Road to nowhere

Published : Sep 08, 2006 00:00 IST

The recent floods have provided a ruse to the government to relocate people affected by the Polavaram dam.

FEW roads cruise so perfectly through life's close hits and misses as the road to Kondamodalu - a quiet, beautiful village nestled in the Papikondalu hills in Devipatnam mandal of East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh - does. If you fall ill in Kondamodalu, the minimum time between life and death is a three-hour boat ride on the Godavari - and survival is not guaranteed during the monsoons when the river is turbulent. For nothing but a myth of a road exists between Kondamodalu and the nearest government hospital.

The road to Kondamodalu is both a metaphor and a reality; it is probably the first road built by a community to make way for its own displacement - and the first such on account of the Indira Sagar (Polavaram) dam in East Godavari district. The people of Kondamodalu panchayat are now engaged in building the road under a food-for-work programme after the latest flooding of the Godavari.

The `2006 Godavari' - the floods that wreaked havoc in the State this August - affected most the people living in the `submergence zone' of the Polavaram dam in Khammam, and East and West Godavari districts. For at least 12 out of the 14 villages of Kondamodalu panchayat, the road was to have provided the only way of surviving `2006 Godavari'.

For people living in the close vicinity of the Godavari there is a name and a vintage to the floods. The last disaster on the Godavari in their memory was in 1986, popularly referred to as the "enabhai-aaru Godavari".

There is a specific reason for referring to the `floods' thus. In the socio-economic and cultural context of the `Godavari districts', the river never floods. The Godavari `comes' ("vacchinappudu" - when Godavari came), stays for week or more ("poyina saari rendu rojulu undindi" - last time she stayed for two days) or goes ("ade vellipotundi"). The Godavari's flooding pattern has rarely been referred to as "varadalu" - the Telugu term for `floods' - by the people, unlike in the media and in official parlance. It is this peculiar understanding of the flooding pattern of the Godavari that makes people refer to the last spate also as "enabhai-aaru Godavari", and not as "enabhai-aaru varadalu".

Understanding this peculiarity is essential to respecting the symbiotic association of the Godavari and the people. People's lives are somewhat tied to the intervals of the river's `coming' and `going'. One of the questions the road to Kondamodalu raised in the wake of the 2006 Godavari and the `relief' mechanism thereafter was about the way the state perceives and reacts to floods. It shows a system negating the patterns that bind people to their fate.

But the 2006 Godavari will be an important turning point in the official response to floods. And a sheer paradox. For now, the "Godavari-affected families" have turned into daily wage earners building a road towards their own displacement. Making it convenient for the government to smoothen out at least one rough feather in the long battle to build the Polavaram dam.

The 14 villages of the Kondamodalu panchayat and a population of approximately 1,960 Scheduled Tribe and 11 Scheduled Caste families would be submerged under the Polavaram dam. The panchayat is inhabited essentially by tribal Kondareddis (or Hill Reddis as they are also referred to) and Koyadoras. The former group is categorised as `primitive' tribal people. The village residents also have a history of revolt, of having reclaimed land from non-tribal landlords in the 1960s. They have land to cultivate, but many of them do not have official `pattas', certifying their land ownership. Their plight is worsened by the fact that the whole panchayat has only one primary health centre (PHC) and an apology of a road.

The way to reach Kondamodalu in normal times is through the Godavari, on launches from Rajahmundry, Tekur or Devipatnam. But during the monsoons, the river is out of bounds. This year especially, with flood levels at nearly 70 feet (21 metres) at Bhadrachalam, there was no option but to take the road. The road to Kondamodalu starts from a point near Rampachodavaram, and for about 35 kilometres is a `kuccha' road, inlaid with boulders and stones and passing through streams of water at intervals. The road also passes through a rich forest with rosewood and teak trees, among other local species.

Mediapersons did not venture beyond Devipatnam mandal headquarters, where a non-tribal shopkeeper doubles up as stringer for one of the Telugu dailies.

For almost two decades, the people of Kondamodalu panchayat have been requesting the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) authorities at Rampachodavaram to repair the road. Each time the Godavari comes and goes, they are forced to flee to higher ground and live in thatched huts there.

