Papi kondalu, a scenic gorge located on the lower stretches of the Godavari, will soon be engulfed within the controversial Polavaram Dam. The river serves as a visitor’s delight as it winds through the hills--the same hills that are home to primitive tribal groups such as the Kondareddys. Originally known as Papidi kondalu, its Telugu meaning is a hill that splits the river. Today the proposed project in the area has precipitated many splits be it political, social or inter-state. Yet both the Central and State governments have fast tracked the project since it acquired national status. In April this year, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) bypassed the law to restart work on the project, and the work is now expected to begin in October 2015.
This highly expensive project amounting to Rs. 20000 crores is expected to irrigate over 3 lakh hectares of farmland, impound 550 million cubic metres of water besides generating 960 MW of power. The project is expected to divert 80 TMC water to the Krishna Delta apart from catering to the industrial and drinking water needs of Visakhapatnam, as per the National Water Development Agency.
The dam to be sited in West Godavari, Andhra Pradesh is expected to displace over 2 lakh people from 276 villages, mostly from Khammam, East Godavari and West Godavari districts as per its Environment Impact Assessment. Statutory public hearings have not been completed in Odisha and Chhattisgarh, the states which too have huge submergence areas. Yet the Ministry of Environment and Forests has given a nod to the project by doing away with a stop-work order against the Polavaram dam.
The 150 foot high dam is expected to create backwaters upstream in the Godavari as well as in several of its tributaries in Odisha and Chhattisgarh. The two states had approached the Supreme Court with these concerns but the verdict is pending. Yet, Andhra Pradesh is going ahead with the project under the plea that it has already filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court stating that it would construct a flood wall to prevent the flow of backwaters into the two states.
There are many who have raised doubts about Polavaram and its implications to people and the environment. Biksham Gujja, formerly with WWF Switzerland has in his book titled ‘Perspectives on Polavaram’ raised concerns about how canal irrigation projects focus on paddy, a water intensive crop.
Biksham Gujja has called for the need to invest in technologies that lead to improvements in productivity rather than expanding the area under irrigation.
There are concerns on whether there is enough water at Polavaram. Sraban Kumar Dalai, formerly with the WWF-ICRISAT Dialogue Project based on modeling of river discharges, questions if there is a need for that big a storage capacity “when the river is able to provide running water all the year round even during drought years”.
Some experts have had reservations on whether the project provides additional waters. Richard Mahapatra in a Down to Earth article quotes that “the Government of India’s official data shows 71 percent of the right canal command areas (of Polavaram Dam) are already under irrigation since 1999”. The real cost-benefit of the dam is therefore likely to be much less.
Were there other options?
“There are many views about alternatives to the Polavaram project, reduction of height of the dam being the most prominent”, says R V Ramamohan, Joint Director of Centre for World Solidarity speaking to India Water Portal. “This will reduce much of the submergence and thereby avoid conflicts with Odisha and Chhattisgarh. Of course, this is going to reduce the water storage and power production".
"Enough technical and scientific exploration about height reduction has not been done yet. As a result the project has got confined to one State, making project implementation much easier", says R V Ramamohan.
In the meanwhile, upstream states have made no serious attempts to utilise the allocated waters under the Godavari Water Dispute Tribunal. A large number of small projects could have reduced the adverse impacts of the huge project. Earlier, T Hanumantha Rao, Former Engineer in Chief Government of Andhra Pradesh (GoAP) had raised doubts on Polavaram not on technical grounds but “because drastic social changes have occurred since the 1950s and the project is now facing severe opposition because of submersion of area and displacement of people”. He proposed the construction of three low barrages like the one at Dowleswaram in place of the Polavaram high dam. The idea was to create the same storage at a lesser cost, while retaining the canals now being constructed as they are.
M Dharma Rao, Former Chief Engineer, GoAP had suggested the construction of barrages on tributaries and sub-tributaries of the Godavari--Sileru, Sokileru and Pamuleru coupled with the Dummugedam anicut. He was of the view that this option would not run into interstate disputes. Ravi Rebbapragada, Executive Director of Samata, a Visakhapatnam based NGO speaking to India Water Portal backs this alternative as “more uplands will come under irrigation and there will not be the massive displacement as in the present design at Polavaram”.
T Shivaji Rao, Honorary Director, Centre for Environmental Studies, GITAM College of Engineering, Visakhapatnam who did a dam break analysis of Polavaram states that it is very risky.
“At least 267 sqkm on the left side, and 195 sqkm on the right side of the project will be inundated in case the dam breaks. This would affect 10 lakh people in urban areas and 31 lakh in rural areas", as per T Shivaji Rao.
Cherukuri Veeraiah, former Engineer-in-Chief and a proponent of the dam was against the reduction of the dam height as it would “adversely affect the desired benefits from the dam”. He has however raised concerns about the present design as he feels that Rajahmundry town and nearby villages might face submergence.
It seems that the Papi kondalu will be lost to the dam forever now that the Government has decided to go ahead with the dam. While little can be done to restore the environment with the proposed dam likely to block the river's natural flow, the situation for those displaced due to the dam can be a lot better.