[Photo/Essay] Ken River Journey

The Ken is considered to be one of India’s cleaner rivers. It is part of the Ganga basin and meets the Yamuna at Chilla Ghat in Banda District, Uttar Pradesh. To closely understand the  Ken, this walk along the Ken was organised by SANDRP – South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People from Delhi and Veditum India Foundation from Kolkata

The difficult terrain of the Ken River and the harsh weather required this journey to be undertaken in multiple parts (June 2017, October 2017 and April 2018). It required a total of 33 days to complete this over 600 km journey on foot, where we discussed issues of the river, water, agriculture, the proposed Ken Betwa project and other socio-environmental topics with villagers in over 60 villages.The River length is about 427 kms and we had to skip the part that is within the Panna Tiger Reserve (we covered a part of it through Safari, Boat and other means), but the walk was longer than that as several places we could not walk close to or parallel to the river.


A small shrine on the banks of the Ken in the lower catchment area

Historical and religious sites along the Ken: We observed numerous religious sites and shrines all along the river, right from the confluence with the Yamuna where there’s a small shrine to the source of the river where there’s a shrine as well as a mazhar. Many historical sites such as Buragarh Fort (Banda), Ranagarh Fort and Ramgarha (Panna), today lie in a neglected state. Otherwise too, the river is dotted with ancient sites, like those at Ajitpur (Chattarpur, MP) and Madha Deori (Katni, MP), while a lot of old monuments have found their way into village shrines and some sites along the river like the Chaumukh Baba at the Gumanganj causeway. The interweaving of culture, history and the river is indeed interesting to observe.

Man washing his boots and cycles on the Madla causeway, slightly downstream of the Panna National Park

The lifeline of Bundelkhand: The historically perennial Ken River is the primary source of water for Panna, Chhatarpur and Ajaygarh districts in Madhya Pradesh and Banda district in Uttar Pradesh, in  addition to other districts in catchment area of the river. Most villages situated on the banks of the Ken are dependent on the river as a drinking water source, which continues to provide potable water thanks to the absence of many big cities and industries on its banks. It is also the source of livelihood through activities such as cattle rearing, fishing and riverbed farming.

A large number of animals (including in Panna Tiger Reserve and Ken Gharial Sanctuary as elsewhere) and birds are also dependent on the river, including migratory birds such as the Sarus Crane (also the state bird of Uttar Pradesh), Vultures, among many others, which visit the river in large numbers. However, increased human activities in the form of dams, roads & bridges, urbanisation, indiscriminate mining, deforestation, change in land cover and agricultural patterns are adversely affecting the river’s health.

Dried up riverbed of the Ken in the upper catchment area.

From perennial to seasonal: Ken is documented to be a perennial river. However, through the 33 days of walking along the Ken, the lack of flow in the river at a number of places was clearly visible, and the river has dried up in many stretches. In the month of April 2018, places like Pandavan falls near Amanganj were bone dry, with not a single drop of water on the riverbed except a trickle flowing in from Midhasan. In the stretch of the Ken upstream of Pandavan, seen in April 2018, large stretches of the river were dry, where we could walk through the middle of the riverbed. We found standing water at the confluence of the Ken with its tributaries. Those stretches with deep pool formations in the riverbed still contained water. Villagers say that even a decade back the situation was much better and river was certainly perennial just 3 decades ago. Villagers attribute this change to increased water use, and reduced forest cover in recent years.

The magnificent Raneh Falls, a geological marvel that dates back millions of years.

The wonder of Ken’s geology and water sources: The river Ken has a number of amazing geological features. The Beautiful multi-colored Raneh Falls is like India’s mini Grand Canyon. The Pandavan Falls is equally unique, as also the Gehri Ghat and cliffs inside Panna Tiger Reserve. The Pandavan, a unique formation in the middle of the river (at the start of a stunning gorge) is also at the risk of getting permanently submerged according to the calculations of some experts.

