Thursday, September 11, 2014

Ecological Disaster at Polavaram

Destruction Unlimited

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

The green mountains on the river Godavari are facing the wrath of human greed in the name of ‘development’. Polavaram, a small town on the bank of beautiful river, is about forty kilometer from historic town of Rajmundry is witness to this mass destruction in the name of ‘nation building’. The aadivasis, dalits and other forest dwelling communities remain uncertain to their future as the big companies, bulldozers, and noise making digging, grilling and penetrating machines runs all over the forests. In the no entry zones there are indirect threats not to enter as ‘blasting’ is a regular affair. Godavari flow serenely between the two green hillock and the aim of the ‘engineers’ is to link one to other and build up this huge dam which will provide water supply to ‘coastal’ Andhra people.

There are no clear estimates available at the moment but the number of people going to be drowned or displaced would be nearly half a million if some activists are to be believed. The submergence area is not just in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana but also Odisha and Chhattishgarh but according to government’s own assessment it will be catastrophic. The entire project is ill conceived point out experts as it threatens displacement at massively level. The government does not have the exact figure of the people but the enormity of displacement would be over two to four lakh people. According to Minister for Environment Mr Prakash Javedkar, “276 villages in Andhra Pradesh, four villages in Chhattisgarh and eight villages in Odisha are likely to be submerged.” He said in a written reply in Lok Sabha that an area of 3427.52 hectares of forest land only in Andhra Pradesh is projected to be inundated according to Deccan Chronical on August 13th, 2014. Actually, reports are also suggesting that the number of villages being submerged in Chhattishgarh may be much more than merely four as being informed by the minister.

He was replying to a question whether the government has conducted environmental impact assessment of Polavaram Dam project and the villages and forest land which are likely to be submerged and destroyed by it.
A report in  The New Indian Express suggest that the government has actually duped the Dalit Aadivasis and other forest dwelling communities as they have lost their land yet no rehabilitation. Most of the people living in the agency areas will be submerged says the report.

“The multi-purpose project would massively displace people numbering over two lakh (nearly four lakh unofficially) from over 300 villages in nine mandals of Khammam (VR Puram, Kunavaram, Chintur, Bhadrachalam, Velerpadu, Kukunur and Burghampad), Devipatnam mandal (East Godavari) and Polavaram mandal (West Godavari), all of them in the Fifth Scheduled area, besides parts of Konta block in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh and Motu block of Malkangiri district of Odisha, says the New Indian Express Report published on August 28th, 2014.

The reports suggest that Aadivasi resettlement process under the Forest Right Act has not been completed and they are being displaced from their land in utter violation of the law. The problem is that a majority of them do not even know that there is an act and the officials are duping them on different front by false promises as well.

The fact is that while the Parliament has passed the Polavaram bill terming it as a National Project but those living in the area have a right to ask question as whether they were asked about it or not. The project is designed but do the people know as what the design is and how many villages exactly are being submerged. It is actually a clear violation of  Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act-1996 (mandates the approval of the affected gram Sabhas) and special rights to tribal under the Constitution as well very well defined by the Supreme Court in the Samata Judgment upholding the supremacy of the Gram Sabhas in decision making process falling in their zones. It is not known how many public hearings have been conducted in these regions as three states are losing over 300 villages. The fact is there are not even 20 public hearing on the issues which might have been conducted before 2006.

‘The people are living in uncertainty while the politicians have played caste card very well to dupe them. Today, Polavaram’s Dalit Aadivasis are trapped in vicious nationalism of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana state. At the one side the state of Andhra Pradesh got all the areas, which were part of Telangana around Bhadrachalam except the Ram temple. It was a bargain between the ‘temple’ and Aadivasis so that the project does not get affected. The reasons are simple. The ‘fruits’ of Polavaram project will be enjoyed by the people of Andhra Pradesh and it were the Aadivasis of Telangana who would have been submerged the most. There would have been political turmoil and big protests against the dam but with this ‘masterstroke’, the authorities have ‘successfully’ and ‘democratically’ crushed the protest and opposition to the dam. Today, a visit to these areas reflect how people are thoroughly isolated and there are scant voices of protest in the Andhra Pradesh region perhaps because it is assumed that the ‘project’ is going to fetch water to most of the Andhra State. So, for the ‘development’ of one region of people, the nation is ready to slaughter those who nurtured a region. Most of the time, this sacrifice is sought from the Aadivasis who have for years lived in the forest, protected it from being destroyed by the human greed.

