The Panna tiger reserve, home to more than 20 tigers and the only habitat for the big cat in Bundelkhand, could lose about 100 sq km of its core area with the Centre "reviving" the controversial Ken-Betwa river linking project.
The project is expected to inundate nearly 20% of the reserve’s 576 sq km core area, classified as prime tiger habitat.
The Narendra Modi government has brought the controversial river-linking project out of cold storage despite opposition from several states. The project was first envisaged by the first NDA government led by former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to transfer water from water-surplus regions to arid regions of the country.
In fact, the Ken-Betwa project was shelved in 2011 as the then Union minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh felt it would be disastrous for wildlife.
Sources said the union water resources ministry recently referred the project to the union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) thereby setting in place the process for beginning work on the project.
Union water resources minister Uma Bharti did not comment on her ministry’s proposal but said that forest department would be compensated for the losses.
"The amount of forest land that would be submerged would be given to the forest department. Besides this, the same variety of trees would be planted on the land. Nothing detrimental to the environment will be done," Bharti told HT.
The Ken-Betwa link proposes a dam at Daudhan in Chatarpur district, about 2.5 km upstream of the existing Gangau weir which would be used to transfer water from the Ken to the Betwa through a 231.45 km-long canal.
The proposed dam would submerge about 44 sq km of prime forests, presently home to not only tigers but also vultures, another endangered species. Besides this, another 60 sq km of the core area of the park would be lost to the dam.
The estimated cost of the project is about Rs 9,000 crore and is expected to provide water for irrigation in about 47,000 hectares in Chatarpur and Tikamgarh districts in MP and Jhansi and Hamirpur districts of UP.
The project will have to get a wildlife clearance from the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and also be cleared by the state and national wildlife boards before work can commence.
The Panna reserve had lost all its tigers in 2009 but has managed to raise the number to 21 in the last 5 years. The last count had put the number of tigers in MP at 257. There are six tiger reserves in the state.