At a time when the creation of separate Telengana state from Andhra Pradesh is making headlines in the national media, the issue Polavaram dam seems to have been sidelined in media. But Polavaram dam holds huge significance in this situation since construction of this dam is one of the condition laid down by the center in order to create state of Telengana bifurcating the state of Andhra Pradesh. The dam though has no legally tenable clearance, Odisha and Chhattisgarh continue to oppose it and there are cases pending against the project in the Supreme Court.
Now a 2013 film by social activist and filmmaker Saraswati Kavula “Dam’ned” documents plight of the people being affected by the Polavaram dam. The film also brings out the critical issues associated with the construction of this mega dam which were rarely covered by any media. The film is available in four parts on youtube, see: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb4JjIYab5w_dFkHwkmkrHQ?feature=g-user-u.
The 71 minutes film is a brilliant documentation of peoples sentiments associated with the river, land and a project which will submerge all of these. Within these 71 minutes the film brings to light the multitude and complexity of issues associated with this mega project. But before getting into that, a brief about this gigantic project has been provided, as given in the film.
The Polavaram Project Polavaram is one of the most controversial dam projects in India. It is also the largest dam in India in terms of the number of people it would displace. The dam will be located near Polavaram village in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, an area bordering Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The dam aims to irrigate 7,21,000 acres of land in four districts of Andhra Pradesh i.e. West Godavari, East Godavari, Vishakhapatnam and Krishna districts. The project proponent claims that this project will also provide drinking water to 540 villages of Vishakhapatnam district along with the city of Vizag and to provide water to industries located in Vishakhapatnam district. The project also aims to transfer 80 TMC (Thousand Million Cubic Feet) water from Godavari to Krishna river basin.
The cost of mega plan will be majorly born by the ethnic tribal people of Andhra as well Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The dam will submerge 300 villages displacing 2,00,000 people. The submergence area will be so huge that the back waters of the dam go all upto Sabari river in Chattisgarh and Sileru river in Odisha. This submergence area will cover 10,000 acres of biodiversity rich forest and also partially submerge the Papikundulum wildlife sanctuary. The people living in these areas are predominantly ‘adivasis’ belonging to Koya and Konda Reddy tribes. There is a substantial number of no-tribal people, majority of the belonging to Dalits and backward classes. In numbers nearly 200 out of the 300 submerged villages are adivasi villages.
Why this Film is Important The film is threaded around people’s strong links with the land, forest, biodiversity and river. Throughout the film how people have associated themselves with the natural resources and how breaking this association is inviting havoc for the economic conditions and social relations have been depicted brilliantly.
“This is a land where our ancestors have been living for ages and we won’t leave it at any cost” such sentiments have been echoed throughout the history in most cases of displacement caused due to dams or any other project displacing people. This film on Polavaram documents with videos why and how this is such a crucial case against such projects. The film shows how displacing people from one place and giving them compensation either in terms of money or in rare cases some land has done little to improve the conditions of the people and has in fact impoverished and disempowered the people. This, as the film very clearly shows, has thrown them in to a life of poverty and uncertainty.
The film is packed with interviews of the people affected by the dam either due to submergence or due to other project components like canal construction. The filmmaker also interviewed experts from the field to show how the construction of Polavaram dam violates legal norms, is technically not feasible and takes no lesson from the experiences of construction of similar project in other parts of the country and how better options exist.
The personal interviews done brings to light how the people have little information about the project in Andhra Pradesh and have literally no information in Chhattisgarh and Odisha. In Andhra Pradesh, the government is also building infrastructure such as roads and buildings in areas which have been identified as submergence areas. This rather than helping people is creating confusions. There has been no environment or social impact assessment or public consultations in Chhattisgarh or Odisha, nor any plans for rehabilitation or environmental management. The Polavaram project got environment clearance in Oct 2005 but till 2013, in Andhra Pradesh out of the 276 submergence villages only 30 to 40 villages have been receiving compensation and that too only partly for their land only.
