September 2005 : Panna’s tigers were mysteriously disappearing at a rapid rate. Eminent tiger researcher Raghu Chundawat realised that 19 of the 22 breeding females he had radio-collared and tracked since 2000 had gone missing.
Voicing his fears to the Forest Department only led to the termination of his research contract by the authorities, who continued to claim the presence of 34 tigers in the 543 sq. km area. Meanwhile, large-scale human disturbances and the operation of notorious tiger hunters of the Baheliya tribe within the core area of the reserve continued unabated. The result? By 2009, all of Panna’s tigers had disappeared.
September 2015 : The reserve’s population has bounced back rapidly after the reintroduction of tigers in March 2009. The first tigers to be reintroduced were T1 and T2 , formerly residents of Bandhavgarh and Kanha Tiger Reserves respectively, with a male tiger from Pench being reintroduced in November. These tigers, along with others that have been reintroduced since then have bred frequently,and currently, the reserve is home to over 30 tigers, including cubs. The preybase has also bounced back, following the relocation of 16 villages, and the strengthening of protection norms.
However, dark clouds are on the horizon for Panna once again. This time, the threat comes in the shape of a river inter-linking project- the Ken-Betwa project. The project’s aim is to divert the surplus waters of the Ken river to the “water deficient” Betwa basin. This massive project, a brainchild of the water resources and river development ministry, is the first of as many as 37 river interlinking projects, all of which have been criticised as being ill-conceived, costly and environmentally destructive by noted hydrologists.
At 543 sq. km, Panna is one of the smaller reserves. The topography of the reserve is undulating, marked by the Hinauta and Talgaon plateaus, and the relatively low-lying Ken river valley. The Ken river is the chief source of water for the reserve and flows for a distance of about 55 km through the reserve, from north to South.
It is this river valley which will be affected the most by this project. Its overarching aim is to divert the surplus waters of the Ken basin to the “water deficient” Betwa basin.The project itself envisages the construction of an earthen dam on the Ken at Daudhan, in the heart of the reserve.
The dam, which is 77 metres high, will siphon off 660 million cubic metres of water from the Ken river. The creation of two power houses-one at the foot of the dam, and the other at the end of a 2 km-long tunnel, has been envisaged. All this, in addition to the creation of an irrigation colony, are all likely to adversely affect the viability of tiger habitat in Panna Tiger Reserve.
This project has come under heavy criticism from noted hydrologists, environmentalists and social scientists for a variety of reasons. Hydrologists at the SANDRP (South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People) had shown, back in 2005 itself (when an MoU for the implementation of the project was inked between the governments of MP and UP), that figures had been fudged to show an immense disparity in the water levels of the two rivers; such a disparity is unlikely to show up in an objective study.Infact, the so-called water deficit in the Betwa river (and thus, the planned cultivable area to be serviced by the project), is highest in the Upper Betwa basin, a segment of the river from which no water can be drawn by the project!!!
Furthermore, as SANDRP has highlighted, the use of relatively more sustainable programmes, such as rainwater harvesting, has not been envisaged in order to meet the demands of MP and UP’s water-deficient districts.
The project’s flaws don’t end here. The environmental impact on the entire Ken-Betwa ecosystem is likely to be disastrous. The total submerged area is a whooping 90 sq. km, of which 52.58 sq. km is forest land. Out of this, 41 sq. km belongs to Panna Tiger Reserve-thus, almost 10% of the entire reserve will go under water. Panna itself is part of a relatively isolated patch of forest, with its connectivity to other tiger source populations being under severe biotic pressure, and exists in the form of stepping-stone patches of forest (as opposed to large, contiguous blocks of habitat).
But even this fragile connectivity is set to be severed forever by this project-the corridors to the west, which link Panna with the forests of Central Madhya Pradesh, will cease to be viable if the project goes through. This may greatly affect the long-term survival of tigers in this landscape ; for long-term viability, exchange of genes among tiger populations is a must. Most of India’s tiger landscapes are small, hosting only a handful of breeding females, and are thus heavily reliant on such corridors.
