Polavaram fraud

The Polavaram dam on the Godavari could displace 400,000 people and submerge nearly 4,000 hectares of forestland. Most of the people threatened to be displaced cannot be relocated until their rights over forestland are recognised under the Forest Rights Act. How did the Andhra Pradesh government meet this immense challenge? It quietly told the Union environment and forests ministry that all claims have been settled.

The ministry gave forest clearance to the project last year. Now over 50 villages have written to the ministry, saying their forest rights have not been settled. Richard Mahapatra visited the villages and found the state had indeed lied.

Following similar complaints, the ministry had scrapped Vedanta’s proposal to mine Niyamgiri hills and withheld forest clearance to the POSCO steel plant in Odisha. Will it apply the same yardstick to Polavaram?

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Sunday 15 May 2011

Polavaram fraud

TeladibbaluFear of submergence haunts Kurturu, a village nestled in the Papi hills of the Eastern Ghats in Andhra Pradesh. In 2005, a band of officials, an unusual sight in this remote village in West Godavari district, visited the place and marked a rock. Then they broke the news about the Polavaram multi-purpose project on the river Godavari that would submerge Kurturu along with 275 other villages.

The words “FRL 150 feet” are inscribed on the rock face, which mean submergence at full reservoir level of 150 feet (45.72 metres); it indicates the level to which the river will rise once the Polavaram dam is constructed. The rock is at a much higher level than the 1986 flood level. Kurturu residents have vivid memories of the flood—the worst by far, when the Godavari rose by over 45 metres and submerged the village. The residents, belonging to the Konda Reddy tribe, point at trees on the hill to indicate the flood level. The flood lasted just two days. The dam will submerge the village forever. Even in summer, when the river’s flow is relatively low, the village will be submerged 18 metres under water, informs Rajakrishna Reddy, a resident of Kurturu.

“If one knows only how to fish and gather forest produce for a living, there is no other place where one can survive,” says Reddy as others nod in agreement. As compensation, the state government has offered the residents land 15 km away, in the plains.

‘Gigantic in size and violations’

The Polavaram dam, an earth and rock-filled structure, will displace the largest number of people in India’s history of such projects. “For every five acres (2.02 hectares) that will be irrigated by the project, one tribal family will be displaced,” says E A S Sarma, former power secretary, who has been tracking the project (see map, and ‘400,000 may be displaced’, right). The dam’s backwaters will submerge 3,731 hectares (ha) of forestland; its net present value, assessed at Rs 13 lakh per 0.4 ha, would add up to Rs 1,120 crore.

 Muchika Challabi

The Union Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) gave site clearance for the Polavaram dam in October 2005. But the National Environment Appellate Authority quashed the environmental clearance to the dam because the mandatory public hearings were not held. The state appealed to the high court and obtained a stay. The petitioner in the case, Sreedhar Ramamurthy of nonprofit Environics Trust, has now appealed to the Supreme Court to stop the project. The project’s cost has, meanwhile, escalated to Rs 20,000 crore; the state has not been able to raise funds for it till date (see ‘Who will fund Polavaram dam’,).

“The project is not only gigantic in size but also in degree of violation of rules and regulations,” says Ramamurthy. Work on the main dam is yet to begin. But work on two canals has started; about Rs 250 crore has been spent on them. The left canal almost touches the outskirts of Visakhapatnam.

The project, by default, marks the inauguration of the controversial National River Linking Project which proposes inter-basin transfer of water from surplus river basins to deficit ones. The Polavaram project includes a link between the Krishna and the Godavari rivers (see map), which will be the first of the 37 links proposed under the river linking project.

  People say there is hardly any progress in settling forest rights. This means they may not get compensated  
Kurturu’s residents have been waging a desperate battle to stay afloat. In 2008, they came to know about the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly called Forest Rights Act (FRA). Section 4(5) of the Act states no forest dweller can be removed from his land until the process of recognition of rights is completed. Even after the procedure is completed, the rights, which include rights to traditional habitats and community forest resources, have to be respected, FRA says.

The information renewed hope. The residents felt the Act’s provisions could be used to stop the project because their rights to the forests near the village had not been settled. Besides, the village is in Schedule Five area which has special protection; the gram sabhas in such areas have the right to withhold consent to a project. The residents were almost certain the Polavaram dam would be scrapped. But their hopes were dashed when MoEF gave forest clearance to the project in July 2010.

The ministry’s stand was, however, quite different when it dealt with two projects in Odisha. It scrapped the environmental clearance given to Vedanta’s mining proposal in August 2010 because of violation of FRA provisions. On April 13 this year, MoEF withheld forest clearance to the POSCO steel plant in Jagatsinghpur district. Violation of FRA was a major reason for the rethink on India’s biggest direct foreign investment project, promoted by South Korean steel giant, POSCO.


