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Is Polavaram the next POSCO?

May 06, 2011

The Polavaram dam on the Godavari in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh could displace 400,000 people and submerge vast forestland. Richard Mahapatra from Down to Earth investigates the massive violation of rights and regulations by the state government on the ground.



Fear of submergence haunts Kurturu, a village nestled in the Papi hills of the Eastern Ghats in Andhra Pradesh. In 2005, a band of officials, an unusual sight in this remote village in West Godavari district, visited the place and marked a rock. Then they broke the news about the Polavaram multi-purpose project on the river Godavari that would submerge Kurturu along with 275 other villages.

The words “FRL 150 feet” are inscribed on the rock face, which mean submergence at full reservoir level of 150 feet (45.72 metres); it indicates the level to which the river will rise once the Polavaram dam is constructed. The rock is at a much higher level than the 1986 flood level. Kurturu residents have vivid memories of the flood—the worst by far, when the Godavari rose by over 45 metres and submerged the village.

The residents, belonging to the Konda Reddy tribe, point at trees on the hill to indicate the flood level. The flood lasted just two days. The dam will submerge the village forever. Even in summer, when the river’s flow is relatively low, the village will be submerged 18 metres under water, informs Rajakrishna Reddy, a resident of Kurturu.

“If one knows only how to fish and gather forest produce for a living, there is no other place where one can survive,” says Reddy as others nod in agreement. As compensation, the state government has offered the residents land 15 km away, in the plains.

‘Gigantic in size and violations’

The Polavaram dam, an earth and rock-filled structure, will displace the largest number of people in India’s history of such projects. “For every five acres (2.02 hectares) that will be irrigated by the project, one tribal family will be displaced,” says E A S Sarma, former power secretary, who has been tracking the project (see map, and ‘400,000 may be displaced’, right). The dam’s backwaters will submerge 3,731 hectares (ha) of forestland; its net present value, assessed at Rs 13 lakh per 0.4 ha, would add up to Rs 1,120 crore.

The Union Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) gave site clearance for the Polavaram dam in October 2005. But the National Environment Appellate Authority quashed the environmental clearance to the dam because the mandatory public hearings were not held. The state appealed to the high court and obtained a stay.

The Polavaram dam, an earth and rock-filled structure, will displace the largest number of people in India’s history of such projects

The petitioner in the case, Sreedhar Ramamurthy of nonprofit Environics Trust, has now appealed to the Supreme Court to stop the project. The project’s cost has, meanwhile, escalated to Rs 20,000 crore; the state has not been able to raise funds for it till date (see ‘Who will fund Polavaram dam’).

“The project is not only gigantic in size but also in degree of violation of rules and regulations,” says Ramamurthy. Work on the main dam is yet to begin. But work on two canals has started; about Rs 250 crore has been spent on them. The left canal almost touches the outskirts of Visakhapatnam.

The project, by default, marks the inauguration of the controversial National River Linking Project which proposes inter-basin transfer of water from surplus river basins to deficit ones. The Polavaram project includes a link between the Krishna and the Godavari rivers (see map), which will be the first of the 37 links proposed under the river linking project.

Kurturu’s residents have been waging a desperate battle to stay afloat. In 2008, they came to know about the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, popularly called Forest Rights Act (FRA). Section 4(5) of the Act states no forest dweller can be removed from his land until the process of recognition of rights is completed.

Even after the procedure is completed, the rights, which include rights to traditional habitats and community forest resources, have to be respected, FRA says.

Fifty-two villages have complained to the Union environment ministry that their forest rights have not been settled

The information renewed hope. The residents felt the Act’s provisions could be used to stop the project because their rights to the forests near the village had not been settled. Besides, the village is in Schedule Five area which has special protection; the gram sabhas in such areas have the right to withhold consent to a project.

The residents were almost certain the Polavaram dam would be scrapped. But their hopes were dashed when MoEF gave forest clearance to the project in July 2010.

It turned out the Andhra Pradesh government had lied to obtain the clearance for the Polavaram project. It told MoEF there were no forest rights to be settled under FRA in the project affected areas. “The state has played a fraud on us. There is hardly any progress on the rights settlement front. Without it, we may not get compensation,” says Reddy of Kurturu.

