Article and Image Courtesy: Infochange News & Features
The Andhra Pradesh government has a grand vision for industrial development, and the Polavaram Dam across the Godavari is essential to it. But the dam will submerge 276 villages, displacing farmers and fisherfolk. This FES-Infochange series in four parts looks specifically at the fisherfolk in the submergence zone, who are not even counted amongst the project-affected.
Part I: The invisible fishermen of the Godavari
At Rajahmundry, in the middle of my journey to the submergence zone of the Polavaram (Indira Sagar) dam in Andhra Pradesh in search of fisher communities, I came across the official four-page advertisement supplement issued by the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation (APIIC), dated June 30, 2010. The advertisement highlights ‘10 Things Good with Godavari’ -- timeless river, rice bowl of south India, rich agriculture, natural resources, social infrastructure, connectivity, access to sea ports, a willing administration, peaceful politics, and big players already there. The “big players already there” include Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC), Reliance, and Cairn Energy.
The Godavari river is a major waterway originating in the Western Ghats at Trimbakeshwar in Nashik, Maharashtra, and flowing eastward across the Deccan Plateau to enter Andhra Pradesh at Kandhakurthi in Nizamabad district, where it turns southeast to finally empty into the Bay of Bengal. It travels a total length of 910 miles from its origin. Rajahmundry, known as the ‘cultural capital of Andhra Pradesh’, is the largest city on the banks of the Godavari, and the river, also known as Dakshin Ganga, is at its widest here -- approximately 5 km from the town to the other bank at Kovvur.
While these are the Godavari’s physical characteristics, the river enters a contested arena in political terms on the question of “utilisation” of a river “wasting into the sea,” as is often quoted. Even as I write this, former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu is being held in custody in Maharashtra for voicing his opposition to the Babli project that has been a bone of contention between Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Apart from Babli, the Telugu Desam Party (and other parties, when it suits them) has been opposing 13 “illegal” (as their text messages to media persons, including this writer, say) projects planned by Maharashtra on the Godavari. It’s a different matter that the state of Andhra Pradesh has commenced the ambitious Polavaram project on the Godavari, which will be affected if projects are initiated upstream of the river, in Maharashtra. The ambitious Polavaram project is a major, multi-purpose irrigation project across the river in West Godavari’s Polavaram mandal, some 34 km upstream of Rajahmundry.
In all the talk in the political sphere, the people who stand to lose their lands, livelihoods, homes (in this case, tribal communities, fish workers, dalits, etc) remain invisible.
This series will focus specifically on the fishermen in the submergence zone of the four mandals (Devipatnam, Polavaram, Kunavaram and V R Puram) in the three districts of East Godavari, West Godavari and Khammam, in Andhra Pradesh, whose homes and livelihoods are and will be seriously affected.
Fisher communities settled along the Godavari in the Polavaram submergence zone belong to the caste groups Pallis, Vadderlu, Jalarlu and Gudallu; some like to be referred to as ‘Agnikula Kshatriyas’. In the official caste records, they come under ‘A’ and ‘D’ categories of the backward castes (BC).
I visited the villages of Manturu, Kachluru, Tuthigunta, Vadapally, Singanapally, Devipatnam, Pochavaram, Kolluru, Kunavaram and Kapileswarapuram in the three aforementioned districts. (Kapileswarapuram does not feature in the dam’s submergence zone, but many fisher communities settled in the submergence zone migrate there seasonally.) There are also fisher communities in Tadivada, Nadupuru, Koraturu, Rudramakota, Tekuru, Sriramagiri, Teleperu, Gonduru, Siduru and other villages located across the three districts, all of which are slated to be submerged.
Polavaram dam will submerge a total area of 38,186 hectares, including 22,882 hectares of un-irrigated (rain-fed) agricultural land, 12,801 hectares of what is called ‘poramboke’/government or wasteland), and 3,223 hectares of forest land. Officially, over 276 tribal villages in the agency areas of East and West Godavari districts and Khammam district (of which 274 are in the Fifth Schedule area) will be submerged. Villages that will go under first are in the Polavaram and Devipatnam mandals (in West and East Godavari district respectively), followed by Chintur, Kunavaram, V R Puram, Kukunuru, Velairpadu, Burugampadu and Bhadrachalam (in Khammam district). The project will also submerge villages in Orissa and Chhattisgarh.
Livelihoods that will be affected include agriculture (settled and shifting), forest-based livelihoods (collection of minor forest produce, etc), livestock rearing (cattle, goats, and backyard poultry), and fishing.
Part II: Whose river is the Godavari?
Why is there no mention of fisher communities in the relief & rehabilitation statistics of the Polavaram Dam? If tribal communities can seek land for land, and forest for forest, can the displaced fisherfolk of the Godavari seek a river for a river?
“Vaalu Godaari ki Godaari ivvaru kada?” (“They won’t give us Godavari for Godavari, will they?”) asks Malladi Posi of Manturu (in East Godavari district) ironically, looking straight into my eyes. “Perhaps we have to go elsewhere, looking for a river, if not Godavari,” reflects Sangani Eswara Rao of Kachluru in Tunnur panchayat, East Godavari district.
