Explained - Ken Betwa River Interlinking Project and Controversy

The linking of Ken Betwa has been seen as one of the projects and has raised as many eyebrows and its irrelevancy with an attendant emphasis on alternatives that go down to India’s traditional wisdom.

Apr 22, 2021, 10:53 IST
Ken Betwa River Interlinking Project and Controversy
Ken Betwa River Interlinking Project and Controversy

One of the major outcomes of the 'following economic growth model of western countries' is water scarcity in India. This in spite of the fact that India receives much higher annual rainfall compared with other major continental areas. No doubt, this rainfall is very variable in space and time, just as any other gift of nature.

We always find solutions to problems nature creates. One of the solutions is the Interlinking of the Rivers.

The linking of Ken Betwa has been seen as one of the projects and has raised as many eyebrows and its irrelevancy with an attendant emphasis on alternatives that go down to India’s traditional wisdom.

The main objective of the Ken-Betwa link project is to make water available to water-deficit areas of the upper Betwa basin, and this has been the aim of the nationwide proposed National Water Grid.

One of the proclaimed aims of the National Water Grid on interlinking of Indian rivers is to remove the natural imbalance in rainfall and water availability, which has also been causing floods in some regions and drought in others. Another objective has been to increase food grain production, hydro-power production, and inland navigation.

As per the concept, water from a river in spate will flow to the other river. Besides, it can be used for navigation throughout the year without involving substantial pumping. It was also sought to be a solution to farmer death, floods, and droughts

The linking can double irrigated land through interlinking. Its power generation capacity (60,000 MW) is also around 76 per cent more and will provide uninterrupted water supply to around 700 million people It will also help the government save Rs 1 lakh crore spent on oil imports and make 180 million jobs. Thus, it looks like a win-win situation for everybody. Water flow at Farakka can also be augmented so much so that it can resolve the tricky Farakka issue permanently.

The project envisages the construction of three waterways –in the north, the south and at the middle — which is able to “impound and store, transmit and distribute” “extra” water among river basins.

As many as 30 inter-linking projects are identified, and also the first project under the plan entails linking Ken and Betwa rivers in Madhya Pradesh.

The link is with an ostensible aim that Bundelkhand will be supplied with water. However, the upper reaches of Betwa is outside the Bundelkhand and experiences more rains than the region. Most areas of Bundelkhand that assured a supply of water are already being supplied by existing projects

There are going to be some ecological destructions, too. The Panna district, one of the smallest irrigated areas of Madhya Pradesh, will suffer maximum destruction while getting little or no have the benefit of the project. Lower down, Banda district in Uttar Pradesh’s also stands to suffer adverse impacts.

The people of Bundelkhand certainly need better water access and management. But the Ken-Betwa Link Project (KBLP), estimated at a price of Rs 38,000 crore, isn't the answer. The project will, on the contrary, result in huge adverse impacts within the region.

River linking, on the whole, is fraught with dangers and is always unsustainable in the long run.

Inbuilt in the linking philosophy is that the flooding of the river is a disaster and that it should be curbed, and that the river has no right to drain itself into Sea. Both the assumptions are wrong.

Ecological Effects of the Interlinking

Image Credits: Business Standard 

Floods have advantages and advantages only unless its turned into a disadvantage by people themselves.

  1. The entire ecosystem along a river and at its mouth has evolved in response to the natural and dynamic changes in the chemistry of flowing water as well as some small changes along the river and its adjacent region. This chemistry will change in an undesirable manner, in case of river linking.
  2. The strong symbiosis between marine and land life systems on earth which is so crucial for hydrological cycle and marine productivity will change with attendant consequences
  • Marine life will be deprived of nutrient supply and marine productivity could get adversely affected.
  • The Bay of Bengal (BoB) is uniquely characterized by the presence of a less-dense and low-saline layer of water will be replaced by high density causing the Monsoons to get adversely affected. The price that we pay then too has also to be computed.
  1. Once reservoirs and virtually a country-wide network of canals are created, It will not only impoverish river valleys, it will lead to sustained displacement of local communities.
  2. As evidenced in Punjab and Haryana, such water bodies in the absence of proper drainage that rivers provide will lead to waterlogging and salinity
  3. The linking through the construction of reservoirs and canals will sever and fragment wildlife habitats leading to destruction of animal corridors.

Political Effects of the Interlinking

This river-linking plan can become a potential source of perennial conflicts at the various level: center versus state, state versus state, state versus people, urban versus rural etc.

Constitutional Effects of the Interlinking

  1. The National River-Linking Plan is a blatant violation of constitutional provisions, especially in two areas.
  2. First, it's a cryptic effort to bypass states' control over water and placing it within the hands of the centre, de facto.
  3. Second, it wipes out all the ambiguous and unresolved issues or rights over water, forest, and land, in mere one stroke. This second aspect poses an ominous threat to the functioning of thousands of field-based smaller action groups engaged in empowering local communities, mostly rural, voiceless and marginalized.
  4. The plan may also lead to greater conflict at the international level as it necessarily entails cooperation of neighbouring countries, for the success of the river-linking project.

Macro-Economic and Financial Factors

The two components of inter-linking, the Himalayan and the Peninsular Rivers Development will cost entail enormous investment. That raises a question on shunning alternative ways to manage water resources.

There are other successful alternatives that have not been given priority and tried. In any case, the performance of dams and the experience obtained has so far been not at all good.

  1. The plan may also lead to greater conflict at the international level. Since being a lower riparian state, the cooperation of neighboring countries is important for the success of India’s river-linking project.

As per government claims, overall 79,292 hectares of forest land, will come under the submergence of this project and that will be devastating.

Moreover, each river regime is unique in its own way within its own ecosystem. Which will be disrupted

Engineering limitations

Image Credits: Business Standard 

There are 24 river basins in India. Transferring water from one basin to another will involve a large amount of lifting water from the north up to the Deccan. This will entail enormous amounts of energy much of which has got to be produced by hydropower to start with and renders the scheme infructuous from the beginning.

Any scheme that smacks of gigantomastia of this kind ought always to need to be questioned.


A thorough study on all aspects including consequences of flood mitigation, lack of sediment to ocean waters and nutrient supply in the downstream and coastal region, and more importantly in the BoB, is crucial for evaluating the long-term consequences of interlinking of rivers in India. There are sustainable alternatives, cheap and people-friendly alternatives.

More than 72 per cent of groundwater reserve within the country sees higher water withdrawal rates than recharge. This simply means that our policy makers and governments now need to focus on groundwater reserves and aquifers, which need to be linked for rejuvenating our rivers, and that is as correct of Ken Betwa as much for the whole of India.

Use of local wisdom diffusion of the information and reviving these environmentally sustainable technologies on water harvesting, empowering people, decentralising development and simplifying solutions through lateral thinking are far plausible solutions rather than merely copying the western water management practices with a colonial mindset.

That’s exactly the same in the Ken Betwa, case, where the construction of the dam in site within Panna Tiger Reserve is not the best possible option… the total project cost has not included the value of ecosystem services lost because of the diversion of forest… If the value of ecosystem services lost is taken into account than the benefit/cost ratio will be very less, not good for making the project economically viable. With 38, 000 crore investment, we can do wonders to the ecology by empowering people and following natural solutions.

About the Author

K Siddhartha is a renowned Civil Services Preparation Mentor and Thought Leader. He has more than 20 years of experience and has mentored over 1550+ civil servants, film personalities, entrepreneurs and policymakers. Mr K Siddhartha is the author of 43 books & 116 research articles. He is frequently invited as a speaker on global platforms. (Views are personal).

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