Get out

Same old story. Dam threatens to displace tribals to appease rich farmers

Published: Wednesday 30 November 2005

-- (Credit: Ramakrishna Sangem)the Polavaram multi-purpose project to be built across the Godavari threatens to displace hundreds of thousands of tribals in Andhra Pradesh (ap). The writing is, almost literally, on the wall. "Officials have come and put red marks (to identify villages in the submergence area) on our walls recently. We have been unable to eat and sleep since then," said R Amarnath, a labourer in Vaddiguem village of Khammam district.

The dam will come up at Polavaram, where three districts -- East Godavari, West Godavari and Khammam -- meet. The reservoir will have a total storage capacity of about 325 thousand million cubic feet (tmc).

The 46-metre-high dam, which has got an environment clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (moef), will cost Rs 9,072 crore. It will displace about 200,000 people; at least 150,000 of them tribals, the rest mostly dalits dependent on minor forest produce for livelihood. It is awaiting forest clearance because the submergence area includes the 702-hectare (ha) Papikonda wildlife reserve. moef estimates 40,060 ha will be required, including 3,279 ha of forestland.

The ministry says 193,350 people will be displaced: 175,275 in ap, 6,316 in Orissa and 11,766 in Chhattisgarh. The submergence area includes 170 habitations of mostly Koya, and Kondareddy tribals.

Battle of attrition? Those facing displacement are not about to give up without a fight. Though ap government forced the environmental clearance through -- a public hearing was conducted on October 10 in Khammam district at which people were not allowed to raise their objections -- there is resistance, with protests becoming routine in Khammam, and East and West Godavari districts.

The desperation is clear. " Maa meeda oka baamb veyya manandi, samasya teeri potundi (Let them drop a bomb on us, the problem will be solved)," screams K Kanna Reddy, a Kondareddy tribal in Kotarukommu village of Vara Ramachandrapuram mandal in Khammam, surrounded by a dozen young men and a few old women on the road that abuts the Godavari.

In Telugu, Kotarukommu literally means the last point. Those assembled there really feel they have reached the last point in their survival saga. Kanna Reddy says though officials have told the villagers to leave, they have no such plans. "Where can we go?" he asks. Venkat Reddy, 20, and Prasad Reddy, 18, standing next to him, point to a primary school. "After fighting for 10 years, we got the school. Will it be with us tomorrow?" they ask.

"We would rather die here, than move out of our village," says Venkata Ramana, 20, a Koya youth in Vaddiguem village in Khammam. "We do not want government compensation. We can live just by drinking Godavari water," says Narasamma, 50. A young man adds: "Except for the government, nobody here wants this dam."

Rajeswari, a 25-year-old dalit, and her neighbours in Khammam's V R Puram echo the sentiment. "Where is the guarantee that we will be properly rehabilitated tomorrow? We have heard how governments ditch the displaced once the villages are vacated," says Rajeswari. "For us, this dam is worse than a tsunami," says Sri Rama Murthy, a Koya. "We will take up bow and arrows, if necessary."

It's not just the spectre of displacement. There is anger that the interests of the tribals are being sacrificed for the benefit of rich farmers in the coastal area. Puli Boobamma, a Koya woman from Rekhapalli village, says the government always protects the interests of non-tribals at the cost of the tribals. "We are being sacrificed for the sake of rich farmers in delta region," says Sondhi Veeraiah, 30, a Koya activist. He was arrested last week for an attack on the V R Puram mandal revenue office.

Regional discrimination
It does appear that ap chief minister Y S Rajasekhara Reddy has powerful compulsions that have everything to do with stabilising the supply of water to the ayacut (command area) of the Godavari barrage in East and West Godavari district, which will benefit the powerful farmers of the area who provide the financial and muscle power to all political parties in ap. The Polavaram dam will irrigate 291,000 ha in Visakha patnam and East Godavari districts through one canal and West Godavari and Krishna districts through another.

Other benefits of the project are likely to skip the tribals. It will divert 80 tmc of Godavari water to the Krishna river to stabilise the existing command area under the Prakasam Barrage and provide drinking water to 2.5 million people in 540 villages en route. Channelling water from the Godavari to the Krishna to benefit the farmers of Krishna, Guntur and Prakasam districts will also help divert 40 tmc from the Srisailam reservoir to the Rayalaseema region, where the chief minister is from.

The project will also generate 960 mw of power, which is unlikely to help those displaced.

Not unsurprisingly parties have by and large not opposed the project -- the Communist Party of India-Marxist (cpi-m) called for a redesign so that the submergence area decreases. Only environmentalists and non-governmental organisations (ngos) have demanded the project be scrapped (see box: Damning views). They have been joined by those -- including Pradesh Congress Committee president K Kesava Rao -- who argue that an injustice is being done to the Telengana region.

The suspicion of bias has been reinforced by some incidents. Last month, former mp and tdp leader Mudragada Padmanabham went on a fast unto death, forcing the government to promise that the farmers in the East and West Godavari districts who lose their land will be given an equal amount of land in the ayacut. But, there are no promises for the tribals and dalits.

The administration is obviously gung-ho. The chief minister is hard-selling a rehabilitation package that he says is the first of its kind in the country (see box: Rehab recipe). The state government announced this package after consultations with environmentalists, experts and ngos on April 8, 2005.

This 'improved' package offers compensation not just to the landed but also to the landless. But it has many loopholes. Bhadrachalam division, for instance, is a Scheduled Area where many people do not have title deeds to their land. They will lose out.

Major irrigation minister Ponnala Lakshmaiah, however, told Down To Earth the government would take care of the affected. "We will give top priority to the concerns of the displaced."

Major irrigation principal secretary C V S K Sharma was even more optimistic. "This project will have a tremendous impact on the economy of the state. It is a historic project in river linking," he said. Every year, 3,000 tmc of Godavari water flows into the sea and is wasted, he pointed out.

On the concerns of the displaced, he said: "A Rs 4,500-crore rehabilitation package has been prepared for this and ap's policy is the best in the country." Responding to the cpi (m)'s demand for redesigning the project, he said the government had appointed a committee headed by retired chief engineer Hanumantha Rao.

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