Analysing Polavaram irrigation project

By Himanshu
Published: Wednesday 31 January 2007

Down to EarthPerspectives on Polavaram, A Major Irrigation Project on Godavari edited by Biksham Gujja, S Ramakrishna and Vinod Goud Sivaramakrishna, Academic Foundation New Delhi with WWF-India and SAKTI

The book under review is a departure from the conventional works on large irrigation projects. The editors have bought together divergent perspectives on the Polavaram irrigation project on the river Godavari. The compilation includes journalistic reportage as well as analytical pieces by experts; the contributors range from the staunch advocates of the project to its fierce opponent. Perspectives on Polavaram reminds one of a similar volume on the Sardar Sarovar Project (ssp) Dam and the Nation. This Oxford University publication came out of a seminar in the 1990s which drew opponents and supporters of the ssp.

Perspectives on Polavaram, however, remains a trifle short of becoming a dialogue between its divergent contributors. Its actually asking for a bit too much, particularly when those supporting the Polavaram project hold stoutly to their stated positions.

The book's sequence of contents also leaves a little to be desired. The opening statements are reserved for proponents/advocates of the project, space is then given to mainstream political parties and this is quickly followed by reports of technical experts and civil society groups and legal interventions. Voices of the affected people come in very late.

The volume focuses on three main issues viability of the project and exploration of alternatives, justifiability of large scale displacement of tribals from a scheduled area and concerns about alienating people in Telangana.

While M Dharma Rao and T Hanumatha Rao's papers propose modifications to the project, the discussions on alternatives remind us of a similar proposal put forward by C J Joy and S Paranjype in the case of Narmada. Joy and Paranjype believed that the Sardar Sarovar Project could be made "sustainable" by modifying the dam's height. The project's opponents had rejected this proposal on several counts. The Narmada Bachao Andolan had questioned the unjustifiable displacement caused by the Sardar Sarovar Project. It had also raised several questions on the project's promised benefits and its grandiose canal structure. The Polavaram project is also open to similar criticism.
Other criticisms T Shivaji Rao has criticised efforts to hide inundation maps--in case of dam failure--from the public. His criticism acquires an immediacy after the recent floods in Surat and several other towns in downstream of large dams, caused largely by releases by dam authorities.

Downstream impacts of large irrigation projects, in fact, has not received much attention in discourses on large dams so far. This is probably because such discourses revolve more around submergence-induced displacement. This volume tries to fill in the gap. It has an article that draws on research done at the Andhra University to show that Polavaram's impacts on coastal ecology could be seriously harmful.

Polavaram is another project where violations of constitutional safeguards abound, efforts to build prior informed consent are paid scant attention and clearances are sought at break neck speed. S Ramakrishna's interview-based reportage in this volume shows how talks on fishing rights fail to inspire confidence amongst those affected.

Papers in the legal perspectives section, those in the section on inter-state perspectives, and J P Rao's remarkable expose of violations of constitutional guarantees highlight legal aspects of the project.But the legal processes are still on the environmental clearance to the project is being challenged before Environmental Appellate Authority and there are several other litigations. The editors could have presented a review of ongoing legal challenges.

That apart, Perspectives on Polavaram has a few interesting papers. M L K Murthy's piece, for example, dwells on a subject that has not yet become a part of the discourse on large dams these structures effacing history and archeological footprints.

The Archeological Survey of India and the Geological Survey of India need to play a more proactive role when such projects are sanctioned, if we take this compilation seriously.

Himanshu Upadhyaya is associated with the New Delhi-based organisation Intercultural Resources

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