Polavaram: With homes flooded, no relocation help, adivasis bear the brunt

Habitations in 7 mandals face submergence due to the dam, and are scheduled to be evacuated on a war footing; but very little relief has come through, and rehabilitation and relocation remain elusive

River Godavari
Flooding in the Godavari submerged several areas in Andhra Pradesh recently.

Three onions, two potatoes, a half-a-litre milk, two water sachets and half-a-litre edible oil — this is the sum total of what each adivasi family of Chinnarukur gram panchayat in Kunavaram mandal received from the Andhra Pradesh government on Monday, July 18, nearly a week after floods in the Godavari submerged their homes.

Kunavaram is one of the seven mandals the NDA government, through a cabinet resolution, removed from Telangana’s revenue records and handed over to Andhra Pradesh in 2014, to make way for building the Polavaram irrigation dam. The Union government, through the AP Reorganisation Act, 2014, is committed to build the Polavaram dam as a national project by bearing 90 per cent of its cost.

The Godavari river system

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The woes of bifurcation

The plight of adivasis in those seven mandals — Chinthur, Kunavaram, Vararamachandrapuram, Yetapaka, now under Alluri Sitarama Raju district, and Kukunuru and Yelerupadu under Eluru district — due to flooding in the Godavari is linked to the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in 2014.

Also read: Polavaram project: HC stays demolition of houses in affected villages

All the habitations in the seven mandals face submergence due to the dam and are scheduled to be evacuated by the administration on a war footing. They are to receive an adequate number of R&R (rehabilitation and relocation) colonies and land-to-land compensation. Even before the dam is built, the backwaters of the coffer dam have put a large number of tribal habitations under water.

Polavaram dam
All the habitations in the seven mandals face submergence due to the Polavaram dam, and are scheduled to be evacuated by the administration on a war footing.

The flood water level at Bhadrachalam was 61.8 feet on Sunday, July 17, which was attributed to the spread of backwaters of the Polavaram dam. The discharge was 18.63 lakh cusecs. At the Polavaram project, it was 21 lakh cusecs, according to the Andhra Pradesh State Disaster Management Authority.

“We have not less than half-a-dozen people in each family. How can we cope with such meagre relief?” asked Kunja Anil, a resident of Chinnarukuru gram panchayat. Over a dozen tribal families from Chinnarurkur, not satisfied with the half-hearted relief measures of the government, set out on Tuesday for a risky trip on a tractor for a weekly shandy at Bhadrachalam, 100 km away, to buy food. The journey was through a narrow cart-track passing through a range of hills and deep gorges, taking more than five hours, Anil told The Federal.

Polavaram project area

The tribal villages have remained cut off from the outside world as the Charla main road has been inundated and it has become a daunting task for the official machinery to reach out to the inaccessible areas.

Going from bad to worse

Yetapaka mandal is one of the most inaccessible areas and the reorganisation of revenue districts undertaken by the AP government has only worsened the plight of its residents. 

Midiyam Babu Rao of the Koya sub-tribe, a former Lok Sabha member representing Bhadhrachalam (ST reserved constituency), told The Federal: “Before Yetakapa was merged into Andhra Pradesh, flood relief measures used to take off from Bhadhrachalam, 50 km away.” The short distance made reaching relief to the affected areas much easier. 

Things have changed now, rued Babu Rao. “Yetapaka is now attached to Alluri Sitarama Raju district with the district headquarters at Paderu, over 350 km away. The head offices of ITDA (Integrated Tribal Development Agency) are at Paderu and Rampachodavaram, both over 300 km away from Yetapaka,” he said. “Soon after Yekapata began to disappear under floodwaters, the inhabitants rushed to a nearby hilltop to protect themselves.”

River basin and project network

V Harinath, an irrigation expert, told The Federal that the government should have completed the R&R process before going ahead with the coffer dam and main dam works. The cofferdam, built to a height of 41.5 metres, captured large volumes of waters, leading to backwaters submerging the upstream habitations up to Bhadhrachalam, where the Seeta Ramachandra Swamy shrine is located. The spread of backwaters has increased fears in Telangana over the extent of dam-induced submergence in that state.

Telangana’s transport minister Puvvada Ajay Kumar appealed to the NDA government to give the seven mandals back to the state so that the Bhadrachalam temple town can be saved from the threat of submergence resulting from the Polavaram project. The minister also said the Telangana government would step up its demand for reducing the height of the Polavaram dam from the scheduled 54 metres so as to reduce the submergence it will cause upstream.

Dam victims left in the lurch

Sondi Murali, a spokesman of the Adivasi Sankshema Parishad, told The Federal that not even 10 per cent of the tribals facing threats due to the dam have been brought under the R&R package yet. The work on the dam has been going on at a brisk pace without initiating R&R measures for those affected by the project, he lamented.

“Our family has 37 acres of land. Before the construction of Polavaram dam, we were cultivating tobacco. The dam has submerged our lands now. I don’t have even a faint hope of getting compensation under R&R. We may have to beg and make a living,” said Kunja Anil, quoted earlier. The Chinnarukuru gram panchayat has 956 acres of farm land and not even a single acre has been covered by R&R with due compensation, he added. 

Koyas, Kondreddys and Nayakapodu — all sub-tribes in the Scheduled Tribes list — have so far been making a living in and around the Polavaram dam site.

The late YS Rajasekhar Reddy (YSR), as Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, had laid the foundation stone for the Polavaram project in 2005 with an estimated cost of Rs 10,500 crore, including the cost for left and right main canals. The reservoir’s backwaters spread up to Dummugudem, 150 km from the main dam on the main river side, and 115 km on the side of the Sabari River. 

Thus, the backwaters spread into parts of Chhattisgarh and Odisha. When those state governments moved court, seeking to stall the dam citing the prospects of submergence of property and habitations, YSR had assured them the payment of due compensation as well as the construction of protection walls along the river.

Centre washes hands off R&R package

Over two decades, the project cost has escalated up to Rs 56,000 crore — Rs 23,000 crore for the main dam and Rs 33,000 crore for R&R. The NDA government that succeeded the UPA at the Centre promised to treat it as a national project. But it subsequently pulled out, leaving the financial burden on the AP government.

The Polavaram project aims to transfer 80 tmc water into the Krishna and generate 40 mw of hydroelectric power, besides irrigating 4 lakh acres in East and West Godavari districts and supplying 23.44 tmc water for Visakhapatnam’s drinking water and industrial needs. 

Also read: Polavaram project, Andhra’s lifeline, caught in a bureaucratic maze

The divided Andhra Pradesh is facing an acute financial crisis. The bifurcation has left the state without a capital city, with Hyderabad going to Telangana. It also has no major industries and infrastructure projects worth mentioning. The state government is thus not in a position to implement the R&R package involving such a huge amount.

Midiyam Babu Rao estimates that the number of project-affected people to be covered under the R&R package has gone up to 4 lakh, mostly adivasis, after the merger of the seven Telangana mandals. Though a handful of R&R colonies were constructed, they were built in low-lying areas and are now marooned, Babu Rao added.

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