The jinx called Polavaram: when will it be completed?

File photo of Polavaram dam. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Conceived at a cost of just ₹6.5 crore before India achieved the independence to now a whopping ₹58,000 crore, it remains perhaps the most jinxed project in the country, best exemplifying lack of political will, the Centre-State wrangling and red-tapism.

From reorganisation of states to formation of Andhra State, its merger with then Hyderabad State to form Andhra Pradesh and then to the bifurcation of the State, Polavaram has come a full circle. It witnessed change of governments both at the Centre and in the State but remained an unfulfilled dream of coastal Andhra.

Mooted in 1941 when the present day Andhra Pradesh was part of Madras Presidency, it is said to be the last irrigation project of this scale in the country and promises to become lifeline of the State and a wonder of India on completion.

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Polavaram, officially known as the Indira Sagar Multipurpose Project, was a key issue in the just concluded Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Andhra Pradesh as TDP and BJP sparred blaming each other for the delay.

Being built across Godavari River at Polavaram in West Godavari district, it is designed to bring over seven lakh acres under irrigation in East Godavari, West Godavari, Krishna and Visakhapatnam districts, besides producing 960 Megawatt power,utilising 273 thousand million cubic feet or TMC of water currently going waste into the sea.

Madras Presidency

It was Sonthi Venkata Ramamurthy, Chief Secretary to the Government of Madras Presidency who proposed the idea of building a dam near Polavaram to Lord Wavell, then Governor General and Viceroy of India. It was aimed to make South India largely self-sufficient for rice. The project was named Ramapadasagar dam since its backwaters would touch the Lord Rama temple at Bhadrachalam (in the present day Telangana).  The project was approved and even funds were sanctioned but it ran into problems after the government of Hyderabad State opposed it on the ground that it could damage Singareni Coal Fields. Ramamurthy wrote that he later presented the project report to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was impressed but no headway could be made as the Government of Madras did not give its approval.

It remained on paper for decades as successive governments in Andhra Pradesh did not take much interest with the problem being both political and of funding.

Foundation stone

It was in 1980 that Tanguturi Anjaiah, Chief Minister of then undivided Andhra Pradesh, laid the foundation stone for the prestigious project but it could not go beyond unveiling of a plaque.

It was not a priority for the subsequent governments of both the Congress and Telugu Desam Party (TDP). Chandrababu Naidu, who was the longest serving chief minister in the undivided Andhra Pradesh (1995-2004), faced criticism for ignoring agriculture and irrigation as went on an overdrive to promote Hyderabad as the information technology hub.

When YS Rajasekhara Reddy led Congress back to power in 2004, he included Polavaram in his priorities. The work was launched in 2005 and most of the work on the two canals was completed. YSR, as he was popular among his followers, secured 95% of the Central government clearances including the environmental clearance.

YSR’s death in a helicopter crash in 2009 and subsequent the political upheaval due to revival of demand for Telangana state once again put Polavaram on the back-burner.

National status

However, the project got a new lease of life in the most unexpected way. Conceding the demand for statehood to Telangana in the face of a massive movement, the then United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government offered a few incentives to compensate the residuary state of Andhra Pradesh for losing out capital Hyderabad to Telangana. Declaring Polavaram a national project was one of the inducements offered in Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act. This meant that the central government will build the project.

Aiming to return to power after gap of a decade, Chandrababu Naidu saw this as an opportunity. He joined hands with BJP and its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and both promised that if voted to power in the State and at the Centre they would deliver on the promises including Polavaram.

The BJP-led NDA government at its very first cabinet meeting decided to merge seven ‘mandals’ (blocks) of Khammam district of Telangana with Andhra Pradesh to pave way for construction of Polavaram. The move was to avoid any inter-state dispute over submergence of these ‘mandals’.

In 2016  under the special package offered by the Centre in lieu of special category status, the Centre agreed to provide all the funds required for Polavaram and allowed the state to take charge of the construction.

Pattiseema

Terming Polavaram as his one eye (the second being construction of state capital Amaravati), Naidu was personally monitoring the project works every Monday.

According to officials working on the project, ₹11,210 crore has been spent since it was a declared a national project. The Centre reimbursed ₹6,727 crore to the state government.

Officials say the project made substantial progress as about 68% of the work completed. In January, the project entered the Guinness Book of World Records by pouring 32,000 cubic metres of concrete in 24 hours. They are confident that all work will be completed by the end of 2019.

Naidu believes that once completed Polavaram would surpass all records, including the Three Gorges Dam of China.

As diverting Godavari waters to stabilise Krishna delta is one of the main objectives of Polavaram, Naidu also succeeded in completing Pattiseema lift irrigation project. This will help divert 80 TMC of Godavari waters to Prakasam barrage across Krishna river at Vijayawada.

He also launched Purushottampatnam lift scheme as part of Polavaram to provide drinking water to Visakhapatnam city as well as for industrial needs.

Long way to go

The overall project cost is estimated to have gone up to ₹58,000 crore with relief and rehabilitation package for the submerged villages alone accounting for ₹33,000 crore.

As many as 98,000 affected families have to be rehabilitated and unless this is done, the dam cannot be completed. The state government has submitted the estimates to the Centre and is still waiting for a response.

Of the 289 villages that would be submerged by the project, 277 are in Andhra including 205 villages of Telangana merged with Andhra in 2014. Eight villages in Chhattisgarh and four in Odisha will also be submerged.

Naidu’s move to sever ties with NDA in March last year and his tirade against Modi for betraying the state came as a fresh blow to Polavaram as the Centre and State traded allegations of corruption.

During election campaign Modi alleged that Naidu has no intention to complete the project. “Polavaram has become like an ATM for him to draw money from the Centre,” Modi said.

“Where is the money in your ATM,” asked Naidu, hitting back at Modi. He said the Centre was yet to reimburse ₹4,500 crore the state government spent in spite of the financial crisis.

Naidu told people at the election rallies that had the Centre extended the cooperation, the project would have been completed by now.

Opposition from Odisha, Telangana

Odisha, Telangana and Chhattisgarh have opposed the project, fearing that it may submerge their populated areas.

Telangana recently called review the environmental impact assessment of the project as the clearance was obtained in 2005.

Simultaneous elections to Andhra Pradesh Assembly and Lok Sabha affected the pace of work.

People long waiting for completion of this project are keeping their fingers crossed as a change of guard in the state could impact the pace of the work. The state’s equation with whichever combination comes to power at the Centre will be crucial to break the jinx and turn 78-year-old dream into a reality.

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