There are deep pools at various places along the river, locally called dabra, dahar, daun. These pools filled with rainwater and river water provide water for drinking, irrigation, cattle rearing, fishing, transportation and other needs around the year.Apart from this, the Ken river has a large number of natural springs locally called jhirna / jhinna. These are springs supposedly formed by the seepage of groundwater that then ooze out of the riverbed. Due to these springs, water is available around the year in these deep pools. According to villagers, increased irrigation activities have adversely affected the water availability at these springs.

Newer plantations of Eucalyptus have come up along the river. Sucking the groundwater dry.

Increasing exploitation of groundwater: According to villagers, the last 2-3 decades has seen a drastic change in cropping patterns in the area. Native varieties of crops that consumed less water like jowar,  koda, maize, gram and rain-fed paddy have almost been discontinued. These have been replaced by water demanding crops such as wheat and irrigated paddy. Large amount of water is now being extracted during the non-monsoon season for irrigation. The change in cropping pattern has resulted in increased number of borewells that are directly affecting ground water levels, and hence the river.Surprisingly, a lot of these bore wells in a water starved area is being used for eucalyptus plantations, which require a very high amount of water.In the areas upstream of the Ken’s confluence with the Lipri (about 25kms from the source of Ken), it was noted that the Ken hardly had any water except for extremely tiny pools. In these areas, people had pumped out water using bore wells to fill small pools in the river for cattle to cool themselves.

Hundreds of empty wells in villages all along the Ken

Drying up of the traditional sources of water in villages: More than 95% of the wells that we observed on the banks of the Ken had dried up, and even hand pumps give up during summer. Even ponds in most of these villages have silted/ dried up. Locals say that the reduced flow in the river coincides with the decrease in water in their traditional sources.

Drain carrying effluents from Banda draining directly into the Ken river, and kids and buffaloes enjoying a dip at the same time.

Increasing pollution in the river: The Ken is considered to be one of the cleaner rivers of Madhya Pradesh, and many villagers directly consume river water from the deep pools or dahars and natural springs or jhinnas. However, the untreated waste of Banda in Uttar Pradesh and Panna (through Kilkila river), Amanganj (through Midhasan) and Shahnagar in Madhya Pradesh flows directly into the river. The toxic waste, including untreated bio-medical waste is also directly dumped into the river. While this is a huge threat to those consuming the river water and also to the bio-life in the river, there seems to be complete  apathy from the government.

A serpent eagle found along the Ken. The river basin is rich in avian diversity.

River bio-diversity: We found the river to be very lively, with immense bio-diversity value. While on our walk, we observed more than 50 tree species, over 30 species of grasses and shrubs, over 30 species of mammals, reptiles and insects. We also observed more than 60 different species of birds, and could document around 12 different species of fish found in the river. The banks of the Ken at some places are  heavily infested with invasive species such as parthenium, prosopis juliflora and lantana.According to the fishermen, the river once used to be home to the Mahseer in healthy numbers, but the population has since declined. Locals also mentioned that increased structures like dams, bridges and barrages built on the river, coupled with unregulated fishing have resulted in reduction of fish, turtles, crocodiles and gharials in the river.

Hundreds of trees have already been chopped down for the Pawai Multipurpose Project while thousands wait, numbered, for their turn.

Developmental projects hurting river flow and bio-diversity: Projects such as Bariyarpur barrage and Gangau Dam, the dams on various tributaries of Ken and their unscientific operation have possibly had an adverse effect on the river’s health. Untimely release and holding of water creates negative impact on the bio-diversity and river dependent villagers and farmers.Despite this, and without adequate impact assessment, options assessment or public consultation, the Pawai Medium Irrigation Project is currently being built on the Ken. According to villagers – Project Affected Families have not been awarded adequate compensation and seems to be dealt with in violation of basic human rights.

