Away from the election buzz in Madhya Pradesh is Khamri, a small village in Panna district that lies deep inside the buffer zone of the Panna Tiger Reserve. Over 50 per cent of Khamri’s population belongs to the Scheduled Tribe (ST) community and is engaged in marginal farming and harvest of minor forest produce. Many migrate to Punjab and Maharashtra for labour during the monsoons.
The village of 110 families is one of 25 whose land will be acquired for the ambitious Ken-Betwa River linking project that is estimated to cost Rs.45,000 crore. The Ken River is the lifeline of the perennially drought-prone Bundelkhand region and it flows through the tiger reserve. Now the river is under the spotlight as the place of the country’s first river-linking project.
The linking of the rivers, it is claimed, will help transfer surplus water from the Ken basin in Madhya Pradesh to the Betwa River basin bordering Uttar Pradesh.
While environmentalists have long pointed to the inherent risks in river-linking, from deforestation and altered fish population to ecological imbalances and changes in monsoon patterns, the more immediate issues seem to be that of land acquisition.
There are reports of flawed land surveys and villagers have raised formal objections on undervaluation and have expressed concerns over their loss of livelihoods.
In Madhya Pradesh, the proposed 77 m Daudhan dam, a key component of the project, will displace 5,228 families in Chhatarpur district and 1,400 families in Panna district due to land submergence and dam-related land acquisition, an official from the Ken Betwa Link Project Authority said.
Over 10 per cent of the tiger habitat is also expected to be under water once the dam comes up. The dam will submerge 5,578 hectares of forest inside Panna Tiger Reserve, of which 4,206.05 hectares is in the core area and 1,372.42 hectares is in the buffer zone.
On September 9, the State Cabinet cleared a special package for rehabilitation and resettlement. The broad contours of this package include a payment of Rs.12.50 lakh per hectare of private land owned and Rs.12.50 lakh per hectare for those with titles on revenue or forest land.
Lack of clarity on land acquisition
For displacement from homes, the package offers either allotment of plots and Rs.6.5 lakh in urban areas, or Rs.7 lakh in rural areas based on availability. If families do not want to opt for plots, then the package provides for a lump sum rehabilitation of Rs.12.5 lakh per family.
In Khamri, Mahesh Prasad, a 48-year-oldbelonging to the Gond tribe, is disappointed with the compensation offered. “It [the package] won’t sustain us in the long run. We will be taken far away from our forest resources. There will be livelihood problems in the times ahead,” he said.
In neighbouring Chhatarpur district, villages in Shahpura will be submerged. Chandra Pratap Parmar, 25, stood on the terrace of his uncle’s home and pointed to several farms across a large area and said that stones with survey markings had been left in the farms, but people whose farms have been surveyed have not received any compensation notices. “There is very little clarity on the acquisition process,” he said. In Shahpura, only a handful of families have received notices.
While Shahpura falls in the submergence area of the Daudhan dam, Khamri is earmarked for acquisition to compensate for the loss of 6,017 hectares of forest that will be submerged inside Panna reserve owing to the dam. While granting forest clearance to the project, the Union government allowed the acquisition of non-forest land in lieu of the loss of Panna’s vast forest area. [2605201718492016.pdf (forestsclearance.nic.in)]
Two key kinds of land acquisition will happen for the dam. One for submerged lands and one for compensatory afforestation.
This reporter spoke to affected people across eight villages in Chhatarpur and Panna districts. They expressed displeasure about the special package and criticised the district administration’s conduct of what they called flawed land surveys. The main fear of the villagers is that India’s first river linking project meant to end the water and economic woes of the region could exacerbate their livelihood struggles.
The special package announced in September came after affected villagers, especially from Chhatarpur, protested multiple times to seek fair compensation.
“While environmentalists have long pointed to the inherent risks in river-linking, from deforestation and altered fish population to ecological imbalances and changes in monsoon patterns, the more immediate issues seems to be that of land acquisition.”
“The district administration and state government do not have honest intentions. Had people not protested, they would have settled on a lower compensation of Rs.3.5 lakh per hectare,” said Amit Bhatnagar, a Chhatarpur-based social activist who is fighting on the Aam Aadmi Party ticket for the Bijawar seat in the November 17 Assembly election.
Bhatnagar has made the project a key issue of his poll campaign and has in the past as well organised project-affected people around the issue of displacement.
Neha Bagga, spokesperson for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, told Frontline that the party and the State government would take all the concerns and issues of the affected people seriously. “We will give them rightful compensation. If the people have objections those will be considered and we will resolve them,” Bagga said.
What is the project and why are villagers worried?
The aim of the link project is to provide drinking water and irrigation facilities to Chhatarpur, Tikamgarh, Panna, and Damoh districts in Madhya Pradesh; and Jhansi, Lalitpur, Mahoba, and Banda districts in Uttar Pradesh.
As part of the Phase-I of the project, the Daudhan dam will be built on the Ken inside the core area of the Panna Tiger Reserve. This dam, which will store water to be transported to Betwa basin in link canals, will submerge over 90 sq km of area, of which 60 sq km lies inside the tiger reserve.
