Political. Ecological. Human. Polavaram is a disaster on many counts

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Spot of bother The site where the proposed dam will be built in Polavaram
Spot of bother The site where the proposed dam will be built in Polavaram. Photo: Narendra Reddi

The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is on a rampage. Stung by the rejection of the Vedanta mining project, the BJD held a big rally in Odisha’s Malkangiri district last Sunday. The target was once again Polavaram, and the party spared no opportunity to accuse the Centre of bias in clearing the project in Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh. More than 20 villages threatened by submergence in Malkangiri, but its resonance could be felt across the border in Singannapalli, a stone’s throw away from Polavaram.

Singannapalli has the air of a village where life stopped many years ago. The roads have not been repaired for years, loans and grants have come to a shuddering halt and its people remain trapped between a perilous present and an uncertain future. “Everything stopped since talk about the Polavaram dam began,” says J Venkateswar, the former sarpanch.

Set beside the magnificent Godavari river, the human settlement is in close proximity to the dam site. The site itself betrays no signs of the impending ecological disaster it will unleash. In the misty monsoon, the small spillways that are being built look more like panchayat-level work.

Three times in the past year, 29-yearold Venkateswar trekked the 2-km distance that separates Singannapalli from Polavaram to protest against the project. There have been dharnas, sit-ins, but provisional clearance was granted for the project in July. “I have left my fate to God,” he says.

In Singannapalli, a village of fishermen, farmers and indigenous craftsmen, they see the cemetery of their memories being built in front of their eyes. Their homes and histories will vanish into oblivion as work picks up pace. This feeling of helplessness and impotent rage forms a chorus across villages in Andhra Pradesh, set to be submerged by the dam. Much has been made of Polavaram being the next Narmada, which is exactly what it is. To be built at a cost of Rs. 17,000 crore, the project will submerge more than 300 villages and displace 1.8 lakh people — far more than those affected by the Sardar Sarovar project.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA)was invoked 103 times while rejecting the Vedanta project. In the case of Polavaram — a project that dwarfs Vedanta in terms of scale — it almost seems as if the law does not exist. One of the crucial clauses in the FRA says that the ‘informed consent’ of gram sabhas is essential for any diversion of forest land.

The AP government has claimed that gram sabhas have agreed to move, but the two tribes affected primarily — the Koyas and the Konda Reddis — have no memory of any gram sabha ever taking place.

In the worst-affected Khammam district, where nearly 200 villages will be submerged, a few gram sabhas were initiated and then the idea was quickly abandoned. It is easy to see why. “There was a gram sabha in my village where people rejected Polavaram and refused to move. They were so angry that they attacked government vehicles,” says Palam Malaiyya, the former sarpanch of Sutturu village in Chintoor mandal. “But the officials went ahead and wrote a different report.”

Part of the logic behind the blocking of Vedanta was the acknowledgement of the link between tribal displacement and the rise of Naxalism. The disenfranchisement of tribal voices on Polavaram may have irrevocable consequences.

Villages such as Bandergudem reveal a glimpse of what the future might hold. Inhabited by the Konda Reddis, Bandergudem was created in 2000 after the Integrated Tribal Development Authority convinced some members of the tribe to leave their traditional abode in the hills for a more comfortable life in the plains.

The villagers seemed content with their new life, yet barely a year after their relocation, the spectre of Polavaram loomed. “The government brought us here a few years ago. Now, they want us to move out,” says Swarnika Reddi, a 40-year-old who shifted here along with her children in 2000. “How long will this go on?” she asks.

Every democratic principle has been violated in Polavaram, and as legitimate mediums of dissent evaporate, it is not unlikely that some would find the idea of armed rebellion appealing. In fact, it is inevitable. To reduce the displacement of more than 1 lakh tribals to the cold measurement of a few thousand hectares is to disregard them and their embryonic relationship with the forest.

“If they are displaced, the tribals face extinction,” says R Nehru, of the Adivasi Sankshema Parishad, ironically named after the PM who set India on the path to big dams. “They will become beggars because they know no other way of life.”

Polavaram threatens to exacerbate the Telangana-Andhra divide which is tearing away at the state’s strands. The bone of contention remains that Krishna and Godavari flow through the districts of the proposed Telangana, yet the diversion of water will end up benefiting the districts of east and west Godavari located in the Andhra region. “It will affect the Telangana issue,” says Kodanda Ram, leader of the Telangana Joint Action Committee.

“The diversion of water resources to Andhra and Rayalaseema is a threat to Telangana’s interests.”

It is also becoming clear that irrigation may only be a premise for Polavaram to obtain the nod. Instead, a cluster of industries such as bauxite mines and pharma companies are part of a grand coastal corridor project. Sources said that two bauxite mines are set to come up in the Vizianagaram and Visakhapatnam districts.

“These industries are water-hungry,” says Human Rights Forum secretary VS Krishna. “This is the real design behind the diversion of water to coastal districts.”

The Jindal Aluminium Refinery in Podavara, Vizianagaram, and Anrak Alumina Refinery in Makavaripalam, Visakhapatnam, will consume 18.5 million gallons of water per day, which is half the consumption of Visakhapatnam, the second largest city in Andhra Pradesh.

Meanwhile, an inter-state dispute is brewing, involving not only Odisha, but Chhattisgarh as well. Both states have moved the Supreme Court seeking a stay on the project. The governments fear that villages in Malkangiri and Konta districts of Odisha and Chhattisgarh respectively will be submerged by the dam.

The BJD is pulling out all stops to block the dam. “We cannot leave Polavaram aside as it submerges villages in our state,” says BJD MP Jay Panda. There is talk of building a wall, costing Rs.700 crore, to contain the waters within the boundaries of AP. But it is another hurdle to cross for the project to move ahead.

Polavarm is a disaster on many counts, ecologically and politically, and the Koyas and the Konda Reddis are the latest sacrificial lambs to the temples of modern India. For Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, the probity of the crusade unleashed by the ministry in the past few months hinges on the Polavaram decision. The Koyas and the Konda Reddis are besieged by questions of all kinds — land, livelihood, culture — but the Vedanta rejection has given way to a glimmer of hope.

“For various reasons, we have not been able to organise ourselves as well as we could,” says a tribal leader, who did not wish to be named after getting threats from the government. “But this time, we will make every effort to stop this dam.”

But the tribals are faced with a State that has taken far more than it has given.

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