Additionally, we observed that the project work was dumping muck from the canal construction right on the riverbanks in violation of the environmental rules. This project seems to be affecting crocodile habitat too, with villagers claiming that two crocodiles have been killed on site in the recent past for different reasons. More than 600 trees have already been felled for this project, with thousands still lined for clearing. For details, see: https://sandrp.in/2018/04/12/pawai-dam-project-displacing-people-without-rehabilitation-allege-pafs/

The Ken, in total, has 2 railway bridges, 21 road bridges and 5 causeways built on it. Apart from this, road bridges in Banda (Rajghat), Panna (Gumanganj) and one Rail Bridge in Rithi is under construction. Villagers have stated that recently built bridges have not taken high flood flow of the river into consideration, thereby placing them at a higher risk of flooding. Pailani bridge in Banda district and Pandavan, Tighara and Simra Bahadur bridges in Panna district are some examples of this phenomenon.Villagers remember the floods of 1992 and 2005 as the most disastrous, and fear that these new constructions will put them at a higher risk than before should such floods recur, as they are sure to, in changing climate.

Lift Irrigation Projects become redundant with extremely reduced flows in the river.

Increasingly redundant irrigation projects on the Ken: The decreasing flow in the Ken has made most irrigation projects redundant in dry years. We came across 7 Lift Irrigation Projects in Banda district and 17 check dams in Panna district upstream of Pandavan. Apart from this, we also noted two defunct pumpwell projects in Panna district.

Condition of catchment of the Ken a few hundred metres from the source. Scraped by large machinery for use in a railway project (which again blocks the river’s path itself).

Human footprint on the Ken begins right at the source: Situated in the middle of Ahirgawan and Mamar villages in Rithi Tehsil of Katni District, the accepted source of the Ken sits quite inconspicuously at the border of two farm fields. The catchment at the very source has been recently destroyed (scraped using large machinery) for a railway project, the river impounded (attempted through a stop dam) just 200 meters from the source and it’s path blocked by the ongoing railways project – (Katni – Bhopal line) another 500 meters further downstream.

Ken’s Tributaries: The Ken has 23 big tributaries, of which Aloni, Gudne and Midhasan are on the right bank and Patne, Sonar, Shyamari, Banne, Khurar, Kutne, Urmil, Kail and others are prominent ones on left bank. Apart from these, more than a couple dozen big storm water drains empty themselves into the Ken. Most of the tributaries of the Ken are in Panna district and join the river from the left bank. Most of Ken’s tributaries have also become seasonal due to human activities such as dams, stopdams, indiscriminate sand and stone mining, deforestation, increasing water extraction. It is imperative that we protect the health of these tributaries and revive them to protect the identity of the Ken itself.

Picture of a sand mine which has been mined through illegal large machinery.

Excessive Sand Mining through Heavy Machinery: Known for it’s superior quality sand, the Ken river witnesses excessive sand mining in Banda and Panna districts, all done using heavy machinery and in violation of the mining guidelines.According to villagers, excessive mining has resulted in formation of large unnatural pools in the river, reduced the water holding capacity of the soil and also increased erosion of the banks. This unregulated mining has negatively affected fishermen as well as those farming next to the river or on the riverbed.

Discussions with villagers in Chattarpur district, along the Ken. These villages had no clue that there is a big project proposed on the river not too far from where they are.

Misinformation, Missing information regarding the Ken Betwa River Inter Linking Project: It was learnt from over 30 villages (in Banda and Chattarpur districts) through discussions at village and personal level of gross misinformation spread about the proposed project to link Ken and Betwa rivers. Many villagers had not heard about the project, its impacts, or public consultation process and those who claimed to have heard anything, were either ill-informed or misinformed. This response of mis-information and missing information continued even after crossing into Panna district and in the upstream areas of the proposed project site.

Many were misinformed to the tune that they believed water in the link canal will flow both ways, from Ken to Betwa as well as Betwa to Ken. On learning more details about the project, a first for many, most expressed strong reservations against the project and feared the loss of already reduced flows in their river and for their own use. There have been no public hearings in Banda and even where there was (Silon and Hinauta in Panna), many of the villagers have neither heard of the project or public consultation process. Those who participated in the public consultation process, report mis-conduct and partial behavior by those conducting the session.

