River of life

Print edition : September 04, 2015
Full of stories that are intense and involved, this book fills a major gap in the narrative relating to a river development project and its impact on people’s lives.

THERE is something awe-inspiring about crossing the Godavari river by the rail bridge near Rajahmundry. The river seemingly never ends. Somewhere in the middle of the bridge, if you look out of the window, you may not see either of the banks.

In 1992, I had been to the Godavari delta area to cover a blowout in an Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) gas rig. Sitting in my hotel balcony in Rajahmundry on the banks of the river, I watched the sun dip into the river at dusk. Moonlight soon silhouetted the islands in the river, and ferries carried passengers and goods across, with their glow worm-like lights illuminating the water. For the next couple of days, I travelled through the narrow roads of the Godavari delta, crossing innumerable bridges. The rig that had blown out was many islands away. In the island where the rig stood, heat from the blowout had seared acres of standing crop.

When the Polavaram project becomes a reality, the Godavari as we know it today may not be the same. There may not be as much water at Rajahmundry and in the hundreds of distributaries of the delta. The river will also not be the same upstream of the Polavaram dam, which is located on the river 35 kilometres upstream of the Rajahmundry bridge. The reservoir will submerge thousands of hectares of land and with it villages, forests, agricultural fields and grazing lands.

When Godavari Comes: People’s History of a River is a human interest story. It is the kind of story that can be told only by travelling along the river and meeting the people who will benefit from or be adversely affected by the project.

R. Umamaheshwari, the author, has travelled along the river, not once but several times from 2006 to 2010, and thus the stories she tells are that much more involved and intense.

For the people who have been living along the banks of the river for generations, the river is almost human. They have seen her in different moods and different shades. While they lived their lives, the river lived hers. And together they continued living, the way their fathers and grandfathers had done before them.

“When Godavari comes” is an annual cyclical statement in the lives of these communities. It signifies that time in the year when the river overflows the banks. The villagers move, temporarily, to higher ground and return when the river recedes. The river returns to her course, leaving behind fertile silt on the farmlands and watermarks on the walls of people’s homes.

However, what will happen when the Godavari comes and never goes away? This is the question for which there is no answer for those to be displaced by the dam project.

The same question was asked by the communities displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada and the Tehri dam on the Bhagirathi in the early 1990s. The media and society repeated their questions then and there was much public discussion and debate over these projects. The Polavaram project comes at a time when such questions do not excite the media or the public any longer. Thus, through her book, Umamaheshwari fills a major gap in the narrative relating to a river development project and its impact on the lives of people.

Polavaram project

The Polavaram project is a big one. According to the detailed project report (DPR), which the author quotes extensively, it is envisaged as a multipurpose project, with irrigation and electricity generation as benefits. The irrigation canals are expected to reach farmers in the West Godavari, East Godavari, Krishna and Visakhapatnam districts and also link up with the Krishna river. The installed capacity of the hydroelectric plant is 960 megawatts. All this is to be achieved through the construction of a 53-metre-high dam across the river. The reservoir will submerge 38,186 hectares of land, much of it agricultural land (22,882 ha), followed by revenue land (12,081 ha) and forest land (3,223 ha).

The rising water will submerge 276 villages, and an estimated 1,17,034 people will have to be rehabilitated. As in the case of the Sardar Sarovar project, the majority of those affected will belong to the marginal communities, with 47 per cent belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, 14.96 per cent to the Scheduled Castes and 22.8 per cent to the Backward Classes.

The author visited the river many times, and her understanding changed with each visit. In 2006, the Godavari was poetry for the author. The “all this will be lost” feeling overwhelmed her. She also returned immediately after the annual flooding that year.

In 2007, she travelled through the areas that would be affected by the project and met with multiple stakeholders—communities, officials and elected representatives.

In 2008, the author’s reporting slowed down. There was more to the Godavari in the silences than in the reporting. She looked at the impact of the project on cities such as Rajahmundry.

In 2009, there were Assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh, and a people’s movement demanding a separate Telangana State was also heating up. The Polavaram controversy found a different resonance in all this. And in 2010, the author followed the river along with the traditional fishing communities.

A few pages of black-and-white photographs follow each of the chapters dealing with these annual visits. The stark pictures put a face to the people she has met and an image to the locations she has visited.

Voice of the displaced

The author states that hers is the voice of those to be displaced. “This is not my book, as I have come to realise, though the words may be mine. Many a time in these journeys I felt like the instrument, the medium of expression of the people of Godavari and the river Godavari.”

The people and the state look at the river in two different ways, and that creates the conflict. They talk in parallel languages, each not being able to understand the other. “People’s understanding is simple yet profound, like the depth of the river Godavari; a truthful evoking of a larger life-system principle of permanent flows. It reflects the meaning of life and its interconnectedness.

“The state’s perception is as shallow as surface water, with convoluted mathematics created over it to generate uses that will make the river a paying proposition. It is the idea of ownership and possession. …it brings with it conflict and power—like the idea of ‘wasting into sea’ of that which could have been possessed, controlled and manipulated to stop on command and give dividends on expenditure when released as a ration.” These are powerful words, descriptive and evocative. She imbues great dignity to the people of Godavari whom she met. This is in stark contrast to how they are mentioned in government reports—where people, families, and communities are just statistics. In her narrative, people have names and identities. Through her notes on their lives, the author gives the readers a glimpse of how the project would change their individual lives. She talks about the wheels within wheels of the corruption cycle, where those in real need of rehabilitation get overlooked, while those who can make strong but dubious claims get compensation.

‘Packagi’

The oft-used term in the Godavari basin is “packagi”, Telugu for the rehabilitation package being offered by the State government to induce people to move. In fact, one of the strongest lines in the book appears when two project-affected persons are discussing the package with the author. “You landlords will get your land. What about us? Where will we go?” Sarojinamma, landless and 70 years old, asks a landlord from Marrigudem.

Book’s strength

This is the strength of the book. It nuances the discussion on a massive river valley project. The project affects different people differently. There are those who are happy to move if there is sufficient compensation, and others who either do not own land or whose land is communally owned and thus may not get any real benefit from the compensation, if and when it comes. There is also a third kind—absentee landlords, who suddenly see the prospects of getting good money for their lands.

However, the question is whether these strong images are enough to conserve a river in the present-day social, political and economic milieu. The answer obviously is no. Any argument for conservation today needs strong economic justification. But Umamaheshwari’s book remains limited to being a people’s history of the Godavari river. The message she conveys is that there is a strong link between the annual cycles of the river and the life and culture of those living on its banks, all of which will be irrevocably lost with the Polavaram project.

Although the book is interesting to read, it may not influence decision makers. The only way policymakers can be persuaded to look at a project through a fresh perspective is when somebody can prove that the benefits of conservation are greater than those of development.

If only the author had slowed down to catch her breath while writing and added some analysis on what the economic loss would be when everything is gone, her narrative would have been more impactful.

S. Gopikirishna Warrier is regional environment manager with Panos South Asia. His views are personal.

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