The signature project of Andhra Pradesh is messier than it looks.
Farmers are extremely unhappy about giving up their lands. The water from the dam would submerge their property, the farmers argue. An upper caste zamindar is angered that government officials will not go ahead with the project. The officials protest that they don’t have adequate land to compensate the famers. The zamindar gets angrier and agrees to donate his land. But alas, with a twist of fate and screenplay, he is killed by wicked villains. Years later his son avenges his father’s death and donates all of his personal inherited land so that the project can be constructed without hindrance from farmers.
A young man listens to farmers and tribesmen complain about the lack of democratic procedure in the construction of the large dam. He listens to the story of impending doom; the hills, forests and villages are going to be submerged, the villagers tell him. He listens some more. The tragedies seem to have no end. Helpless, he goes back to college to read more about the Proletariat revolution.
Internships and Telugu movies can be gruelling experiences.
My first interaction with the Polavaram project was through a populist Telugu film where the protagonist reallocates his own land so that farmers who lose their land due to the project are compensated. But policy problems are hardly resolved by generous donors.
The next time I came across the problem was during an internship working with a local non-governmental organisation (NGO) based near the Polavaram dam. With the rebelliousness of youth, my actions and words resembled the protagonist in the Telugu film mentioned earlier (in spirit only, without the acres of land, of course).
As of 2011, Polavaram, a sleepy little town, has just over 13,000 people and with a literacy rate of over 76% (above the state’s average). Located amidst the scenic Papi Hills of Andhra Pradesh, Polavaram lies on the Western bank of Godavari River which snakes through the two Telugu speaking states.
Years later, sitting in a comfortable Mumbai office, I read an article that said Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, has reportedly threatened that only those who vote for him can use the services provided by his government. One of the promises of Naidu made during his election campaign in 2014 was to make the Polavaram dam a national project. The completion would etch him into Andhra Pradesh’s political history as Abhinava Bhageeratha – the modern reincarnation of the the mythical king who bought the Ganges down to the land of the mortals. Except this Bhageeratha would rather filter out who gets access to the water. To give a little more insight into Naidu’s penchant for the myth, it is important to note that he asked the director of the epic film Baahubali, S.S. Rajamouli, to aid and “interpret” in the design of key government buildings in the new capital of Amaravati.
Politicians’ fondness for the legendary aside, the Polavaram dam in particular is messier than meets the eye.
The Russian problem
Transstroy was established in 1954 as the Ministry of Transport Construction of the USSR, now it is a private enterprise. In 2007, it joined the Basic Elements Group, which is one of the country’s largest private industrial groups, with its hands in mining, construction, finance and consultancy. Its billionaire owner, Oleg Deripaska, has close ties with the former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
Transstroy was awarded the bid to construct the Zenit Arena – a premier football stadium in the city of St Petersburg. The stadium was supposed to have been constructed by 2017 for the FIFA Confederations Cup so that the tournament would serve as a trial run for the biggest tournament of them all – the FIFA 2018 Football World Cup.
Except, so poor was the company’s construction activity that Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedyev publicly called it “disgraceful”. Over 39 million dollars has reportedly been unaccounted for.
And then it arrived in Polavaram!
Transstroy (India), an “associate” of the Russian conglomerate, won the contract to start the headwork (apparatus that controls the flow of a river) for the Polavaram dam in 2013. In an estimated total cost of Rs 16,000 crore, the winning bid for the initial phase went to Transstroy (India) for Rs 4,054 crore.
The dealings of Transstroy (India) raise as many questions asthe Russian company. The chief executive officer (CEO) and managing director (MD) of Trannstroy (India) is Sreedhar Cherukuri, an IIM-Bangalore graduate. The company owes over Rs 4,300 crore to over 14 banks.
The company played an important role in the construction of the highway that connects the city of Hyderabad to its airport.
Cherukuri is not alone in this operation; he is related to R. Sambasiva Rao, currently a Telugu Desam Party (TDP) MP.
Rao, a maverick figure in Telugu politics and multiple-time MP, jumped from the derailing Indian National Congress (INC) to the TDP before the 2014 elections. He has served as vice president, India-Chile Parliamentary Friendship Group for three years, and numerous stories of his ‘interesting’ activities can be found in the local press, such as here, here and here.
But far more interestingly, he has served as the vice president of the Parliamentary Forum on Water Conservation & Management, as a member of the Standing Committee on External Affairs, and as a member of the Consultative Committee, Ministry of Road, Transport and Highways – all of which place him and the project in the right position to give him access to an international construction giant to build an irrigation project. That the new Andhra capital falls in his district of Guntur gives him a stronger position of leverage within his own party.
As per the latest reports, Transstroy has barely constructed 27% of estimated target and is being “put aside” by the state government. Fresh tenders are being called in while the possibility remains that Transstroy could be given some percentage despite the possibility of a show cause notice looming on them.
A Russian conglomerate that failed to build a stadium in its home country and faced allegations of corruption, its Indian associate that owes thousands of crores to banks and an MP with a finger in many pies are the ones deciding the fate of what could be the country’s largest infrastructure project.
Many outside of the Telugu-speaking states are unaware of the Papi Hills in Andhra Pradesh. The Papi Hills are the closest thing to the scenic mountain retreats that pepper the rest of South India. It hosts the pilgrim site of Bhadrachalam, where key episodes of the Ramayana are supposed to have taken place; the Papikonda Wild Life Sanctuary, home to a few rare species of birds; and houseboats which provide a tour along the Godavari.