During the Yatra we also heard that a new Bariarpur barrage is to be constructed as part of the Ken Betwa Project, with higher level and new submergence area that will engulf more villages. However, there is no mention of this anywhere in the project EIA or public hearings or in the project environment appraisal.People were shocked to learn that over 23 lakh trees with girth over 20 cms are to be cut for the project, with almost equal number of more trees that will go to that girth.

The people to be displaced by the Daudhan Dam told us that about a year back there was a big ceremony inside the Panna Tiger Reserve, where the then Union Water Minister Susri Uma Bharti laid foundation stone for the project. However, considering that the project has yet to receive final forest  clearance, this is clearly in violation of the Forest Conservation Act. The Environment Clearance of the project is under challenge in the National Green Tribunal for many reasons, including shoddy, inadequate and shockingly unscientific Environment Impact Assessment, among other reasons. The Wildlife Clearance has also been appealed against before the Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court.  There is no agreement for the project between UP and MP, 13 years after signing of MOU for the DPR. People of Panna and Banda are opposing the project.

The road to Daudhan and Palkoha villages inside the National Park is full of rocks and is very painful to travel on. It takes forever to go anywhere during emergencies.

 We don’t want dams and relocation, but roads and development: Situated within the core area of the Panna Tiger Reserve, villages such as Daudhan, Palkoha, Menari and Kharyani fall in the submergence area of the proposed dam at Daudhan, part of the Ken Betwa River Inter Linking Project. Villagers told us that their local developmental works have been stalled since generations in the name of this proposed project and their eventual displacement, with even basic amenities of health, water and education being absent. Even the lone dirt road connecting these villages to the outside world is in a pathetic state, completely filled with rocks, which makes this commute very painful.

For decades, the villagers have not been allowed a road to the outside world citing that they live in a National Park which is a protected area, to which they question: “If we can’t even make a road, how do they propose to build a dam here?”. The village head of Palkoha village Ganga Prasad Omrey (husband of Sarpanch elect) mentioned that if they do not get their road soon, these villages would together boycott the upcoming state elections and also stage protests against this injustice. As a democratic nation, it is essential that we take people into  confidence about such proposed projects and ensure proper rehabilitation before any action takes place. This however, has seen to be a missing element from a lot of developmental projects in our country.

The lovely Ken Gharial Sanctuary that still hosts a lone gharial, will be affected by change in flows upstream

Ken Gharial Sanctuary: The unique Ken Gharial Sanctuary is a habitat of threatened species of Gharial. Situated downstream of the Bariyarpur Barrage on Ken, the Sanctuary is also met by three tributaries of Ken (Khurar, Kutne and Urmil), all three of them are already dammed, so we know that no water is flowing from any of them in the non monsoon months. The only hope for this Sanctuary, as also the Raneh Falls (Mini Niagra cum Mini Grand Canyon) is that water is released all the round the year from the Bariyarpur Barrage and the river upstream is in good health. This will also ensure good health of the river throughout the Banda district, up to its Ken confluence with Yamuna at Chilla Ghat.

The Ken is a fabulous and unique river, and we hope to come back to the river to learn more very soon!

In this brief note we’ve tried to capture some key aspects and observations from the memorable walk, which will remain one of the most unique lifelong experience for us. More detailed reports, travelogues, possibly a book and also a film is in the making based on our yatra. We’ve taken thousands of photos during the walk, have recorded interviews with large number of people we met, and will start sharing these soon. We hope to come back to travel along the Ken’s tributaries, and our endeavor will feel like a success when we witness more active and diverse participation in this process.

For further info contact:

Bhim Singh Rawat (SANDRP) : + 91 9717957517, [email protected]sandrp.in
Siddharth Agarwal (Veditum): +91 8100170707, [email protected]veditum.org


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