It turned out the Andhra Pradesh government had lied to obtain the clearance for the Polavaram project. It told MoEF there were no forest rights to be settled under FRA in the project affected areas. “The state has played a fraud on us. There is hardly any progress on the rights settlement front. Without it, we may not get compensation,” says Reddy of Kurturu.

Forest rights denied

As one treks through the Papi hills, with the Godavari slicing through it, one uncovers a trail of lies. Village after village certifies that the authorities lied about complying with FRA provisions. G Anil Kumar, an activist who runs the non-profit Integrated Tribal Development Society in the region, says, “Most villages that will be submerged by the Polavaram project have not been given their rights.” When he raised this matter in 2007, he was charged with sedition and jailed for three months.

  Fifty-two villages have complained to the Union environment ministry that their forest rights have not been settled  
After the forest clearance, 52 villages have written to MoEF about their forest rights not being settled. In the first fortnight of April this year, 30 villages in Khammam and East Godavari districts sent gram sabha resolutions to environment minister Jairam Ramesh on pending settlement of rights under FRA as well as “no consent” for the project. “In Khammam and Bhadrachalam districts alone, 4,000 claims are pending at the sub-division level,” says Ramakrishna Raju of civil society group National Alliance of People’s Movement. “Since the forest clearance, at least 100 villages have reported non-settlement of rights under FRA in the submergence zone in Andhra Pradesh,” says Gandhi Babu of nonprofit Agricultural Social Development Society in Khammam.

Down To Earth visited a few of these villages.

It is over three years since Mulagalagudem village in Polavaram block in West Godavari district filed claim for community rights over 64.75 ha forests and for individual rights over 24.3 ha in the Papi hills with the area forest rights committee. “We don’t know what has happened to the claims,” says Nechaka Narasimha Rao, a resident of Mulagalagudem.

 cement structure

Under the joint forest management (JFM) programme, the village community has been protecting another 388.5 ha forestland. Though the forest department recognises such forests as community forests under FRA, Mulagalagudem has not been given rights over them. Under the Act’s provisions, the forest rights committee should have been at the village-level, but here the committee is at the panchayat level and has only three persons from the village as members. There is no record of the first meeting of the committee. So nobody knows who made the claims or how many were rejected.

Madakam Gangarajan, a resident, says the protected forest has bamboo worth lakhs of rupees. “How can they submerge the forest we have been protecting for 15 years without giving us our due revenue share?” he asks. In 2007, the village in Schedule Five area, adopted a gram sabha resolution against the Polavaram project.

  Villages in the submergence zone are governed by the Fifth Scheduled Areas laws, which grant them special rights. Many will lose their special status—they will be shifted to nonscheduled areas  
People settled in Mulagalagudem about 100 years ago; the village remains cut-off from the rest of the region for about two months during the monsoons when the river is in spate. But nobody complains because the receding flood water leaves behind fertile soil, good for farm yield. The other sources of income are 500 toddy palms and minor forest produces collected from the forests. “It took years to make this village self-sustaining. It will take the same number of years if we get a suitable place elsewhere. What would happen to us in the mean time?” asks Ryda Laxmi, another resident.

In nearby Sorugodu village, too, the residents say they did not give the mandatory consent required for a project under the Fifth Scheduled Areas laws. The village filed 30 individual claims under FRA, of which 25 were recognised. The dam will submerge the forests to which the residents have titles. “Our village may remain intact but our means of living will be lost,” says Kowasu Venkateswar Rao, the village chief. What’s more, the residents’ landholdings have decreased by at least half because FRA recognises individual rights over maximum four hectares.

Teladibbalu is the last village in West Godavari district as one treks upstream. The village is accessible only by boat and has 19 families. Nobody here knew about FRA or the special scheduled area status of the village till recently. “Fish and forest,” says Kopala Kanna Reddy, an 80-year-old resident, while describing the two coordinates of the village’s life.


One day, government officials visited the village to construct a pyramid-shaped cement structure in front of a home. “Then we came to know about the project. It will submerge us forever,” says Bhalla Reddiya, a resident. The cement structure marked the submergence level, meaning the river that flows 100 metres below the village at present will touch the structure in summers. So, how high will the river rise at full reservoir level? “I think it may be right at the top of hill,” estimates activist Anil Kumar. The unreserved forest that provides the backdrop to the village is the primary source of living for the people. There is no move to settle the forest rights of the people here. Compensation might be given for a few trees, the officials told the village residents in passing.

Vedanta, POSCO set precedent

The scrapping of the bauxite mining proposal in Niyamgiri hills of Odisha last year and the withholding of forest clearance to POSCO steel plant this April, has brought the Polavaram dam back into the limelight. Civil society groups and governments of riparian states Odisha and Chhattisgarh are using the same argument that MoEF used in the Odisha projects to get the Polavaram project scrapped—non compliance with FRA provisions.

