The final instalment of our two-part report on the situation on the ground at Polavaram, site of the controversial Indira Sagar project.
Andhra Pradesh chief minister K Rosaiah has, of late, reiterated that the Indira Sagar project would be completed according to schedule by 2014. However, a visit to ‘zero point’ (or, the outer tunnel regulator) at Polavaram in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, casts a doubt on that claim. Of the half-a-dozen earth-moving machines at the site, only one is in use.
“The zero-point contract envisages completion of the outer tunnel regulator and the 174-km canal in seven phases. However, only 15 per cent of the work is done so far. The only reason is the slow release of funds by the state government,” says a project site officer, who did not wish to be named. This, however, is not the controversial talking point now.
The Rs 17,500-crore, multi-purpose Indira Sagar project is intended to irrigate 720,000 acres in coastal Andhra and 133,000 acres (through lifts) in the Khammam district of Telangana region, besides generating 960 Mw of power. The project has received all the requisite clearances, including a nod from the Union environment and ministry. About 32 per cent of the work has been completed.
The project, first envisaged by the British in 1941, has always been mired in controversy, including about its design and safety, tribals’ displacement, and environmental issues. It was recently embroiled in legal issues, with the state government in neighbouring Orissa moving the Supreme Court challenging a go-ahead given by the Union environment ministry. Orissa fears the project would flood several parts of the state.
Added to these woes were concerns raised by T Hanumantha Rao, retired chief engineer of the Central Water Commission, who submitted a representation to both the CWC and the state government seeking a change in the design of the project, especially the height of the dam.
While declining to comment on Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s statement on his state’s opposition to the project, Principal Secretary (Irrigation) SK Joshi says that the Andhra Pradesh government would build two embankments in Orissa and Chhattisgarh, which would eliminate submergence in other states.
“The present design could give water to 720,000 acres, while the alternative plan suggested by Hanumantha Rao would only irrigate 250,000 acres. The displacement and submergence would be more if the alternative design is implemented,” Joshi says.
He adds that only 276 villages would be submerged under the present plan, while the alternative plan would submerge 345. “Nearly 63 per cent of land acquisition and more than 50 per cent of the canal work is complete. The entire project will be completed within the scheduled time,” Joshi asserts.
NGOs and legal experts, however, disagree. “The Orissa government’s objections to the environment ministry’s clearance are likely to impede completion of the project,” feels G Anil Kumar, an official of the Integrated Tribal Development Agency, which works closely with NGO Sakti in fighting for tribal rights in and around the Polavaram area.
Stating that the forest department wields de facto control over tribal forest land, Kumar says about 4,600 acres of freehold land will be submerged in West Godavari district alone. “We are demanding that the government allot the tribals alternative forest land or construct an embankment instead. We have already placed the demands before officials. However, we are not sure if and when a decision in favour of the tribals will come about,” he adds.
B Krishna Kumar, an advocate in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, agrees. “Andhra Pradesh has issued several orders and regulations, but there is no law — like the Kerala Tribal Land Act — to safeguard the interests of tribals. For instance, government orders issued by Andhra Pradesh in 2005 keeping in view 34 irrigation projects to be completed by 2009 recommends land-to-land compensation to tribals. However, most of these projects have not yet been completed, nor were the orders implemented for projects that were completed,” he adds.
“The state government itself has become a land-grabber and is violating its own policies. There should be a court or a judge at the helm of affairs to take care of the interests of tribals,” Kumar feels.
UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s assurance of giving the project national status — which would meet 90 per cent of its costs, against 25 per cent now — under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme, will give Indira Sagar a fillip in many ways, says Munemma, a Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas programme member from Devaragondhi village. “The national status will also benefit us in terms of better comprehensive compensation packages,” she says. Clearly, hope is not entirely lost in Polavaram.