The fracas around the Polavaram project suggests de-bottlenecking inter-state infrastructure might be harder than expected

Aman Sethi  

 Last Updated at 21:46 IST

The first day of the 16th Lok Sabha was marked by protests by members of Parliament from Telangana, India’s newest state. Placard-wielding MPs from the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) took to the Well of the House to object theAndhra Pradesh Reorganisation (Amendment) ordinance, drafted by the outgoing United Progressive Alliance.

The TRS was joined by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Odisha’s ruling party, in opposing the ordinance, which transfers a portion of the proposed submergence zone of the Polavaram irrigation project from Telangana to Andhra Pradesh to ease clearances for the project.

According to a Press Trust of India report, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has urged the government to implement thePolavaram project, .

The protests over the ordinance offer an insight into the legal and political specificities of the many infrastructurebottlenecks the new government has promised to resolve by hastening clearances. The stand-off between Andhra Pradesh and the three states of Telangana, Odisha and Chhattisgarh points to the difficulties of inter-linking rivers near or across inter-state boundaries.

Section 90 of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act of 2014, notifying the creation of Telangana, grants Polavaram national project status and states “consent for Polavaram Irrigation Project shall be deemed to have been given by the successor state of Telangana”. TRS sources said they would contest this assertion.

The Indirasagar Polavaram project has attracted controversy since Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh signed an agreement for its construction in 1978. The project is designed to irrigate 291,000 hectares, provide drinking water and industrial water supply to Visakhapatnam, generate 960 Mw of power and inter-link the Krishna-Godavari basin.

Lack of funding and clearances meant the project was dormant for many years, before being revived by former Andhra Pradesh chief minister YSR Reddy. Current Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu has often highlighted the benefits of the project and sought its speedy implementation.

By granting Polavaram national project status, the Union government has committed to financing 90 per cent of the project cost of ~16,010.45 crore and taken responsibility for all clearances, compensation and rehabilitation work.

While the governments of Odisha and Chhattisgarh have filed suits in the Supreme Court to halt dam construction, activists have questioned the need for a dam that will displace about two million people, 80 per cent of whom belong to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes or Other Backward Classes, according to a Supreme Court-appointed committee.

Tribal affairs minister Jual Oram, an adivasi from Odisha, has said, “I will extend full support to whatever stand the state government takes over the Polavaram issue if it is in the interest of Odisha,” he said at a press conference in Bhubaneswar this week.

“The land-transfer ordinance is unprecedented in the history of dam construction in this country,” said R Vidyasagar Rao, ex-chief engineer of the Central Water Commission and irrigation advisor to the TRS. “When the Sardar Sarovar Dam was built, was the submergence zone in Madhya Pradesh transferred to Gujarat?”

Unlike many river disputes, the Polavaram conflict isn’t premised on water-sharing, but on the submergence of land in Telangana, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. “River water between these states was allocated by the Bachawat award on the basis of various projects on these river basins,” said T Hanumantha Rao, former engineer-in-chief of Andhra Pradesh, “Telangana will get water from irrigation projects on its land, while Andhra will get water from its own projects.”

Rao has proposed substituting the single dam and reservoir by three barrages to regulate river flow, as well as mini hydel stations to generate power. This “step-ladder” design, Rao said, would reduce the submergence area and hasten clearances. The Central Water Commission, however, turned down his proposal, saying the limited storage offered by the barrages meant the project wouldn’t provide enough water or electricity.

According to a 2009 environmental impact assessment prepared for the Andhra government, Polavaram and its reservoir will need 52,623.91 hectares; Chhattisgarh will lose 795.59 hectares, of which 0.16 are forest land, and Odisha will lose 648.05 hectares (102.16 hectares of forest land).

In court, the Chhattisgarh and Odisha governments have said submergence in their respective states would be much higher than claimed by the Andhra Pradesh government. Both governments maintain public hearings haven’t been held in their states, a violation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act.

While the project secured a clearance from the environment ministry in 2005, this was overturned by the National Environment Appellate Authority in 2007.

“It is unusual for the Centre to accord ‘national status’ to a project that hasn’t secured environment and forest clearances yet and for which tribal laws have not been complied with,” said former Union Power Secretary E A S Sarma, who has tracked the project. He added a project precondition to provide each displaced tribal family land-for-land within the irrigated area downstream of the project must be followed.

“To legislate on ‘deemed consent’ by the successor Telangana government amounts to misuse of the legislative process for the sake of expediency. The Centre thought Telengana’s opposition to the project could be reduced by transferring the mandals under submergence to Andhra Pradesh, but it was a short-sighted response,” he said.

In the meantime, TRS MP Sitaram Naik has approached the Supreme Court to overturn the most recent ordinance. Officials in Odisha and Chhattisgarh said they were following the events in Parliament and preparing for a summer of litigation. Read mor ehere –