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Dam if you do


SURVIVAL INSTINCT: A protest rally against the Polavaram dam project in Hyderabad. Tribals belonging to 276 villages in Khammam, West Godavari and East Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh face the maximum threat of submergence if the dam is constructed.

Long after the Narmada noise has subsided, there's another growing flashpoint - this time in the south. The Polavaram dam, which recently invited the ire of a combative Jairam Ramesh, has pitted Andhra Pradesh against Orissa and Chhattisgarh. But no one is more at risk than the tribal Koyas whose villages and lives will be uprooted in the name of development.

In the Maoist heartland of Motu in Orissa's Malkangiri district bordering Andhra Pradesh, the Koya tribals have lived under the shadow of guns for years. Now, they are dreading another attack on their peaceful existence. And this time the enemy is the Andhra Pradesh government, which plans to dam the Godavari at Polavaram. This will lead to submergence of their villages and agricultural land that will add up to roughly 2, 100 hectares.

Luckily for the Koyas, the festival of Diwali has suddenly brought some good cheer - the ministry of environment and forest (MoEF) has now taken the Andhra Pradesh government to task for going ahead with construction of the dam. The ministry sought an explanation from Andhra Pradesh asking why it had not yet conducted the mandatory public hearings in Orissa and Chhattisgarh despite the March 9, 2009 order and the June 24 reminder. In a letter dated November 1 and addressed to the Andhra Pradesh government, MoEF said: "Work on the project is continuing without getting the environmental clearance amended for additional components like construction of embankments, drainage sluices and pumping arrangements. " The ministry had given environmental clearance to the project way back in 2005 on the condition that Andhra Pradesh conducts public hearings on the project in the neighbouring states of Orissa and Chhattisgarh.

The Andhra Pradesh government, though, continued the construction without holding any such hearings. Till last week, the threat of submergence was as real as the half-constructed edifice of the dam at Polavaram. The Orissa government had earlier filed an appeal in the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the construction of the dam. Then, on October 4, the apex court asked the MoEF to file its reply.

The Polavaram dam is part of the ambitious Indira Sagar project, which promises to end the water woes of coastal Andhra Pradesh and benefit the dry and arid Telengana and Rayalseema regions of the state by diverting Godavari waters to the Krishna delta.

In fact, damage from the project is expected to be staggering on the Andhra Pradesh side as well. Assessments reveal that the dam will submerge 1. 5 lakh acres of land and displace 1. 8 lakh people, more than the Sardar Sarovar dam did in Gujarat - 1. 7 lakh. Most of the displaced lot will be tribals belonging to 276 villages in Khammam, West Godavari and East Godavari districts in addition to villages in Orissa and Chhattisgarh.

The project also entails harnessing the surplus Godavari water to divert 80 tmc (thousand million cubic feet) to the Krishna river and provide irrigated water to 7. 2 lakh acres. Notwithstanding the submergence of forest and cultivated land in West and East Godavari and Khammam districts over nearly 30, 000 hectares, reserve forests and a major part of the Papikonda wildlife sanctuary would also vanish from the map. Not surprisingly, there are dissenting voices within the state itself.

Telangana Political Joint Action Committee chairman professor M Kodandaram, who had filed a case against the Polavaram project citing displacement of tribals, like the Koyas and Kondareddis, says around 300 villages will be wiped out once the dam fructifies. "Most of these tribals live off forest areas. Uprooting them from the forests would mean destroying them, " he says. He adds that the project will benefit only large farmers in coastal Andhra, which is where political power in the state rests.

Tribal rights activist N Madhusudhan chips in to say Andhra Pradesh has misled the Centre to get clearances, including the all-important green signal from the MoEF in 2005. "Koyas and Kondareddis will face maximum submergence and would not get a drop of water, " he asserts.

Before knocking on the doors of the Supreme Court, Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik had taken up the matter with the Union government. But it chose to ignore his complaint. In fact, in glaring contrast to its present stand, MoEF officials told Patnaik that 'due care' had been taken before giving the final nod for the project. Critics of Polavaram maintain that the main reason for the Centre's earlier "bias" towards Andhra Pradesh is the state's crucial support for the Congress in New Delhi.

Orissa, however, never bought the Centre's story. And protestors, now more than ever before, cutting across party lines are out on the streets holding rallies, demonstrations and dharnas condemning the Centre and Andhra Pradesh with whom the state is locked in a host of other water and land issues.

Officials in Bhubaneswar say Andhra Pradesh has been trying to execute the project illegally. A December 26, 2007 order of the National Environmental Appellate Authority (NEAA) had quashed the allimportant environment clearance given to the project by the MoEF. The Andhra Pradesh government later obtained a stay on the NEAA direction from the high court. "We are trying to vacate it now, " says an official in the water resources department.

Politically, things are heating up with each passing day. "The Centre followed one rule for the Vedanta project because it is in Orissa and governed by a non-Congress party, and another for Polavaram because the Congress is in power there, " says revenue minister S N Patro. "We will not take it lying down and will continue the fight. The world over the trend is to discourage big dam projects. The project is going to be a national disaster, " says engineer L N Patnaik, who has been tracking the mega project.