Malladi Posi and Eswara Rao are fishermen, belonging to the Palli caste, from villages along the river Godavari that are threatened by displacement by the Polavaram dam. Posi and Rao’s words throw up deeper questions: For whom does the Godavari flow? Just as tribal communities seek land for land, and forest for forest, can these fishermen seek a river for a river in compensation? Is the Godavari meant only for industry or agriculture, not for fishermen/fish workers? Whose river is the Godavari? What about those whose lives and livelihoods depend on ‘hunting’ fish (caapala veta, as they call it, rather than ‘fishing’, which would becaapalu pattadam)?
These questions highlight the plight of men and women whose lives are more closely linked with the Godavari’s flow than anyone else’s. Should the Polavaram dam see completion, these communities could lose their identity forever as they join hundreds and thousands of wage labourers on construction sites or in agricultural fields.
There is no mention of fisher communities in the R&R (relief & rehabilitation) statistics of the Polavaram project; in a strange paradox, they are not counted as part of the population of the ‘agency areas’. Although they have fished in these waters for centuries, subtle changes in their settlement patterns were never important enough to be recorded by census officials. When it comes to voting, however, they do seem to count as they have ration cards…
How can a people be compensated for the loss of a river? Perhaps the calculations could begin from the losses these fish-hunters/ fish workers of the Godavari are likely to suffer.
“There can be use rights, but not property rights in relation to water,” says Ramaswamy Iyer, former Secretary, Water Resources, Government of India (1).
A river must be seen as a shared natural resource rather than a common property resource. The idea of property is problematic and part of a commercialised view of natural resources, with exploitation built into it. Indeed, there needs to be discussion on referring to a river or any natural resource as a common property resource, considering the inherent problems within the larger global political economy. When one speaks of rivers, pastures, grazing land as ‘property’, a whole new cycle of asserting rights through ideas of state and power begins, where the marginalised have to prove the onus of owning something they have never considered their property in the first place. The simplest example is the way fishermen build temporary shelters along the banks of the Godavari to fish for five to six months a year. Tribal communities do not question or place ownership rights over the sand and banks that may physically be part of their village. Sharing a natural resource like a river, a mountain, a forest has simply been an extension of their lives, an aspect currently being questioned in the construction of Polavaram dam and the whole R&R exercise.
Part III: Short-changing inland fishworkers
Malladi Posi is a ferryman-cum-fisherman in Manturu. His is the only boat that connects Manturu, which falls in East Godavari, by river to Vadapally in West Godavari from where you take the road to Singanapally or Polavaram. Manturu is one of the 276 villages that will be submerged by the multi-crore multi-purpose Polavaram (Indira Sagar) Irrigation Project.
Posi and his fellow villagers had gathered by the river one evening, late-May 2010, to discuss their imminent displacement. If the monsoons arrive on time -- within a week or two -- Posi and his friends will stop their fishing activity in the Godavari for three-four months, to resume again by early-September. In that time they will have to survive on the income they earned during the fishing months of September and May. It all depended, of course, on the rains and the volume of water the Godavari ‘churned’ up. Right now they had another, bigger concern.
The multi-crore Indira Sagar Polavaram Dam Project intends to transfer 80 tmc (10 million cubic feet) of water to the Krishna river basin and to Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh. The project also proposes to generate 960 MW of electricity, besides providing extra irrigation to an area of around 700,000 acres in the delta region of the Godavari.
The larger government plan -- to “link the Godavari and Krishna, thus reducing pressure on the Krishna waters; recreation facilities and pisciculture, etc” -- is bound to affect the traditional rights of fisherfolk who settle on the banks of the Godavari during certain seasons. The effects of the project on their rights to the river, once it is dammed, will at some point be under scrutiny.
Part IV: Tourism adds to Godavari fishermen's woes
The non-tribal upper caste landowners of Khammam district in Andhra Pradesh are welcoming the Polavaram dam project since it offers them compensation, and the promise of ‘development’ and tourism. The tribal fishermen on the other hand, find that the tourist launches plying the river by the score are destroying what little remains of their livelihood
Kaigala Satyanarayana, a non-tribal upper caste landlord, runs what could be called an illegal tourist resort in Kolluru, in Khamman district. It is on tribal land, in a Schedule V area. With support from Andhra Pradesh Tourism, Kolluru is being touted as an ‘eco-friendly’ resort. It is made up of huts on the banks of the Godavari; electricity is supplied by generator and Kondareddis from the village offer cheap labour. The food, however, is cooked in Rajahmundry because Satyanarayana believes urban tourists do not like tribal food!
With the commencement of the Polavaram dam project, tourism has picked up all along the Godavari river. Today, a ‘syndicate’ of about 20 tourist boats operates on the Papikonda circuit; all are owned by non-tribal upper caste men. Every day, a different boat is pressed into service so that each owner gets a share of the business. Satyanarayana confirms: “When the Polavaram project was proposed, Andhra Pradesh Tourism people encouraged us to start this. I started with six huts in the first year. Many tourists came. Gradually, it has become 40 huts now.”
Tourism caters to a set of urbanites, most of whom do not understand the flow of the river, or the seasons when even the fish in the river rest, or the difference between summer and winter breezes that blow across the villages. Contraptions called ‘tourist launches’ spew tonnes of diesel, leftover food and even excreta into the river which, for many tourists, could as well be just another stagnant pool at Hyderabad’s water park, where water is little more than a ‘theme’.