The cliffs overlooking the course of the beautiful Ken river are also the nesting grounds of many species of vultures. The diclofenac crisis of the mid-90’s caused the populations of the Gyps species of vultures in India, in particular, to hit rock bottom. Panna, however, continued to remain a key vulture stronghold and the 2015 census saw the reserve’s population of critically endangered Long-billed and White-backed vultures post a significant increase.
However, this rosy scenario may soon be a thing of the past if the river interlinking project goes through. Upto 60% of the vulture nesting area may be submerged, and the resultant disturbances may spell a death knell for these endangered birds in this landscape.
Numerous other species, both big and small, will be impacted. The nearby Ken Gharial Sanctuary is a crucial habitat for the critically endangered gharial, as well as for several otter species. Unfortunately, the project will wreak havoc with the hydrological regime of this important habitat, and consign the few surviving gharials, muggers and otters here to local extinction.
Every major project requires an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) to gauge the extent to which it adversely impacts the environment(legal provision for this). The EIA for the Ken-Betwa project was done by the consulting authority Agricultural Finance Corporation of India (AFC India). Read on if you are in need of a few grim laughs-the EIA can rightly be considered to be a work of comedy!!! After all, what else can one say about a body of work which claims that the sangai , the slow loris and the slender loris occur in the project area!!!
The EIA even claims that the project will benefit tourism by allowing for more sport fishing within Panna TR ; this only displays the consultant’s ignorance, as sport fishing is completely banned within Protected Areas in India.
And that’s not all. Numerous hydel projects in wildlife-rich areas have been passed off as having been “beneficial” to wildlife by providing species with a reliable source of water, as if this compensates in any way for the cutting up of the Panna landscape.
Furthermore, the high-handedness of the officials involved was further exposed when the public hearing for the project was carried out in a highly improper manner. According to the amended EIA regulations laid down by the MoEF in 1997, every EIA must incorporate a public hearing involving all those who are likely to be affected by the project, on a village-by-village basis.
However, on this occasion, as on many others, tardiness by local officials saw much of the information about the project not being put up on the public domain. In one instance, activists of the ruling party prevented the villagers from raising objections. All this made a mockery of the democratisation which public hearings are supposed to achieve.
The State Wildlife Board hurriedly cleared the project on the 22nd of September, and the National Board is unlikely to behave any differently. The objections of the few truly independent members of the board were quickly shoved aside, and were not even recorded in the minutes of the meeting.
Gone are those days when these Boards acted as genuine watchdogs; they act as notional rubber-stamping agencies now, the urgency of whose members is felt only when “important” projects like these need to be cleared.
Indian planners continue to view environmental laws as a key obstacle in the path of big projects which seek to bring about “development”. In the long run, most such projects hardly ever succeed in attaining the grand objectives which they are designed to meet.
River interlinking projects definitely belong to this category. These will disrupt entire hydrological regimes, for each river sustains a unique ecosystem based on its flow, which in turn is dependent on a variety of factors, such as the climate of the source region, the topography of the watershed and the nature of the tributaries joining the main river.
Playing havoc with such fragile systems could lead to massive long-term disasters and divert the attention away from relatively sustainable water harvesting methods, such as groundwater recharge and watershed development. As Dr Latha Ananta, director of the River Research Center has rightly pointed out, “a river isn’t a pipe that we can control”.
Unfortunately, the hubris of planners, in India and elsewhere, causes entire living ecosystems to be trod underfoot, as the seemingly inexorable march of development continues. The conservation of biodiversity and habitats continues to remain a concept only on paper, to which mere lip service is given, while Homo Sapiens continues to exchange long-term viability for short-term gain.
It would indeed be a great tragedy if Panna’s tigers were to have dodged the poacher’s snare due to the undying efforts of the Forest Department, only to have their territory washed away in the name of “development”.