For a person in love with greens, it is a depressing scene to visit the region and witness to its destruction.  It is more painful process when you see organized destruction of these serene and peaceful zones where Aadivasis have been living for centuries. As I visit the region after nearly five years when I visited the Polavaram area visiting via Bhadrachalam the scene is more painful. The beautiful and serene Godavari flows along with the lead road to Polavaram town amidst absolute green patches of fertile land. Aadivasis have been duped and there is an estimate of over four lakh people getting displaced due this project for which there is no alternative plan to rehabilitate. Most of them feel that Forest Rights Act has been violated which guarantees that no Adivasi would be dislocated from his location. There are islands of temples where people go and offer their prayers. The landscape makes you fall in love with nature.  Green Paddy field with coconut trees, banana plantations greet you with open arms. They are the natural to this region which is importing Ganesha festival these days with huge hoardings everywhere with youngsters asking for donation for their ‘programmes’.

Forty kilometer away from Rajmandary is a small town of Polavaram with chaos on the streets and absolute rural populace unmindful of the huge catastrophe that this project might bring on them. Yes, with growing immigrant population that come as work force for these projects, the business of liquor, meat and other illicit activities also grow that provide legitimacy to these ‘developmental’ projects. With its dilapidated structures all around, Polavaram is essentially an old and rural town with little facilities for growing urban youth who migrate to either Rajmandry or Vijaywada for higher education leaving older population in the villages. Many of the villagers in the submergence zone have been given small patches of homestead land here in the ‘city’.

There are some of the most beautiful locations here in this area. Papikonda Hills are well-known tourist destinations where tourists go on a cruise through Godavari. It’s a long journey of 9 hours on boat to the aadivasi locations who are now a subject of tourism while all their right to live and an environment is being violated.  As you move out of the tiny Polavaram town, the destruction process is very much visible. The beautiful hills between which Godavari flows are being systematically blown up and blasted. You see big trucks loads of blasted stones are taking up, heavy crushers, bulldozers and other blasting machines are tearing the heart of the forests. It’s a very disturbing scenario to see how heartless any body would be to kill the natures plenty in such a brutal way.  The roads are pathetic with people hanging on both the sides of autos, which they use as commuting from their places to Polavaram town as means of commuting.  Unless you know a little bit about the local areas, you would not be able to visit these villages which would be nowhere in the map of India after some time. You can meet the villagers who live in uncertainty of their lives in the coming days as the government has not done anything consequential to drive away their fears. While in Telangana there was some protest now being part of Andhra the Aadivasis find little support, which is really sad part of the entire story.

Ramaiyyapet is extraordinarily beautiful situated on the bank of river Godavari and surrounded by the greenish mountains. It is a picturesque village which is  the first village going  to be submerged for the ‘development’ of the nation.  Most of the houses and huts show the nature of the village belonging to these working masses. About 500 meters in the beginning of the village is a primary school. This village is a mix up of Dalit, Backward and tribal families but a majority of the affected communities belong to fishermen. As we walk the village some people gathers at the village temple to discuss the issue. Most of them are disturbed at the sudden ‘development’ of the project as initially the project pace was very slow but it has started now. There was a ‘public hearing’ in this village in 2007 in which people were Promised Land to Land and with a price to about 1.85 lakh for agricultural land. All those who have less than 5 acres of land would not be compensated with land. The land-to-land process has rarely implemented as after the public hearing in 2007 nothing has happened. Neither this village was settled nor the authorities came back here. Some of the tribal have been provided housing plot in Polavaram town but there was no source of income for living. According to people, there has been no political and social support and they are living on their own and do not know what to do.  Fact is that politicians have played game here on their caste lines and made false promises so that they remain entrenched in their caste identities. Most of the backward community people feel that Aadivasis and Dalits have been given ‘preference’ in rehabilitation package though none has an absolute data of the situation. It was clear that only those owning land above 5 acres of land would be provided land in lieu of it and all others would be getting a compensation of Rs one lakh eighty thousand per acre.  There was no evaluation for their homes and though the public hearing was done in 2007, nothing happened afterwards. The land prices in cities have soured multiple times. The authorities did not bother to come back to people and now the threat loom large over people. Some of those who got this compensation have finished their money as they could not get even one third of land for that money. There was no planned package for them as to where should all of them be resettled and each one of them was forced to make arrangement for themselves.

