Chandrababu Naidu's haste over 'flawed' Polavaram dam a concern; project violates forest rights act, say experts

Instead of addressing 'injustice’ done to tribals, the Chandrababu Naidu govt of Andhra Pradesh is extending it by ignoring procedures and rules in the construction of the Polavaram dam on Godavari river

Rahul Maganti October 26, 2017 12:00:12 IST
Chandrababu Naidu's haste over 'flawed' Polavaram dam a concern; project violates forest rights act, say experts

Polavaram, Andhra Pradesh: "We will complete the Polavaram project by 2018. And we need Rs 39,000 crore more from the Centre,” said Chandrababu Naidu, the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, while asking the Centre to grant funds for the completion of the project.

The Polavaram project has been accorded national status in 2014 in the Andhra Pradesh Bifurcation Act. While the initial estimate of the project in 2004 was pecked at Rs 10,000 crore, the current estimate is Rs 58,000 crore and is expected to increase significantly.

Chandrababu Naidus haste over flawed Polavaram dam a concern project violates forest rights act say experts

File image of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Chandrababu Naidu at the site of Polavaram dam project. PTI

A recent press release by the government claimed that only 27 percent of the project is completed and that the Andhra Pradesh chief minister is ‘extremely unhappy’ about the progress of the project. The work has stopped at the construction site since 5 October because bills to the tune of Rs 250 crore are yet to be paid to the contractors by the government. The workers claimed that their salaries have been held up for the last four months.

If the Polavaram project becomes reality, at least 338 villages on the banks of the Godavari, spread across nine mandals in Schedule-V areas of Andhra Pradesh, will be a thing of the past. Three lakh people — including 1.5 lakh tribals, 50,000 Dalits and around the same number of OBCs — will be displaced from 10,000 acres of forest land and 1,21,975 acres of non-forest land. Another 30,000 hectares (75,000 acres) of land is being acquired for canals, distributaries, townships and a green belt.

Together, they add up to more than two lakh acres, or twice the area acquired for the Sardar Sarovar Dam, the largest of the dams being built in the Narmada Valley, which was recently ‘dedicated to the nation’ by Prime Minister Narendra Modi while thousands of displaced people — mostly tribals and Dalits — were protesting for their rights.

Is so much of displacement and destruction unavoidable?

Late T Hanumantha Rao, former chief engineer of the State’s Irrigation Department, had proposed an alternative which would displace just 72 villages as against the 370 being displaced now.

Instead of damming the river where Sabari meets Godavari and creating a massive reservoir, Rao had proposed to construct three barrages, one each across Sileru, Sabari and Godavari, and thereby creating small reservoirs, without obstructing the flow of any of the three rivers and still having the said benefits of the dammed reservoir. He had also suggested that the proposed dam is also at a high risk of break — which will cause the death of at least 45 lakh people. Sileru forms the border between Andhra and Odisha before joining Sabari, a tributary of Godavari.

Politics of Polavaram

Polavaram is a dam being built 50 kilometres upstream of the Sir Arthur Cotton Barrage (Dhavaleswaram barrage) near Rajahmundry, on Godavari, the longest river in South India. This multi-purpose project will be equipped with a 75 thousand million cubic (TMC) reservoir along with 12 units of 80MW hydropower generation each. It is also expected to transfer 80 TMC water from the Godavari to the Krishna Basin, to reduce water stress in the coastal districts as well as in Rayalaseema region. The government claims that 7.2 lakh acres in Visakhapatnam, Krishna, East and West Godavari districts are expected to be irrigated by the project.

Chandrababu Naidus haste over flawed Polavaram dam a concern project violates forest rights act say experts

Details of the coffer dam listed in a signboard at the construction site of the dam. Rahul Maganti/Firstpost

Polavaram found its first political expression in 1943 through the voice of North Andhra Congress leader Tenneti Viswanadham who vociferously campaigned for the dam. He believed the dam would mitigate the water woes of the northern Andhra districts of Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam. However, due to the Bachawat tribunal award on Godavari waters and opposition from Odisha and Madhya Pradesh (now Chhattisgarh) states — whose forest lands are also set to be submerged because of Polavaram — it was only after late YS Rajasekhara Reddy was sworn in 2004 that the project was pushed as a part of a series of irrigation dams under the name ‘Jalayagnam’. The project was mired in corruption controversies later.