Andhra government officials, in turn, argue their case vehemently. They maintain that execution of the Polavaram venture would eventually irrigate 7. 2 lakh acres of land, solve the water problems of Vizag city, Telengana and Rayalseema. Prajarajyam Party chief and star politician Chiranjeevi and coastal Andhra leaders have taken up cudgels for Polavaram. So much so, Chiranjeevi undertook a 'gurrapu swari' (horse ride) and was on the wheels across coastal Andhra demanding national project status for Polavaram as part of his Polavaram Sadhana Yatra. While analysts surmise the former actor handpicked the emotive issue to protect his own identity in AP's political firmament and enhance his support base in the Andhra region, the PRP president has expressed his resolve to take the issue to Delhi if the state government doesn't act fast.

Is there a way out here? A retired engineer-in-chief of the AP government, T Hanumantha Rao, has an answer. Speaking to TOICrest from Hyderabad, Rao says he had redesigned the project in a way that the number of villages submerged would be reduced from 276 to just about 65 in Andhra Pradesh alone.

Rao's plan proposed three low barrages instead of one high dam, reducing the displacement of people to just about one-fifth of the expected figure. Barrages, many feel, are ecologically more viable alternatives to dams as they don't result in large-scale submergence of land. The cost of the project would accordingly fall from the present estimate of Rs 17, 300 crore to about Rs 6, 000 crore. The Andhra Pradesh government, however, has not paid much attention to this alternative.

Though Andhra Pradesh has maintained that damming the Godavari would yield unprecedented benefits to the state, it has at the same time been wary of openly discussing its pitfalls lest the two states facing the brunt of submergence - Orissa and Chhattisgarh - put a spanner in the works.

It was precisely to prevent a situation like this that the Andhra government signed a tripartite agreement with Orissa and Chhattisgarh (then part of Madhya Pradesh) in April, 1980. The agreement put an upper limit to capacity at 36 lakh cusecs. It also gave its consent to build and maintain protective embankments in order to check the backwater inundation effect in the two states.
But soon the Andhra Pradesh government increased the project's capacity without taking Orissa into confidence. The project could now sustain 50 lakh cusecs of flood water, which meant a bigger submergence threat for Orissa.

"The Andhra Pradesh government's move is quite surprising. As such, we are not prepared to accept the 1980 agreement anymore because the ground situation has vastly changed over the years. And behind our back the project has been redesigned. This is unacceptable, " says engineer-in-chief in the state water resources department, Harish Behera. "Our government has gone to the court. We hope to get justice, " he adds.

The Koyas will be waiting for that more than anyone else.


Even as India (and China next door) pushes ahead with big dams, there's growing international opinion against such 'perilous' projects. TOI-Crest looks at some of the country's most controversial sites


The project faced great opposition from the Narmada Bachao Andolan, spearheaded by activist Medha Patkar. Later, many celebrity activists like Arundhati Roy and Aamir Khan joined in. NBA struggled to get a stay on the height of the dam that was expected to displace 1. 7 lakh people. Patkar undertook a 26-day fast as a form of her non-violent protest. Her actions led to World Bank withdrawing financial assistance to Sardar Sarovar. The dam got the final nod from the Supreme Court in 2006. It now stands at 455 feet.


Gandhian environmentalist Sundarlal Bahuguna led the protest against construction of the Tehri dam for years. The dam was viewed as an obvious threat to the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas. It was also feared that since the region was seismically active, any earthquake measuring 8. 5 or more could break the dam leading to submergence of numerous towns down the stream. Construction of the dam was finally completed in 2006. Old Tehri was soon submerged.


The 600 MW hydel project in Uttarkashi was scrapped by the Centre due to religious sentiments of the people and sustained agitation by environmentalists over the damage it would cause to the local ecosystem. But by the time this decision was announced in August this year, National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) had already pumped Rs 650 crore into the project.


Construction of the 1, 500 MW dam on the Barak river, just 100 km from the Bangladesh border, has led to apprehensions that it will alter the seasonal rhythm of the Barak and also the Kushiara and Surma rivers in Bangladesh. This will further affect the lives of people who depend on these rivers for their livelihood.


Irrigation water to 4 lakh acre in East Godavari and Visakhapatnam districts;3. 2 lakh acre in Krishna and West Godavari districts through the right main canal;23 tmc of water for domestic and industrial needs of Visakhapatnam Generation of 960 MW of hydel electricity Transfer of 80 tmc water to Krishna basin Drinking water supply to all villages en route the left and right main canals

The multi-crore project has been mired in controversy since its conception by the British in 1941. The plan has since passed through the scalpels of many expert committees, each either adding or deleting something from the original draft. The Andhra Pradesh government, notwithstanding objections raised by experts, is keen on going ahead with the project. The late Y S Rajasekhar Reddy chose to take up construction of this dam as part of his pet Jalayagnam programme.

The original height of the dam was set at 206 ft. In 1980, the then Congress chief minister, T Anjaiah, reduced the height and laid the foundation for a 160-ft high dam, which was later brought down to 151 ft. His government too could not work out issues of submergence and rehabilitation. The dam was back in contention only after YSR took over reins of the state in 2004.

Irrigation expert R Vidyasagar Rao says the government is pushing ahead with the project despite severe opposition. He wonders how a project rejected by the Central Water Commission 70 times since 1983 could suddenly gain approval. But armed with the MoEF clearance in July this year, Andhra Pradesh is, in fact, demanding national project status for Polavaram.

Reader's opinion (1)

Babu LalNov 6th, 2010 at 22:01 PM

Very Thought provoking article. I, along with the MSW students of Nirmala Niketan, Mumbai, met the tribals of East Godavari District, Andhra last wee.They poured out their hearts. The state govt is waging silent war on its own people. Your article gives the real picture of Pollavaram dam.

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