Nine villages in Chhatarpur district, spread over 1595.97 hectares, will be acquired as they fall in the submergence zone, as per the notification issued by the Chhatarpur Collector. And 16 villages—11 in Panna district and five in Chhatarpur district—spread across 2,357 hectares, will be affected due to acquisition for compensatory afforestation, as per the Union Environment Ministry and the Madhya Pradesh Forest Department records.
The Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) granted the final forest clearance recently, thus paving the way for work to begin on the dam inside the Panna reserve. “The work on mutation of land in the name of the forest department is under way and a limited working area permission has been granted for starting work on the dam,” said Brijendra Jha, field director, Panna Tiger Reserve.
The tender for Daudhan dam was floated in August 2023 and it is to be implemented in eight years, said Bhopal Singh, Director General, National Water Development Agency, which is implementing the project.
Villagers allege flawed acquisition surveys, demand higher compensation
Villagers have been exchanging notes and have found errors and omissions during official surveys.
In Chhatarpur’s Kupi village, Deepak Yadav, 29, points to an ordinary wall that his home shares with his neighbour Basant Lal Gupta, 46. Local revenue officials surveyed his neighbour’s home for acquisition but did not serve Deepak Yadav an acquisition notice.
“Please help me understand, if my neighbour’s home and this common wall is accounted for inside the submergence zone of the dam, how will my home not be affected?” Yadav asked. He wrote to the local revenue department in August seeking clarification and requested a survey and possible compensation for his home. As per the acquisition notice received by his neighbour Gupta, their house, a pucca structure, was valued at Rs.2.58 lakh, besides the compensation for the land.
In August, villagers submitted a petition to the SDM’s (sub-divisional magistrate) office with their objections. When questioned, the Bijawar SDM did not offer any comment.
Speaking of the Rs.12.5 lakh rehabilitation grant, the local SDM of Bijawar held a meeting with villagers in Kupi in May, informing residents that a site in Kishangarh, 16 km south of the village, was identified as their resettlement colony. Poonam Vishwakarma, 38, who works as a cook in the local high school, said, “There is uncertainty over availability of plots. This one-time grant is not enough. Displacement and relocation will disturb our lives in the years ahead,” she said.
When asked about outreach by political representatives, she said, “Not a soul from any party has come here to talk to us about the displacement.”
The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR Act) states that in case of an irrigation project, as far as possible, a minimum of one acre should be allotted to each family that owns agricultural land in the affected area. This land should be given in the command area of the project, that is, the area that gets water from the irrigation project. Further, each person included in the record of rights from the affected family should be considered for this entitlement.
“The main fear of the villagers is that India’s first river linking project meant to end the water and economic woes of the region could exacerbate their livelihood struggles.”
Before the special package was announced, affected families received notices with valuation details of their homes, trees, and farms. The valuation by the Bijawar SDM and the land acquisition officer was based on circle rates. The Madhya Pradesh government’s special package states that families can either opt for the Collector’s compensation and solatium (which is 100 per cent of the compensation) or the special package, whichever is higher.
Chhatarpur Collector Sandeep G.R. did not respond to queries mailed to him regarding the grievances of project-affected people and Panna Collector Harjinder Singh refused to comment, directing this reporter to Deputy Collector Rohit Verma. Verma could not be reached despite repeated attempts.
Impact on livelihoods
Dayaram, 40, a panchayat member of Koni village in Panna said that the displacement would have long-term impacts. He demanded that the government increase its package substantially. “We need at least five acres per family and at least Rs.30 lakh per adult member of a family. Nothing else will be enough,” he said.
A social impact assessment study done in December 2014 had noted that land acquisition would lead to loss of cultivable land, which is a key source of livelihood. Big and medium landholders would become either small or marginal farmers, thus dramatically reducing income from farming, the study said. The study also noted that income from minor forest produce was the second biggest income stream after farming in the proposed dam area.
The observations from the study echo those on the ground, including in those villages that are to be displaced for compensatory afforestation.
Sada Rani, 32, of Gahdara village in the buffer zone of the Panna Tiger Reserve said that her family’s 10-acre farmland was divided between her husband and his two brothers. Farming and the sale of tendu leaves are their two main sources of income for them, with the tendu income key during summer. Rani worries that losing both land and access to forest could lead to livelihood struggles for the family. “It will throw us into a corner. We will have to go out to the cities looking for work,” she said.
Rajesh Tiwari, 48, also of Gahdara, pointed to the irony of their impending displacement. Tiwari recalled that Gahdara and the 20 other villages, now being acquired for the dam, were added to the Panna tiger reserve’s buffer zone in 2012. Back then, Tiwari said, the forest department came with folded hands seeking their cooperation to save tigers from extinction. Now, Tiwari said, the government is okay with drowning the reserve and displacing us. “When they needed us, we helped them with our heart and soul. It is time for them to help us.”
Nikhil Ghanekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. He writes on environment, climate change, and policy issues. This article was supported by Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change, and natural resource governance in India.