A whole living together has been destroyed by this commercial greed. Those who have stayed together for years are now living a life of uncertainty. Rammyapeta is between two beautiful hills where Godavari is majestically flowing. One the one side the destruction process is on while the other side the village waits for submergence. Anywhere in the world, such a blatant violation of the human rights of people would have faced not just stiff resistance from people but from political parties but strangely in India they enjoy on giving false promises to people and behave like middlemen. No political party in India has a clear agenda and understanding of sustainable development, which is non-confronting with nature where development, human being and ecological balance can be created. At least such beautiful forest and great bounty of nature can not be allowed to crushed for providing ‘happiness’ as the destructions caused by it will be equally vociferous in the years to come. We have witnessed the destructions of nature in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh where added with climatic changes nature has brought havocs in the lives of millions.

As we move inside in the region to visit some Aadivasi villages, lush green forestry and equally beautiful meadows welcome you. It’s a perfect combination of human being living with nature in complete conformity of it. Thousands of cows, buffalos and other animals are grazing in absolute freedom in these forest zones. Being an agency area, this has been a protected zone so far but the destruction process has now started.  Chegondapally is a aadivasi village belonging to Koya tribe amidst beautiful green fields surrounded by forests and meadows. Over 350 families of this tribe live here. Under the Rehabilitation policy of the state government nearly 80 families got houses in the Indira Awas Yojna.  A number of them are government employees. Since not many aadivasis have land above 5 acres hence most of them did not get it. No land has been given to people. The problem is that so called public hearing took place in 2006 and things have vastly changed after that. How are people expected cope the situation now with meager money after losing everything.

Interestingly, upon reaching this village, we find a group of young Aadivasi boys watching cinema in the temple complex.  I was surprised to find educated youths who could communicate in English. Padian Durga Prasad is about 25 years of age who played state level cricket, Ranji Trophy for Andhra Pradesh and now retired. Perhaps, did not get much opportunity, as this was not a retiring age as I inform him. He says that his people cannot stay in the urban areas, as they do neither get a house to live nor get any encouragement of the people. He could study because of his mother who is a teacher and his father a landless agricultural worker. He too was looking for a government job as perhaps did not find much support there. It was surprising for me that when in the corporate world cricket players are earning millions, here is an Adivasi boy unable to get sponsors and now back home he look for a government job as a Physical Training Inspector in some college.

Most of them are worried about losing their natural place and unknown to any other place they might be shifted. This breaking up of relationship and families is the biggest cause of worry among people. Many of them may not even have thought as government only use caste and religion card to break their unity and dupe them further for a new ‘dream’.

For many others this is a ‘nation building’ project like Narmada dam but the brutal fact is that this project has many similarities like Sardar Sarovar where the maximum destruction happened with the Aadivasis in Madhya Pradesh while the fruits were reaped by the non Aadivasis of Gujarat. The Polavaram’s pain is that it is inflicting unimaginable damage to not just Dalit Aadivasi lives of Odisha,Chhattishgarh, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh but the benefits will be reaped by the people far away from the region. Nowhere in India can one see the positive outcomes of any such projects where affected people have got direct benefit from it.

Polavaram is an example that despite heavy damages due to the destruction of nature, we have not learnt our lessons yet. India will remain one of the biggest ‘democracies’, expert in killing its own environment, and people in the name of development. Hope this destruction does not bring another Tsunami in the following years for which the country is not yet prepared and has no plan of action.