Complexities with Compensation: Monetary The film also brings out what is actually happening with the money given as compensation. The compensation that was given to one affected family, loosing 1.5 acres of land, was Rs. 1,68,000. When asked what did they do with the money, the head of the family said that they distributed the money among the family members where each person got around Rs. 10,000. People from Khammam district narrated the story of how they have been looted in the process of getting the compensation cheques from the government officials and lawyers. People were also cheated by insurance companies which came to these areas in large numbers posing as banks after people received their cheques. People also believed that after the project compensation was given the social relations in villages have deteriorated. One of the ladies from an affected family said “Many people died since the money came… drinking heavily and died… People are fighting among themselves since the money came.”
The Bone of Contention: Land The film shows that even in case of the compensation received in the form of land, why the result is equally distressful. In a rehabilitation colony in East Godavari district few males are to be found since they have migrated to the cities to find work. People said that there is no farmland for them to work nor there is any work under MGNREGA. In Kuruturu in West Godavari district, the conflict over land between tribal and non-tribal people have intensified since displaced people were given disputed land as part of their rehabilitation plan. Many people who were given such land returned to their original villages due to these conflicts. They now conclude: “we have decided that its better we die in the Godavari, rather then go over there.” Some of the affected people (e.g. in Kunta block in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh) face double displacement. The people of this area were forced to shift to Salwa Judum camps due to the conflict between Maoist and Salwa Judum since 2005. But at a time when they were returning to their villages to resume their lives, they were told that they will again had to leave their villages as they will be submerged by the Polavaram dam.
Canals Completed without any work on the Dam The film also throws light on drawback of the construction plan of the Polavaram dam. The films shows that the construction work of the irrigation canals of the project is almost complete at a time when no progress has been made in the construction of the main dam. This project, as Himanshu Thakkar of SANDRP points out in the film, resembles the Rs 75,000 crore Maharastra irrigation scam where canals were constructed to fulfill the interests of the construction lobby without doing any work on the main dam. The massive Andhra Irrigation Scam is only beginning to surface, as pointed out in a recent CAG report[i].
Embankments as Huge as ‘China Walls’ The film shows that the proposal to construct embankments as huge as the ‘China wall’ on Sabari and Sileru rivers of Chhattisgarh and Odisha to prevent submergence of the areas in these states can only be possible on paper. The plan to construct embankment came as response to Orissa High Court order which said that Polavram project cannot submerge the areas of Odisha and Chhattisgarh. However, embankments were not a part of the original construction plan which received clearance from Environment Ministry. Nor has there been any environment or social impact assessment or feasibility study based on ground realities of the embankment proposal. There has also been no public consultations in these affected areas.
Experts say construction of such embankments would be a huge blunder of the Polavaram project. In the film Prof. T. Shivaji Rao of Center of Environment Studies in GITAM Univeristy, Vizag opined that with embankments there will be greater damage for Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Andhra Pradesh has also made a plan to put 16 lifts at different points on the embankments on Sabari and Sileru rivers to lift the water from the tributaries to the main river during flooding season. During rains these lifts are to lift and pump the water over the embankment walls and pour it in the river. This is doomed right from the beginning. The film shows this by bringing a detailed account of the experience of similar sluice gate scheme on the Godavari embankment in Bhadrachalam where it failed miserably. The sluices got closed up leading to waterlogging and inundation of houses.
There is no doubt that this film is a very detailed documentation of the issues related with Polavaram dam. The filmmaker could have added some voices from the government or project authorities to give a complete picture. In the film serious concerns were raised against how the government has handled the whole issue of Polavaram. I would recommend all concerned must watch this film. For a copy, either see the youtube link given above or write to the film maker: firstname.lastname@example.org, the price of a copy of the film is Rs 350/- including postage charges of Rs 50/-. Do watch and spread the word!
Parag Jyoti Saikia