Who Benefits from the Ken-Betwa Linking Project? Field Notes from a Walking Tour

Who Benefits from the Ken-Betwa Linking Project? Field Notes from a Walking Tour

There is a way to increase the supply of water in the region of the two rivers without spending Rs 44,000 crore, destroying the biodiversity of the area and displacing hundreds of people from their homes. But the government seems blind to it.

As the palash trees showed off their blooms and the sun roasted the green wheat fields a golden brown, the river Ken enjoyed a siesta, its clear jade green waters revealing a school of tiny black fish and a black saur (common black carp) lazily gliding through water weeds. Meanwhile on the bank of the river, fire ants marched up and down my feet and it was only the ‘cuaao-cuaao’ of a bird that broke my trance. It was time for me to walk down this river.

The Union government is determined to link the river Ken with the river Betwa. Thousands of crores have already been sanctioned for the project and only the courts block the government from beginning work. With time running out, I decided to stroll the banks of the Ken one last time before it is mechanically tied to the Betwa, ready to learn who will really benefit from the river-linking project: Tigers? Fish? Farmers? Politicians? Contractors? The water mafia? India?

‘Our river will become a sewage drain’

The Ken starts its flow from Katni in Madhya Pradesh, continuing through the Panna forests towards the Yamuna in Uttar Pradesh, forming canyons and seeding valleys with life along the way. It is home to over 50 species of fish and hundreds of plants and animals.

My first stop was Madla, Panna, about 30 minutes from Khajuraho. This is a major tourism hub, with lakhs of visitors every year. Over time, this tourism helped to transform the economies of the local riverine communities. After spending some time among the people of Madla, I realised that they are weary of the project and not just because it may affect tourism.  As part of the river linking project, the government has proposed to build a dam inside the Panna national forest and this has upset the locals.

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