Natural Disasters

International Day of Indigenous People: Floods in Godavari shed lights on tribals displaced by Polavaram

Project was hastily thrust on the people in 2004 without any clearances from any government authority

By Palla Trinadha Rao
Published: Tuesday 09 August 2022

The tribal question needs special attention in the Telugu-speaking states because several habitations of indigenous people in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have been inundated due to recent floods in the Godavari.

It has also raised a political row among the leaders of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) in Telangana and YSR Congress in Andhra and its rival Telugu Desam Party (TDP).

Meanwhile, the ruling classes in both states have ignored the actual problem. The current minister of irrigation in Andhra blamed the former irrigation minister of TDP for the large-scale submergence of villages.

At the same time, the minister of transport of Telangana pointed a finger against the ruling party in Andhra.

The large-scale flooding inundated several villages of merged mandals (local administrative unit) in the newly created Eluru and Alluri Sitharama Raju districts in Andhra.

A few villages, including temple town Bhadrachalam in Bhadradri Kothagudem district, were inundated under the furious Godavari.

There are no proper estimates on the number of people to be affected by the submergence, the extent of area affected by the backwater effect in neighbouring states of Chhattisgarh and Odisha and the project’s costs. 

The backwater effect means the rise in water surface elevation due to obstruction of a stream’s flow,

The project that was hastily thrust on the people in 2004 without any clearances from any government authority continued to demand increased costs. 

The cost of the Polavaram irrigation project, estimated at Rs 8,198 crores (at 2003-2004 rates), is now multiplied to Rs 55,000 crores. 

As per the 2011 report by the Union ministry of water resources, around 0.193 million people are likely to be affected. Of them, 0.175 million people are from Andhra and 61,000 of them are tribals and the rest of the people belong to the neighbouring states of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. 

Andhra government has not made any resettlement and rehabilitation plans for the neighbouring states since it proposes constructing embankments to avoid submergence. 

In 2005, the Government of Andhra Pradesh declared that 412 villages would likely be affected either fully or partially due to the construction of the Indira Sagar (Polavaram) project.

Some 275 tribal villages in the erstwhile Khammam, east and west Godavari districts, get submerged and 137 habitations were under construction of canals in Krishna and Visakhapatnam districts. 

Bifurcation politics

As part of the bargaining for a separate state of Telangana, the TRS, which spearheaded the movement, conceded to hand over the tribal mandals to Andhra to ease the construction of the Polavaram Project.

The voice of Tribal leaders was suppressed by the elite sections of TRS and other political parties.

Section 90 of the Andhra reorganization act, 2014 states that consent for the Polavaram irrigation project shall be deemed to have been given by the successor state of Telangana. 

During the state bifurcation, the United Progressive Alliance government declared the Polavaram Project as National Project to woo those from Seemandhra who were agitating for a united Andhra Pradesh.

These developments were making tribals the scapegoat.

In 2014, the Union minister of water resources informed Rajya Sabha that out of 325 villages transferred to Andhra, only 193 villages would come under submergence in the Polavaram Project.

The rest of the villages are earmarked for the rehabilitation and resettlement centres for those affected by the project.  

Most of the transferred villages, including several other villages in Telangana and temple town Bhadrachalam, have been cut off from the outside world.

The hapless tribals took shelter on the hilltops or main roads for survival. Now, the Telangana government is raising hues and cries against the disastrous impact on tribal villages due to the backwater effect upstream of the Polavaram project. 

In July 2022, the chief engineer of the project requested the chief executive officer to take up a comprehensive backwater study by a neutral agency for the revised probable maximum flood of 50 lakhs cubic feet per second (cusecs).

He stated that the backwater studies by Central Water Commission (CWA) in Andhra assumed only 36 lakhs cusecs flood, without providing information on backwater levels.

The floods affected the historic temple town of Bhadrachalam and Manuguru heavy water plant, including coal mines, which reveals how inaccurate the backwater estimates are.

The impact on several tribal habitations due to recent floods is not surprising.

The satellite images of the upstream area of the Polavaram Project August 7, 2006, revealed that the gauged flood on that day was only 28.50 lakh cusecs which submerged 369 villages against the assumption of 276 villages at a flood of 36 lakh cusecs as per the project design.

Odisha and Chhattisgarh contested in 2006 before the Central Empowerment Committee (CEC) constituted by the Supreme Court that the water level would reach 182 feet with a backwater effect.

In Andhra itself, the number of villages coming under submergence could increase from 276 to 400 and the number of families affected by the project could increase from 44,574 to 70,000.

Similarly, the project-affected persons could increase from 1.77 lakh to 3 lakh in Andhra. The CEC did not address several issues raised by the contesting parties against the Polavaram Project, observing that they are beyond its technical competence or terms of reference.

As per the reports of Polavaram project authorities in 2017, the number of villages coming under submergence rose to 371 from 276.

Therefore, there is no comprehensive study report on the extent of submergence of villages under the Polavaram Project.

Backwater effect

Recently, a statistical analysis tried to estimate probable flood discharge values for 1,000 and 10,000 years.

The two-dimensional flow simulations revealed that at improper gate operations, even with a flow of 0.1 million cubic metres per second (m3/s), water levels at Bhadrachalam town will be high enough to submerge built-up areas and nearby villages.

The study further cited that the peak flood flow in the Godavari in the last 100 years was 0.09 million m3/s and the Polavaram dam was designed for 0.10 million m3/s.

The CWC had determined the possible maximum flood as 0.14 million m3/s and the dam’s spillway was redesigned accordingly. 

If the same phenomenon of the Krishna River occurs in the Godavari River, the flood flow would be 0.23 million m3/s, resulting in a major catastrophe, according to the report.

The study recommended regular and periodic maintenance of the gates of the Polavaram dam and suggested the construction of levees and dredging of riverbeds to reduce the water surface elevation. 

The two alternative proposals to the Polavaram project submitted by M Dharma Rao, former chief engineer and T Hanumantha Rao, engineer-in-chief (retired) were brushed aside by the expert committee constituted by the government of Andhra in 2005.

The committee observed that the projects are technically and financially unfeasible.

The two retired engineers suggested alternatives with the least displacement and submergence as well as minimal cost after due examination of the hydrology of the Godavari system and the existing projects upstream of Polavaram reservoir.

The suggested alternatives also protect ecology without compromising the stated irrigation benefits of the Polavaram Project.

The large-scale tribal displacement and concerns of people downstream and the potential threats of poor dam safety continue to be ignored in the blame game of the political parties.

Today’s political debate is oblivious of the social costs, human tragedy, pending legal queries by courts and resistance of two neighbouring states.

Palla Trinadha Rao is a lawyer working for tribal rights

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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