Government of India and the State Governments of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have rallied forces and after according all mandatory clearances they are now waiting for the final nod from the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court to go ahead with the Ken-Betwa Link Project which will submerge more than 4000 ha of the core area of Panna Tiger Reserve.
The Stage has been set for drowning the core area of Panna Tiger Reserve when WWF is stressing on the need for global and national commitments to stop habitat loss due to deforestation and is pushing the idea of tiger reintroduction into Cambodia’s Eastern Plains by promoting the Panna model and telling the whole world how the Tiger reintroduction and translocations have successfully been used to recover tiger populations in India.
Panna was in news a few years ago, when Madhya Pradesh government had given full support to global diamond giant Rio Tinto’s Indian subsidiary which was planning to go for commercial mining of diamonds in an eco-sensitive zone close to the Panna Tiger Reserve. Reacting to this development, tiger expert Valmik Thapar spoke with a deep sense of foresight and vision when he had said (in 2010): “if Panna were to recover (the loss of all its tigers), it would need at least another 10 years of complete protection of surrounding forests and their connecting corridors.” Today seven years later, Panna is a huge success story. The tiger reintroduction initiative at Panna has been very successful and reintroduced tigers are breeding.
When we talk of Panna Tiger Reserve, its core area, and the connecting corridors we should not lose sight of the fact that this forest area is the northern-most tip of the best corridor of teak and dry mixed forest south of the Gangetic plain. The miscellaneous dry deciduous forest in Panna, which is interspersed with grassland areas, is an ideal habitat for tiger, leopard, spotted dear, black buck, sambar, wild dogs, sloth bear and the crocodilian gharial. Panna is also home for the endangered king vulture. The avifauna in the Panna National Park comprises more than 200 species including a host of migratory birds. A large variety of reptiles and snakes, including the python, are also found here.
Those bent upon going ahead with this dam will be doing a great disservice to the cause of conservation and ecological balance if they try to brush aside the fact that influx of numerous tributaries of Ken river have created unique micro-habitats and a substratum in the river. It has 89 species of fish, including the threatened mahaseer. If we look at the river in totality, the species richness is maximum at Daudhan, where an earth fill and concrete dam is proposed to be built.
It will be a disaster, if the Ken-Betwa Link Project gets the final go ahead signal and the core area of Panna Tiger Reserve is allowed to get submerged. The disturbance that will be caused in this area by logging millions of trees and transporting them out of this area cannot be assessed or imagined by those who are less informed.
Initially, the DPR done by NWDA, cited a figure of about 32,900 trees in the submergence area falling within the core of the Panna National Park. The basis for arriving at this figure was the baseless projection that there were only 7.8 trees per hectare in that area. When objections were raised, a sample survey was conducted and the per hectare count of trees was hiked by 22 to 45 times and the number of trees shot up to 1.1 million- a figure that was also counter-signed by the DFO Chhatapur. This survey was done by a forester and there is no record of his entry or exit from the Tiger Reserve during the survey period. When more objections were raised, the number of trees in the submergence area was raised to 1.4 million and this figure was verified by the present Panna National Park director. By the time these figures went to Government of India for clearance of the project, they had been raised further to 1.8 million. According to latest information, the number of trees has been hiked further from the initial count of 32,900 to 2.3 million. These figures relate to only the core area of Panna National Park. But many more trees would be cut down in the buffer and other territorial areas. Once the trees are cut and the area is brought under submergence, Panna will go through a second disaster after the successful repopulation of this habitat with tigers.
The big question is – what about the tigers that have already made Panna their habitat. Due to the Ken-Betwa Link project, the present Panna tiger population will be forced to migrate to adjoining areas where they will get into conflict with other settled tigers leading to infighting and mortality. There will also be man-animal conflict when the tigers will move out of their present habitat.
The death knell of Panna Tiger Reserve was sounded on August 23, 2016, when the Standing Committee of the National Wildlife Board (NWB) at its 39th meeting approved the proposal for Wildlife clearance with regard to Ken-Betwa Link Project-Phase I in Panna Tiger Reserve and agreed to recommend the proposal with the conditions to integrate Nauradehi, Rani Durgavati and Ranipur (UP) Wildlife Sanctuaries in the Panna Tiger Reserve and rehabilitate the affected villagers. Another condition that has been imposed is that the resultant reservoir area shall be retained as core area with minimum activities for management purpose under close consultation with the Tiger Reserve management.
The Standing Committee of the NWB also directed that the effort to integrate the three wildlife sanctuaries within the PTR should be undertaken simultaneously.
The crucial issue of integrating three wildlife sanctuaries with Panna National Park, a condition set by National Tiger Conservation Authority and approved by NWB, deserves caution as Madhya Pradesh Government’s credibility is poor when it comes to conservation and creating new protected areas. They have failed to create Omkareshwar National Park and Mandhata Wildlife Sanctuary. Even the proposal to declare Ratapani Sanctuary near the State capital as a Tiger Reserve has been hanging fire for long due to resistance from the vested interests.
Detailed technical studies for diversion of water from Ken river basin to Betwa river basin of Ganga main basin were carried out by National Water Development Agency (NWDA), a Government of India agency under Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR,RD&GR) and it was concluded by the Government that Betwa is a water short basin.
The main aim of Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP), according to the Government, is to transfer the “surplus water” of Ken basin to water deficit Betwa basin. The concurrence of the State Governments of UP and MP was received for this project August 5, 2005. This paved the way for signing of a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) by the Chief Ministers of UP and MP and Union Minister for Water Resources on August 25, 2005 in the presence of the Prime Minister of India. Under this agreement, both the States agreed for the sharing of water up to the Daudhan dam on Ken river.
Even at this stage, it is not too late to save the Panna landscape, which has been repopulated with tigers with great effort. There is ample ground to look for alternatives. The Silent Valley National Park in Kerala should serve as an example to stop the destruction of Panna. Ken-Betwa Link Project, which is threatening the Panna National Park’s rich flora and fauna, cannot be touted as the sole means to provide water for agriculture in the Betwa basin. The Chandela rulers of Bundelkhand (10th to 13th Century) are known for promoting water harvesting and watershed management, and for dotting their territory with traditional lakes and check dams. From the point of view of sustainable development, the Chandela model, if pursued vigorously, can still provide the right answer and deliver results on a fast track and at a fraction of KBLP’s cost.