With the Centre handing over a cheque of Rs 1,981 crore to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu for the Polavaram irrigation project last week, the state now plans to speed up construction work.
The state had earlier announced that concrete work at the Polavaram dam site would start on January 7.
According to reports, the event is being planned on a massive scale, with a 72-acre plot on the riverbed levelled for a public meeting in which Naidu plans to address over one lakh farmers.
Even as the state readies itself for the construction, there are still many problems on the ground that remain unattended to.
Though conceptually proposed in 1941, and taken a little further by former Chief Minister T Anjaiah, it was during the term of YS Rajasekhara Reddy that the project began gathering steam.
In 2009, YSR declared that the project would be completed in a span of three years and would irrigate 2.91 lakh hectares.
In its present form, the multi-purpose irrigation project, still has an assessed command area of 2.91 lakh hectares and a power generation potential of 960 MW.
However, that area is going to submerge 276 villages in Andhra Pradesh, four villages in Chhattisgarh and eight villages in Odisha, according to the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), made public by the state over a decade ago.
The largescale destruction of green cover is also worrying.
“An area of 3427.52 hectares of forest land only in Andhra Pradesh is projected to be inundated,” former Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had earlier told the Lok Sabha.
There are also concerns that a 10,000-year-old megalithic burial site with around 100 graves which was discovered in East Godavari district, would be inundated before archaeologists can study them thoroughly, along with several historical sites.
Though it was declared a national project in 2014, many have opposed the dam.
All neighbouring states of Andhra have opposed it in some form or the other, with Odisha being the biggest critic of the project.
The Telangana government has also filed an affidavit before the National Green Tribunal (NGT), seeking a detailed survey.
Odisha has been putting constant pressure on the Centre, claiming that the project is against the interest of the state.
“The Centre along with the Andhra Pradesh government is acting against Odisha’s interests on Polavaram. Our fight on these issues will continue. We have been fighting for the state’s pride and rights. We won’t tolerate anyone hurting Odisha’s pride,” Odisha Chief Minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik said last week.
However, the Centre has defended itself stating that Odisha and Chhattisgarh had already ‘given their consent’, citing an Inter-State agreement between Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa that was signed on April 2, 1980.
Activists on the other hand, say that the environmental clearance for the project, which was accorded in 2005, based on an EIA done even earlier, would not hold true to the ground situation today.
“The EIA was conducted many years ago by the state, and it isn’t taking into consideration, the population growth and other changes that might have happened on the ground since then,” says Usha Turaga Revelli, a journalist and activist.
V Rukmini Rao, an activist who authored a paper titled India’s Dam Shame: Why Polavaram Dam must not be built, which was published in 2006, also voices a similar opinion.
“One of the main issues beside the clearance and the environmental damage, is the economic viability of the project. They need to take into account the difference between the original estimated cost, and the actual cost, which could be several times higher than the predicted one,” she says.
“Since the cost will also be higher, it also begs the question that the benefit may be lower. In that case, is it still worth it?” she asks.
Stating that the tail-enders may never get any water even after the project completion, she accuses the state of not even making an attempt to explore several alternatives that were proposed by engineers.
“Also, when we consider the original area that the dam water proposed to irrigate, a lot of that area is already covered today by other irrigation projects,” Rao says.
“As far as the ‘land for land’ promise to tribals is concerned, most of the promises just don’t materialise. Even the so-called rehabilitation houses that were built initially for them, collapsed even before they moved in,” she adds.
“At the end of the day, we have just pushed them to a corner, as they are an invisible population that people living in the cities can afford to ignore.” she says.
Rukmini Rao also feels that the state is “underestimating the number of people who are affected and the thousands of livelihoods that would disappear due to the project.”
“What is happening in both the Telugu states, is that they are in a tearing hurry to get to what they think is ‘development’, and with them constantly competing with each other, the environment is the biggest casualty,” says Usha.
Citing the recently passed Land Acquisition Bill in Telangana, she adds, “They are destroying forests and land in this competition, and are setting us back environmentally by several years.
Despite all this, the state remains unfazed.
Addressing a media gathering this week, Naidu stated that NGT clearance was not taken for the project and neither was it “related to this project”.
“To stop the implementation of Polavaram project there were several people working against it. They had approached the Supreme Court, National Green Tribunal, and even tried to create farmers agitation. However, we overcame all those issues,” he was quoted as saying.