Interview | Ken-Betwa link project is starting of a new national movement for water security: Prahlad Patel

Interview | Ken-Betwa link project is starting of a new national movement for water security: Prahlad Patel

‘Our traditional wisdom and knowledge are accurate and we need to embrace them,’ says the Minister of State, Jal Shakti, on the issue of water conservation and security.

It was World Water Day, and on a sun-kissed afternoon, I had already clocked in two hours of seminar time. From water sovereignty to the Ken-Betwa river project, all issues related to water had been discussed. A motley group of water warriors from over 22 states was visible on my screen.

In the real world, cactus flowers and white eagles kept me company, as I was waiting for the chief guest — Minister of State (MoS), Jal Shakti, Prahlad Singh Patel. A Bundelkhandi himself, his tenure is marked by the first river-linking project in India, with the Modi government unfolding the new vision for water sovereignty. People were anxious to hear what he had to say.

I sat around, listening to participants from Tamil Nadu to Rajasthan — all suffered from the same disease: Water stress. Some complained about pollution, others of dried rivers and dying ponds. But it wasn’t all grim. The group sang water songs and prayers, hoping to encourage the many children and young volunteers in the hall. After all the festivities were over, the elephant in the room — the Ken-Betwa linking project — came out.

Interview  KenBetwa link project is starting of a new national movement for water security Prahlad Patel

Ken Betwa link project. Image courtesy News18 Hindi

“Bundelkhand is famous for Chandeli-Bundeli-Haveli. We have 25 folk songs on water and water is essential to the Bundeli identity,” said Sanjay Singh, a Jhansi resident and long-time water rights advocate.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government selected Ken and Betwa rivers for linking. After the British raj, this was the first time an Indian government was following up.

The interview

White geese were quacking, and the sun was now in retreat. I caught up with Prahlad Patel after the conference, in person. We sat overlooking a small lake. Across the lake, a family of wild boars had just quenched their thirst, and was sniffing around for food. Patel was in the hot seat and the rapid fire round began.

“I can assure the nation and especially people of Bundelkhand that the Ken-Betwa link project will benefit the people and this is the start of a new national movement for water security,” Patel said.

It soon became clear that Patel had also spent time on the field. He quickly took me down the memory lane. “Each year I spent one month on a yatra trying to understand the problems of the region. I have also written an article on why we should not let rivers become drains,” he reminisced.

This statement required fact-checking, so I asked him about his learning. “We have spoiled the water recharge systems ourselves. Just look at the sugarcane farming in our (Narsinghpur) area; it has increased water scarcity,” Patel said.

“In a stretch of 1 km in Narsinghpur five rivers flowed, but today they all run dry. We need to correct course and regenerate together, and not follow only one path. Our traditional wisdom and knowledge are very accurate and we need to embrace them,” Patel said. But where does river linking fit into all this? Does it have a political agenda?

“Atal Bihari ji started this mission but it faced many challenges including the inter-state jurisdiction and coordination, but the Modi government cleared the red tape and has expanded that mission by including five other river systems. Now people may want to link it to politics due to the UP elections, but nevertheless this is a national movement,” Patel said.

Patel also spoke about the Jal Jivan mission. “The prime minister has promised to bring piped water to all Indians. Certain states have even achieved their targets, while others are on the path. But the innovation lies in our government’s steps to start a river mapping project. After mapping the river basins, we will categorise them and plans will be made to link the deficit ones with water-rich basins. Once mapping is done and all encroachment stopped, then India will be on her way to provide ‘Har ghar jal’ by 2024,” Patel said.

He added, “We plan to have a third-party assessment of our projects and make village women custodians of the water quality. Underground water sources have to sustain for the next 15 years at least for any water project to be passed.”

According to Patel, this is the new vision for India. But perhaps he overlooked the government’s own reports warning Indians of a major water crisis. The Niti Aayog has said that 600 million Indians will be living under water stress and 256 out of 700 districts will have serious trouble with groundwater.

I asked the minister about these figures. “The prime minister is very aware of these reports and his work takes into account these numbers. All plans have been made keeping the crisis in mind,” Patel retorted.

Our conversation ended with a story from the Mahabharata. Patel narrated the incident when Yudhishthira and his brothers lost in the woods and were looking for water. “Yudhishthira answered the water yaksha’s questions and won his brothers’ lives and water back. But the lesson for all should be the one: Every water source has its dignity and respect, people who violate water will lose out,” Patel said.

As the interview with Patel ended, I wanted a water expert to have the last word. So I spoke with Rajendra Singh, ‘the Water Man of India’, to understand the issue better. I wasted no time in asking about the Ken-Betwa project.

“There is a river crisis globally. We have to understand that people’s health and river health are linked. Once you link rivers, it leads to big dams and brings destruction upon the rivers and the people,” Singh explained.

So, is this a political stunt? “Sometimes even a good government is taken for a ride by the bureaucracy. When big projects get sanctioned, private players and some rotten apples benefit,” he said.

Singh said that PM Modi was not a big dam advocate. And so he was puzzled about the river-linking project. Before departing he warned me and the government with a simple example. “Without testing the blood group of two patients, if we do a blood transfusion, it will be fatal for them. Similarly, without knowing the rivers, mixing their waters may cause a huge ecological blunder. We need to link people with rivers and not rivers with each other.”

Caught between two opposing thoughts, Ken-Betwa hangs by a thread. One hopes the minister is right. For, if he is wrong, not only will Bundelkhand lose water, but also perhaps Chandeli-Bundeli culture forever.

The writer is an independent agri-policy analyst and the former director, Policy and Outreach, National Seed Association of India.


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