Forest rights denied

As one treks through the Papi hills, with the Godavari slicing through it, one uncovers a trail of lies. Village after village certifies that the authorities lied about complying with FRA provisions. G Anil Kumar, an activist who runs the non-profit Integrated Tribal Development Society in the region, says, “Most villages that will be submerged by the Polavaram project have not been given their rights.” When he raised this matter in 2007, he was charged with sedition and jailed for three months.

People say there is hardly any progress in settling forest rights. This means they may not get compensated

After the forest clearance, 52 villages have written to MoEF about their forest rights not being settled. In the first fortnight of April this year, 30 villages in Khammam and East Godavari districts sent gram sabha resolutions to environment minister Jairam Ramesh on pending settlement of rights under FRA as well as “no consent” for the project.

“In Khammam and Bhadrachalam districts alone, 4,000 claims are pending at the sub-division level,” says Ramakrishna Raju of civil society group National Alliance of People’s Movement. “Since the forest clearance, at least 100 villages have reported non-settlement of rights under FRA in the submergence zone in Andhra Pradesh,” says Gandhi Babu of nonprofit Agricultural Social Development Society in Khammam.

Vedanta, POSCO set precedent

The scrapping of the bauxite mining proposal in Niyamgiri hills of Odisha last year and the initial withholding of forest clearance to POSCO steel plant, has brought the Polavaram dam back into the limelight. Civil society groups and governments of riparian states Odisha and Chhattisgarh are using the same argument that MoEF used in the Odisha projects to get the Polavaram project scrapped—non compliance with FRA provisions.

In November 2010, Union minister of state for environment Jairam Ramesh issued a show-cause notice to the Andhra government for not holding public hearings for the project even two years after getting in-principle clearance from his ministry.

The hearings ought to be held within 45 days. Earlier, in August 2009, the ministry had issued an order on settling the forest rights of the people in the project- affected areas.

While giving forest clearance in July 2010, the ministry said it was based on the “assurance of the Andhra Pradesh government that there were no forest rights that needed to be settled” under FRA. “That is a lie and the project must be treated the same way as Vedanta,” says Madhusudan N of non-profit Yakshi in Visakhapatnam.

"The state government deliberately scuttled the forest rights of the people to obtain environmental and forest clearances"
- activist Himanshu Thakkar

The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the environment ministry noted in October 2010 that the state had not furnished the mandatory consent certificates from gram sabhas of villages in areas where forests will be submerged. On October 25, 2010, FAC recommended a thorough compliance report from the state government and suggested actions in case of violation.

On November 22, 2010, Ramesh wrote to the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, K Rosiah, saying the “matter that has been made available to me clearly seems to indicate that the claims of the local and tribal communities do not seem to have been settled.” When no response came, Ramesh sent a reminder on January 25, 2011, while adding, “I am awaiting a response from the state government.”

Activist Himanshu Thakkar of a Delhi advocacy group South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, says the state government deliberately scuttled the forest rights of the people to obtain environmental and forest clearances. Thakkar was instrumental in bringing the forest rights violations in Polavaram to the notice of FAC.

In August 2009, a group of researchers from organisations like Hyderabad’s Centre of Economic and Social Studies found the forest department gave the people the impression that FRA did not apply. “Nowhere were the claims by tribal residents, seeking rights under FRA, entertained or settled,” says P Trinadh Rao, a lawyer, who took part in the study.

The project has also become cause for dispute between Andhra Pradesh and two of its neighbours. The Polavaram project report says the dam will submerge four villages in Chhattisgarh’s Dantewada district and eight villages in Odisha’s Malkangiri district. The actual numbers are 23 in Chhattisgarh and 10 in Odisha, say the two state governments.

On April 5, the Chhattisgarh government decided to appeal to the Supreme Court against the project. The state’s chief minister, Raman Singh, said the project, is “unacceptable” in any form.

Odisha’s appeal against the environmental clearance to the project is already pending in the apex court. On April 1, the court appointed an independent expert to inspect the project area to ascertain if it was being constructed in accordance with the Godavari Tribunal Award on water-sharing between states.
The court has, however, declined to stay the project. “We are going to apprise the apex court of the violation of FRA and the Environment Protection Act at the Polavaram project site,” says Suresh C Mohapatra, Odisha’s principal secretary for water resources.

Read the full report here

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