Polavaram Dam: Corrupt interests at the expense of noble alternatives

Observational Report on the Polavaram Dam Project and Surrounding Areas

By: Drew Bahr, HELP International Intern

During the summer of 2011 I had the opportunity to personally witness the proposed construction site of the Polavaram Dam as well as interview three engineers and environment experts with alternative proposals and view the conditions of the people in the proposed area of displacement that would be created by the Dam. During this three-day journey from Hyderabad to northern Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, I was surprised to find that many things are not as they were officially described by the government.

Our trip began with an effort to document the present existence of canals to provide irrigation for the surrounding countryside from the Godavari River to refute the claim that the Dam is necessary to provide irrigation for rice and other crops. Although government engineers seem to ignore their presence, we visited perfectly working canals and pumping stations from the river alongside new canals which were supposedly built to take water from the Godavari River to the Krishna River Basin. These larger canals, however, seem to have displaced an inordinate amount of farmers and did not provide means for their local use through pumps or other forms of access.

Secondly, we visited the actual site of the Polavaram Dam and were able to observe proposed construction plans and costs. I was shocked and ashamed to find that the costs of the Dam project had greatly exceeded the rate of inflation of the Rupee several times over and that the proposed additions to the Dam to justify such expense were not commensurate. Moreover, the safety and security of an earthen dam of such vast proportion was clearly called into question upon seeing both the proposed length of the dam as well as the size of the potential reservoir. I would recommend that all inhabitants downstream on the Godavari River take note of the catastrophe and imminent danger a rupture or collapse of the earthen dam would pose to their lives and livelihoods.

Next, we visited several important engineers who were able to propose alternatives for the dam with various advantages. Sri M Dharma Rao, former Engineer- in –Chief Government of Andhra Pradesh, explained that his alternative design could produce the same amount of electricity that current dam designs offered to provide at a smaller cost, with greater safety for residents downstream, and with the same benefits of generating electricity for populace of the surrounding region. His plan involved a series of steep tunnels through the mountains which would divert part of the river and generate electricity. While his plan did not provide for the diversion of water to the Krishna River Basin, it does not seem to have received due consideration.

As an even more moderate approach, we visited another former engineer of great accomplishment – T Hanumantha Rao, former Engineer- in –Chief Government of Andhra Pradesh and Consultant, United Nations (OPS) – who told us that, by constructing a series of three barrages instead of one giant dam and reservoir could be made safer, cheaper, and displace only about a quarter of the local inhabitants that the current project would force from their homes and lands. His plan simply had no drawback: it would be able to divert water to the Krishna River Basin if needed, generate electricity, stop floods, and would save thousands of crores of Rupees. I honestly have no idea why these plans have not come to greater public knowledge and why the citizens of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa do not unite to advocate their just consideration. It seems plain to me, as an outsider, that corruption is fueling the current design at the expense of noble alternatives.

Prof Shivaji Rao, eminent environment expert, had detailed studies on the dam break analysis and has been advocating for critical review of the dam from safety angle.

Lastly in our visit we were able to meet some of the indigenous people of the nearly two-hundred and seventy villages that would potentially be displaced by the current dam design. We saw that, although the Koya traditional people had received limited entitlements such as basic housing in a handful villages, they were clearly being ignored part of their scheduled tribe welfare and did not have the knowledge about their predicament entitled to them under the Right to Information Act nor sufficient information about alternatives to the proposed Dam plan. To think that the people who would be most affected by the current Dam design were unaware of the alternatives was shocking!

I believe that every citizen with the right to vote in the region of the Godavari states should petition their government for an audit of this corrupt and politicized project. There is no clarity of information, there is no impartiality in the plans adopted, and there is no oversight in the conditions I saw as of 2011. I would hope that every citizen demand these conditions to change.

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