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Creation of new Indian states is not good news for all

Telangana tribals will be losers if new dam project goes ahead

Creation of new Indian states is not good news for all

Tribal villagers in Khammam district in Telangana state protest against a dam and irrigation project that would threaten their villages

Shawn Sebastian, Hyderabad

May 6, 2014

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The people of India’s newly created state of Telengana have much to celebrate after five decades of struggle for autonomy, or at least most of them do; but one district with a large tribal population has a less optimistic view of the future.

The Polavaram, or Indira Sagar, project – a multi-purpose irrigation scheme – would see the construction of a dam to more efficiently use the waters of the Godavari River for the benefit of the new state and its neighbors.

However, the building of the dam would submerge close to 300 villages and displace an estimated 200,000 tribal villagers in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh states, according to an Environmental Impact Assessment by the central government.

Earlier this year the government approved the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh to create two new states – Telangana and Seemahdhra – which will formally be recognized on June 2.

The dam project, first conceptualized in the early 1940s to address water shortages in the region but long delayed, began to gain momentum in 2004 after the state government allotted about US$217 million for construction. However, it eventually stalled after failure to obtain the necessary environmental and forestry clearances.

But this year the central government has designated it a national project and promised to bear the burden of 90 percent of the costs, as proponents of the dam say it will help irrigate agricultural land, provide drinking water to more than 500 villages, ensure water supply to industrial factories and generate 960 megawatts of electricity.

The topic has become a key issue in the run-up to the ongoing general election. The federal cabinet last week approved the establishment of the Polavaram Project Authority, which would administer the project. Both Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Congress Party vice president, Rahul Gandhi, have publicly supported the project and stated unequivocally that they would each make it a national priority if they were to become prime minister.

But tribal and environmental activists have raised objections over the possible displacement and loss of livelihoods for hundreds of villages in the project zone – particularly the Koya and Konda Reddy tribes, which comprise the bulk of the population in the region and which depend on the forest for the produce they sell to make their livings. 

“The government has not yet asked us to move, be we know we have to,” says Balakrishna, a tribal resident of Papikondalu village in Khammam district. 

Pending cases filed by neighboring Odisha and Chhattisgarh state governments, citing concerns over submergence of villages and environmental impact issues, also pose an obstacle to the project. 

Activists say the project would wash away large swathes of forestland and affect a diverse wildlife population.

“The major impact will be on tribal communities and natural resources,” says Medha Patkar, a prominent environmental activist who has led similar protests in Gujarat state. 

The livelihood of tribal people and poor villagers can’t be measured in terms of money, she said, adding that current national rehabilitation policies do not follow generally accepted “land for land” agreements.

Instead of land compensation, the state government has fixed a monetary compensation of $2,000 for each 0.4 hectares taken for the project. With the exception of a handful of villagers, the majority has refused the buyout. 

“Those who sit in air-conditioned rooms can never understand our pain. Our land and forest cannot be valued in money,” says Kabala Janardan Reddi, a 22-year-old Koya tribesman from Khammam district.

Several interest groups and local political parties have relentlessly protested against the project and sought to mobilize public support for their cause. 

“There are various legal sides with regard to displacement and rehabilitation. The mandatory village council permission is not sought on many occasions,” said Thirumal Rao, an advocate working with Adivasi Girijan Sangham, a tribal welfare organization in Khammam district.

Suggestions have been made for alternative plans to reduce the proposed submerged area, but the government has so far not taken heed.

Hanumant Rao, a respected irrigation expert who works with various state governments to solve water-related problems, says he submitted a plan in 2007 that would reduce the submerging area to 72 villages, while maintaining the project’s stated advantages.

He says he believes interest groups in Andhra Pradesh pressured the government not to amend the original plans.

In addition to the submergence plan for the dam, a recent central government proposal awaiting presidential approval may bolster the dispute.

According to the plan, proposed in March, some 272 villages in the submergence zone in Khammam district in Telengana state would be relocated to Seemahdhra state.

“We don’t want to go. We are not even able to celebrate our new state if we do that,” says Junja Samata, head of Nallavaram village in Khammam district.

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