In November 2010, Union minister of state for environment Jairam Ramesh issued a show-cause notice to the Andhra government for not holding public hearings for the project even two years after getting in-principle clearance from his ministry. The hearings ought to be held within 45 days. Earlier, in August 2009, the ministry had issued an order on settling the forest rights of the people in the project- affected areas. While giving forest clearance in July 2010, the ministry said it was based on the “assurance of the Andhra Pradesh government that there were no forest rights that needed to be settled” under FRA. “That is a lie and the project must be treated the same way as Vedanta,” says Madhusudan N of non-profit Yakshi in Visakhapatnam.

  Sources in the Union finance ministry say they have decided not to give national status to the Polavaram project because it has violated almost all laws and may not be cost-effective  
The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the environment ministry noted in October 2010 that the state had not furnished the mandatory consent certificates from gram sabhas of villages in areas where forests will be submerged. On October 25, 2010, FAC recommended a thorough compliance report from the state government and suggested actions in case of violation.

On November 22, 2010, Ramesh wrote to the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, K Rosiah, saying the “matter that has been made available to me clearly seems to indicate that the claims of the local and tribal communities do not seem to have been settled.” When no response came, Ramesh sent a reminder on January 25, 2011, while adding, “I am awaiting a response from the state government.”

Activist Himanshu Thakkar of a Delhi advocacy group South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, says the state government deliberately scuttled the forest rights of the people to obtain environmental and forest clearances. Thakkar was instrumental in bringing the forest rights violations in Polavaram to the notice of FAC.

In August 2009, a group of researchers from organisations like Hyderabad’s Centre of Economic and Social Studies found the forest department gave the people the impression that FRA did not apply. “Nowhere were the claims by tribal residents, seeking rights under FRA, entertained or settled,” says P Trinadh Rao, a lawyer, who took part in the study.

The project has also become cause for dispute between Andhra Pradesh and two of its neighbours. The Polavaram project report says the dam will submerge four villages in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district and eight villages in Odisha’s Malkangiri district. The actual numbers are 23 in Chhattisgarh and 10 in Odisha, say the two state governments.

On April 5, the Chhattisgarh government decided to appeal to the Supreme Court against the project. The state’s chief minister, Raman Singh, said the project, is “unacceptable” in any form.

Odisha’s appeal against the environmental clearance to the project is already pending in the apex court. On April 1, the court appointed an independent expert to inspect the project area to ascertain if it was being constructed in accordance with the Godavari Tribunal Award on water-sharing between states. The court has, however, declined to stay the project. “We are going to apprise the apex court of the violation of FRA and the Environment Protection Act at the Polavaram project site,” says Suresh C Mohapatra, Odisha’s principal secretary for water resources.

In March 2006, the high court of Odisha had ordered that land and forest in the state should not be submerged by the Polavaram project. The Andhra government then submitted a second environmental impact assessment report for constructing embankments along the rivers Sileru and Sabari (tributaries of the Godavari) to prevent submergence in the catchment areas in Odisha. No public hearing was held for the proposed embankments (see ‘Design plays down flood threat’, right, and ‘Weak embankments’, p34). In March, the apex court asked the Andhra and Odisha governments to constitute expert panels to look into inter-state disputes arising from the project; these have been set up.

PESA bypassed

People living in the Polavaram dam’s submergence zone have another strong legal protection besides FRA, which can be used to demand scrapping of Polavaram dam. All the villages are governed by the powerful Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) of 1996. Under this Act, no project can be initiated in a Schedule Five area without the consent of the gram sabhas there. What’s more, no land can be acquired without the consent of the gram sabhas.

The Andhra Pradesh government had informed the Union tribal affairs ministry that consent had been obtained from all the villages. In 2007, the state told the ministry that it held 76 meetings to obtain consent certificates. But scrutiny of the documents shows none of these meetings were held at the village level; they were held either at the block or at the panchayat level. Senior officials in the tribal affairs department of Andhra Pradesh admit these meetings were a farce as the then chief minister wanted to hurry the project. The 52 villages that have written to MoEF regarding forest rights violations happen to be the ones that have withheld consent for the project.

 indira sagar

Even in cases where consent has been given, the procedure that was followed lacks credibility. Under PESA provisions, the consent has to be obtained at the village level. The consent obtained from Devaragundi village, the first village in Polavaram block that will be relocated, shows how the residents were practically duped.