But the Polavaram project will end up submerging all of this. Tourism has spiked in the last couple of years, because tourists are worried that once the hills are submerged they’ll never get to see them again.
An Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) accorded in 2005 by the government suggests that over 276 villages in Andhra are bound to be submerged, as well as eight and four in Odisha and Chhattisgarh respectively. This would involve over one lakh people being displaced directly owing to the project. In addition, 75,000 acres of cultivated land will be submerged, along with over 20,000 acres of fallow land and a few thousand acres of precious forest land.
An acre is roughly 16 tennis fields placed next to each other.
When asked to write the foreword for the second edition of Philosophy for NEFA, Jawaharlal Nehru listed what is commonly known as ‘tribal panchsheel’ – a list of five principles that are essential to policy makers to keep in mind when formulating policy regarding the tribes of India.
The last principle is of key interest to the Polavaram project.
“We should judge results not by statistics or the amount of money spent, but by the quality of human character that is evolved.”
Likely to be the most affected by the displacement, the rehabilitation and resettlement offered to the tribal population seems to be poorly planned. As of 2016, 200 Konda Reddy tribal families from the hilly regions of Khammam district in Telangana state were offered settlement packages in Andhra Pradesh. Recently, Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha, requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stop the construction of the dam until ‘pending’ issues are resolved – which include environmental clearance and the resettlement and rehabilitation package. Naidu himself has publicly stated that the acquisition and resettlement and rehabilitation package costs nearly Rs 33, 858 crore. Meanwhile, at the local revenue office in Polavaram, officials were caught misappropriating Rs 80 lakh under the guise of evacuating ‘the ousted’ from seven villages.
As we have heard with many such projects, the involvement of the public has been superficial, mostly for show. Activists alleged that the public hearings, meant to consult the locals on the project, were dubious and falsified; the gram sabha decisions were overturned; and that the monetary compensation is provided at rates set by the government, with no consultation. The legitimacy of pattas (certificates proving ownership of land) is to many tribes an unfamiliar practice and the lack of pattas does not necessarily mean lack of history and practice with the land. A study done by Chiara Mariotti found that other than unfair land-for-land and land-for-cash pricing, the loss of the forest as an insurance against economic shock was the biggest loss to families most likely to be displaced by the project.
Historically, this area has been prone to violence in the form of armed militants, atrocities against tribal populations by police officers and other government officials. To cause a tear in the social fabric now would be laying the seeds for more such violence in the future.
Myths, disasters and debates
As with other large dams, the construction of Polavaram is bound to take many years, maybe even decades, before it reaches completion. And Naidu might have to wait to be crowned Abhinava Bhageeratha.
According to some version of the myth, King Bhagiratha had ulterior motives in bringing Ganges to earth – to release 60,000 of his ancestors from the netherworld. And thus he took Ganga from the Himalayas across the plains and into the ocean. Although it is impossible to question King Bhagiratha, who sacrificed lands to make way for the river, it is possible to question the Polavaram project before it gets underway.
Justifications for the project are largely about how woefully drought prone the southern region of Andhra Pradesh is, and how water would boost the economy and make it less violence prone than it is now. The steel mills near Visakhapatnam will get ample power supply, thus increasing their production capacity and income generated. The new areas that come under irrigation are beneficial and countless surveys will prove the ‘cost-effectiveness’ of the grand project. Unfortunately, previous such projects in the state are hardly a cause for optimism.
The Nagarjuna Sagar Dam, for instance, has resulted in large-scale soil erosion of the fluorine rich rocks into the natural water supply of the surrounding district of Nalgonda. That the bone structure of many young children, who have been raised drinking this contaminated water, has become chalk-like in its strength is a heavily underreported crime. Although a few articles crop up now and then, gross negligence on behalf of the news media, public policy experts and political representatives means these stories remain lost. The Srisailam dam, completed in 1981 and the second largest hydroelectric power project in the country in terms of capacity, resulted in the submergence of over one lakh acres spread across 116 villages.
Within the country, the apprehensions over the Sardar Sarovar Dam still hang and activists continue to fight their battles.
Naidu has historically invoked images of Singapore to look for inspiration and development in his vision for Andhra Pradesh. He had such visions for Hyderabad in his first term as chief minister for undivided Andhra Pradesh. His emphasis on IT and Hyderabad cost him an election in 2004. Ironically, he paints a similar future for Amaravati.
Polavaram dam falls under the same grammar of becoming and recreating a Singapore-like experience. It is the language that speaks of bullet trains, giant statues that create a spectacle, of hiring a filmmaker as part of urban planning and design; the language where a real few must suffer for some fictional ‘greater’ good. It is the spectacle that alludes to mythical histories and legendary pasts over smaller archives with less fantastical stories but far more practical solutions. And such pining for grandeur results in equally real and tangibly grand cost on the place, people and time.
The resulting internal refugees will become part of a problem that accumulates in the state. The nature of floods that occur will be epic in scale. The tragedies will accrue and be the problem of the same government, then the next…
None of the battles that Polavaram faces are new, none of the arguments are unexpected, even the human tragedies are all too “clichéd”. And yet somewhere between corruption, desire for epic legacy and poor historical precedents, the dam has not received the heated debate that it deserves beyond its vernacular space.
Mukesh Manjunath graduated with a masters in development studies from IIT-Madras, Chennai. He is a budding stand-up comedian and humour writer, who writes for Weirdass Comedy.
Note: This article was edited at 11 45 PM on December 8 to state that Transstroy (India) is an associate of Russian conglomerate Transstroy and not a subsidiary.