YSR was known to have had taken a keen interest in Polavaram because the transfer of 80 TMC from the Godavari basin to the Krishna basin would ease the pressure on the Srisailam dam, where Krishna is dammed while it enters Andhra Pradesh. He could then divert Krishna water to the drought-prone Rayalaseema, his native region and also a Reddy stronghold, which has always been loyal to Congress.

Even as the interests of backward northern Andhra districts like Srikakulam and Vizianagaram are espoused to legitimise the project, they hardly get any irrigation water.

The lion's share of irrigation from Polavaram would go to the Krishna Godavari Delta, where land is concentrated in the hands of the dominant Kamma community, the backbone of the ruling Telugu Desam Party. It is in this context that one should understand Chandrababu Naidu’s haste to complete Polavaram by ruthlessly dispossessing tribals, amidst procedural flaws and illegalities.

The travesty of forest rights
In August and September 2010, 13 tribal villages in the submergence area of the Polavaram Multipurpose Irrigation Project convened their respective gram sabhas and passed a resolution unanimously 'condemning the false information given by the state government' and demanding that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change cancel the clearance it had given. The resolution claimed that government of Andhra Pradesh ‘lied out-rightly to environment ministry’ about the status of forest right claims in the submergence region.

“According to the forest rights act 2006, the individual rights of tribals over forest land (podu) and their collective rights over the forest produce must be recognised, and acquisition should only begin after gaining consent from the gram sabhas. However, none of these ever happened,” says Payam Jyothi, sarpanch of Abhicherla, a village on the bank of Sabari which is set to be completely submerged due to the Polavaram project.

Abhicherla is a village in Kunavaram Mandal, one of the seven mandals which were transferred from Telangana to Andhra Pradesh, post the bifurcation, to 'ease the process of construction of the dam' despite severe public resistance.

"Around 15 families cultivate 50 acres of 'podu' land in the adjacent Bapanamma forest. We also get bamboo, wood, fruits, and vegetables from the forest spread across 500 acres,” says Nagamani, a volunteer in the Agricultural and Social Development Society (ASDS), an organisation working on forest rights in the East Godavari district.

The forest rights committee of the village forwarded the claims to the District Level Committee where they got struck, claim the villagers. The story of Abhicherla repeats in most of the villages being submerged under the Polavaram project.

Chandrababu Naidus haste over flawed Polavaram dam a concern project violates forest rights act say experts

Construction has halted at the dam site. Rahul Maganti/Firstpost

In some villages, the tribals informed this reporter of pattas being given and taken back under some pretext or the other. In Bhagawanpuram village of Koonavaram Mandal, some of the tribal farmers were given pattas in 2012 but were taken back on the pretext that ‘the forest officers will sign and give’, which never happened.

Villagers in Pochavaram were also given pattas but were taken back on the pretext that their lands fall under Papikondalu National Park, part of which is also under submergence. Different pretexts are used in different villages but the consequence remains same.

“This has been a trend across villages which fall under the submergence zone. They were either not given their rightful pattas or were taken back when they were given 'mistakenly'. There seems to be an unwritten consensus between the forest officers and the government of Andhra Pradesh to not recognise the claims of the people in the submergence region as that would negate the Andhra Prades govt’s response to environment ministry in 2010. Moreover, if the claims are recognised, the state govt would require a huge amount of land to rehabilitate the tribals, which is next to impossible,” says a human rights lawyer who wished to remain unidentified.

The forest rights act, 2006 in its introduction refers to ‘historical injustice’ to the tribals, but instead of addressing the issue with honesty, the government of Andhra Pradesh is extending the injustice.

“Since the scope of the design has changed over years, the EC lapses automatically. So, the construction which is happening right now is illegal,” says the lawyer.

After the tribals wrote to the environment ministry regarding the settling of forest rights, or the lack thereof, in the submergence region, Jairam Ramesh, the then minister of environment, had written letters to the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Konijeti Rosaiah and his successor Kiran Kumar Reddy, which went unanswered. The environment ministry wrote a final letter to the state govt in February 2011, stating that it will send an official to the submergence region to engage with the tribals and verify the truth behind the allegations against the government of Andhra Pradesh.

However, an RTI reply accessed by this reporter says that the deputed official never came to Andhra Pradesh to verify the allegations. It was around this time Jayanthi Natarajan replaced Jairam Ramesh as the environment minister.

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