Its gram sabha meeting was held at the panchayat office for three villages. “In 2004, the collector called us for a meeting in the panchayat office which was attended by the Polavaram project officials. The minutes of the meeting was treated as consent certificate later,” says Borajam Rajamani, former village chief. Residents of nine other villages in the block say their consent was obtained the same way. People of Devaragundi now refuse to shift to the rehabilitation colony built in Polavaram town, 20 km away. On February 9, the police arrived to evacuate them by force. A scuffle ensued. The village has now put barricades to prevent the police from entering the village.

A Constitutional crisis

The shifting of villages from the submergence zone poses another challenge. Devaragundi, for instance, is being relocated to a non-scheduled area. “Overnight, the tribal people will lose their rights and privileges granted by the Constitution to scheduled areas. Also, the President’s permission is needed to shift people from scheduled areas to non-scheduled areas. Have they got it already?” asks Punam Singanenadora, a former state MLA who lives in Polavaram. Residents of Devaragundi had raised the matter during the meeting with the collector. Rajamani remembers the collector saying it is a “Delhi-level issue”.

In Polavaram block in West Godavari, 29 villages will be shifted to non-scheduled areas; the number of villages that will lose their scheduled status in East Godavari district is 49. “There is no prescribed procedure on how to tackle this situation. It is a Constitutional crisis that involves rights of indigenous people,” says Ravi Pragada of non-profit Samata in Visakhapatnam. Tribal people of Polavaram are already fighting a legal battle against the government’s decision of 1960 to take 11 villages out of the scheduled areas list.

These villages also have residents who do not belong to the tribal community; in some villages their percentage is as high as 20. Non-tribal residents are given cash compensation unlike tribal residents who get land as compensation. The reason for this is Andhra Pradesh’s scheduled area land transfer regulation does not allow nontribals to own land in tribal areas.

In Khammam district and scheduled areas of East and West Godavari districts, tribal land is getting alienated, leading to disputes between tribal and non-tribal people. Over 121,000 ha in Khammam district is under dispute in the courts between tribal and non-tribal people. Similarly, over 48,500 ha land in East and West Godavari districts is locked in legal dispute. There is no land available for the government to resettle the displaced. Whatever land has been offered in scheduled areas is in the possession of other tribes or is disputed, state revenue records show.

“If my rights are not settled, I will not sign in the gram sabha consent. In case others give their consent, we may not move out for 10 years or 50 years or maybe never,” says Muchika Challabi, a resident of Chengudapalli village in Polavaram.

On the other hand non-compliance with PESA may cost the project the much sought national status (see ‘Polavaram dam divides politicians’). All political leaders of Andhra, except pro-Telangana groups, are demanding national status for the project.

The Union ministry of water resources had sent a note to the Cabinet in December 2009 to declare the Polavaram dam a national project. The note was strongly opposed by the tribal affairs ministry which demanded a review of the project because a large number of tribal families would be displaced. Sources say the Expenditure Finance Committee of the Union finance ministry has decided not to give national status to the project because it “has violated almost all laws and may not be cost-effective”.

Same violations treated differently

While the Andhra government is yet to respond on forest rights violations in the Polavaram project-affected areas, it remains to be seen whether MoEF treats these violations differently from the violations in Odisha where it ruled in favour of tribals and forest dwellers.

Like the villages in Polavaram project’s submergence zone, two villages at the POSCO steel plant site—Dhinkia and Gobindapur—had sent gram sabha resolutions on non-compliance with FRA provisions by the Odisha government. The POSCO project seeks diversion of 1,253 ha of forest.

MoEF withheld forest clearance, saying these resolutions must be considered while following procedures prescribed by FRA. The ministry had sought a clarification from Odisha based on a representation from the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, a local group protesting the project. The resolutions—passed on February 21 and 23—assert the people’s traditional and community rights based on historic documentary evidence and rejects the proposed diversion of forestland for the POSCO steel plant. An earlier resolution of February 11 also says that “no records, forms or materials were provided to anyone in the villages relating to FRA.”

According to Prashant Paikrey, spokesperson for the anti-POSCO people’s front, more than 1,500 individual and community claims have been filed with the village-level forest committee and the state government has overlooked these claims.

“As far as FRA is concerned, gram sabha is the statutory authority. The state has no power to overrule claims,” says Sanjay Upadhyaya, an environmental lawyer from Delhi who was involved in drafting of FRA rules.

Mamata Dash of National Forum for Forest Peoples and Forest Workers, a network of organisations and individuals working with forest people, says the ministry seems to be deliberately narrowing down the POSCO dispute to non-adherence to FRA, whereas the project violates most of the laws. “It is surprising that MoEF still expects the Odisha government to settle the claims of the gram sabhas when the state has been consistently denying existence of forest dwellers,” she says.

In its order withholding clearance for the POSCO project, MoEF says that ignoring the gram sabha resolutions would tantamount to violating the very essence of FRA. The ministry’s decision on the Polavaram project is awaited.

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