that lowering the dam height by 10 meters will result in non-availibility of water for linking because due to the nature of the valley, water storage will be available only in top few meters, as there would be a reduction of 32% in water storage.
The minutes of the meeting place on record the pointer that effective submergence in upstream of the dam will be only during the period July end to October, the habitat and corridors across the river will be available most of the time. Similar would be the case in 3% of the area of the identified vulture habitat. WII went on to clarify that phase II of the Project does not have any component impacting wildlife and connecting systems of both the rivers -Ken and Betwa – would ensure water availability away from the dam site for wildlife.
At the crucial meeting of NBWL, NTCA presented the major concers of Tiger Habitat, focusing on management issues and recommendations of NTCA, as examined under Section 38 (O) (b) of WLPA. There was special emphasis on major concerns of direct loss of tiger habitat of 105 sq kms, loss of vulture nesting sites and other sisturbances. NTCA particularly recommended that Nauradehi WLS, Rani Durgawati WLS and Ranipur WLS in Uttar Pradesh should be integrated with the Panna Tiger Reserve and people affecetd by this should be rehabilitated at the cost to the user agency.
It was agreed at this meeting that the areas of Chhatarpur and South Panna Division shall be notified as the buffer of the Panna Tiger Reserve due to their historical tiger presence. It was underscored at the meeting that management should be based on a landscape level plan that would include delineation of tiger dispersal routes, and a vulture recovery programme based on a tripartite MoU between the State of MP, NTCA and the Ministry of Water Resources to safeguard the landscape.
It was also emphasised that no new mining leases shall be allowed in the delineated tiger dispersal routes and existing mining leases shall only be extended if concretely justified following due process of law.
Members agreed that recent data of dispersal route could be used for the Plan. While inclusion of the proposed areas for integration could be feasible and may be attempted as it would require inter-state and public deliberations Chief Wildlife Warden of Madhya Pradesh Suggested that as the main objective is addressing drought in Bundelkhand region, any installation of power generation within the tiger reserve should not be permitted. Further, the reservoir would not be opened to commercial fisheries as it to be located in the middle of the critical tiger habitat.’
The representative of user agency Special Secretary Ministry of Water Resources, on behalf of his ministry, gave consent to the conditions as prescribed by site inspection team in the combined report. In response to the Committee’s query on the need for Hydro Power generation, he explained that all the power generating facilities shall be established outside the Tiger Reserve. He also assured that no fishing will be allowed at the dam site.
After discussions, the Standing Committee agreed to recommend the proposal with the conditions prescribed by the Site Inspection Team and NTCA, as agreed by Ministry of Water Resource and that the resultatnt reservoir area shall be retained as core area with minimum activities for management purpose under close consultation with the Tiger Reserve management. The landscape based plan for the area will be finalised with NTCA in lead, assisted by WII, State Forest department and project proponents.
The effort to integrate the three wildlife sanctuaries within the Panna Tiger Reserve will be undertaken simultaneously and the management objective of these areas will be in context of treatment of the area as a part of the tiger landscape.