Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
The Hindu
The Hindu
Jacob Koshy

A near-complete dam linked to Ken-Betwa project is yet to get environment clearance

A major dam project of the Madhya Pradesh government, which is part of the Centre’s marquee Ken-Betwa river interlinking project, was found to be in violation of environment clearance laws by an expert committee of the Union Environment Ministry, The Hindu has learnt from a perusal of publicly available documents.

In an effort to rectify the situation, the Centre has invoked a set of controversial orders whose legality is being examined by the Supreme Court. The sequence of events demonstrates the confusion among the States in interpreting the Centre’s environment clearance processes and how this results in ad-hoc fixes being applied as amends.

In 2019, the Madhya Pradesh government began constructing the Lower Orr dam – part of the second phase of the Centre’s ambitious Ken-Betwa river interlinking project – only to be told by an expert appraisal committee (EAC), tasked with assessing the environmental impact of projects, in 2022 that the State hadn’t taken a formal clearance from the Environment Ministry for the project.

The expert committee, in December 2022, recommended that the Environment Ministry “consider taking necessary action on the violation against the project proponent as per law”.

The project proponent here was the National Water Development Agency (NWDA), a Jal Shakti Ministry body.

Following a site visit, the committee reported that about 82% of the dam and 33.5% of the canal network had been completed without a clearance from the Ministry. The NWDA, the project proponent, also didn’t have a ‘consent to operate’ certificate.

Fresh assessment

The EAC recommended that the project developers undertake a fresh environment appraisal process, assess the ecological damage that had ensued and lay out a ‘damage restoration’ plan.

These recommendations derive from a slew of executive orders issued by the Environment Ministry in 2017, 2021 and 2022 whereby a standard operating procedure was put in place to allow companies – private and state-led – who had violated the terms of their environment clearance, or were operating without one, to legalise their activities.

Along with the a fresh set of conditions, the new orders required companies to pay a fine that worked out to a percentage of the cost and turnover of the commissioned projects. Though these orders were initially valid for only six months, post being issued in July 2017, their scope has since been extended and many more companies have applied to avail of its benefits. There is, a separate EAC, to only evaluate so called ‘violation’ projects.

Nearly a year after this recommendation, in a meeting of the EAC in December 2023, the body recommended that the Lower Orr project be subject to a fresh evaluation, and the NWDA submit more data calculating the potential damage that may have ensued from the construction. The minutes of this meeting, made public on January 8, 2024, don’t specify if the NWDA must pay monetary fines.

Post-facto clearances

The Supreme Court, on January 2 this year, has put all these orders of the Environment Ministry on hold as part of the ongoing proceedings in another case filed by the NGO Vanshakti where such post-facto clearances accorded to mining companies have been challenged. The next hearing of this case is scheduled in four weeks.

Whether this order will affect the Lower Orr project, remains to be seen.

Bundelkhand to benefit

The Lower Orr project envisages providing irrigation and drinking water, on about 90,000 hectares, spanning the Shivpuri and Datia districts of the drought-prone Bundelkhand regions of Madhya Pradesh. This includes a dam over the Orr river and a separate system of barrages.

The project will involve 3,020 hectares of which 991 hectares are forest land. As of today, the project is estimated at ₹3,101 crore.

“The contract to begin construction of the dam was awarded on February 23, 2018, after obtaining administrative approval of the M.P. government,” the EAC minutes note.

Officials aware of the project say that when the environment clearance for the Lower Orr project first came in May 2016, there was no explicit requirement that a “formal order” of environment clearance was necessary for the project.

Because the project involved diverting forest land, a separate Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) is expected to weigh the project proposal and recommend such diversion.

“Though the in-principle forest clearance (FC Stage-I) for the project was recommended by FAC in March 2017, the formal approval was conveyed by the [Environment] Ministry in February 2019 only. As a result, the copy of FC stage-I could not be submitted within specified time frame and formal EC [environment clearance] was not accorded. Meanwhile, the State government, presuming that the project has got requisite clearances, initiated the works on the project in year 2019, on its own to fulfil the drinking and irrigation needs of the region on priority. However, the project has not received the formal EC. All other clearances are already in place,” Bhopal Singh, Director-General, NWDA, told The Hindu in an email. “Considering the circumstances under which the implementation of the project was initiated, the Ministry has been approached to regularise the EC for the project. As demanded, further studies on impact assessment of the project on various parameters are progressing and shall be submitted shortly for further processing,” Mr. Singh said.

Another official, who declined to be identified, said the Lower Orr project was not part of the original Ken-Betwa project and was included to “appease” Madhya Pradesh. The bigger project involves transferring surplus water from the surplus Ken river to the Betwa and that in sum will benefit the Bundelkhand region, that spans parts of both Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The project involves building a 77-metre tall and a two-km wide Dhaudhan dam and a 230-km canal. Though in the works for well over a decade, the two States couldn’t agree – until 2021 – on how the waters from the river basin could be equitably shared.

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.