There are very few boats or launches plying between these villages and a safer upstream village or town. An ITDA project officer at Rampachodavaram told this writer that the floods were nothing new for the tribal people here and that they had survival strategies. But one wonders why some people are left to make their own survival strategies in a modern democracy.

The officer added: "In a way, the Polavaram project is a great opportunity for the tribal people affected by floods on a permanent basis.... There was a sanction for the 30-km road between Lankapaka to Kondamodalu. We shall lay this road in a year's time. If the villages get submerged under the project, we shall have to transport people and animals and the road will come in useful. The project will anyway take three to five years to complete. At least people can use the road until then... In the next 15 days, we shall be shifting the people of K. Gonduru, Veeravaralanka, and Bodigudem villages to Peddabhimpally."

The Polavaram project implies the submergence of around 300 villages in nine mandals in three districts and around 1.5 lakh acres (60,000 hectares) of cultivable land, and that will affect the lives of around 2,37,000 people. The total forest land that will get submerged is 3,223 ha (having 69,225 productive trees, valued at Rs.21.82 crores). It will also impact adversely the fauna, such as the tiger, the panther, the bison, the bear, the wild cat, and a host of bird species.

Of the population that would be displaced, the percentage of women far outnumbers men. According to a report prepared by the Centre for Economics and Social Studies (CESS), 67.3 per cent of the S.C. women would be affected (as against 55.2 per cent of the men); 79.3 per cent of the S.T. women (as against 69.4 per cent men), and 58.1 per cent of Backward Classes (B.C.) women (against 41.9 per cent of the men). Among others 37 per cent of the women will be affected as against 25.4 per cent of the men.

Agricultural loss itself will be phenomenal, taking into account merely agricultural produce in the submergence area. According to the Andhra Pradesh Rythu Sangham, cotton is grown on over 10,000 acres (4,000 ha) and gives an average of 150 persondays of work. Paddy is grown in 10,000 acres and each acre gives 75 person days of work. Tobacco is grown on 6,000 acres (2,400 ha) and gives 250 persondays of work an acre. And one is not even mentioning loss of other livelihoods.

On August 11 while passing through this road, one realised the indifference of the people towards flood relief measures. It was literally a case of `build or perish'. For accessing the relief that was rightfully their due, the men and women of the flooded Kondamodalu panchayat were employed by the ITDA on a daily wage of Rs.50 per head under the Food for Work programme. People from Somarlapadu, Kokarigudem and Kathanapally were also involved.

Accompanying this writer that evening, on the way back from Kondamodalu, were five young men from Kondamodalu, Somarlapadu, Kokkiralagudem and other villages. They had come to collect foodstuffs air-dropped that afternoon. They had hoped to hitch a ride on my jeep to a point close to their respective villages. Unfortunately the jeep refused to budge after a mishap that almost pushed us down into a valley. Hence we walked from 7 p.m. that evening to 4 a.m. the next day through intermittent rain. For those men, it meant paying a price for relief - all for a loaf of bread. Needless to say, the loaves were consumed on the journey back home, besides the bananas and water I had carried along.

There are other aspects that point to the link between relief in the aftermath of 2006 Godavari and the Polavaram project. For instance, there is a "barrage list" (as the local people call it) that was used to distribute relief materials. This was a list of Polavaram dam oustees. Relief went only to people mentioned in that list in many villages.

As the ITDA project officer confirmed, "the list (of households) prepared for the Polavaram project came in handy for relief. It was easy for the teams to distribute rice and kerosene." Which means that until then, there was no proper list of household, or status of the area with the ITDA. The list was prepared after an "enjoyment survey" of "government land encroached" by the tribal people. "The Polavaram project occupies 70 per cent of our time... The ITDA is the administrator of the relief and rehabilitation component," the officer said.

That day revenue officials were gheraoed at the PHC complex by the people of Kondamodalu. The officials had come with half the required quantity of supplies. Instead of 20 kg of rice and five litres of kerosene promised to them, people were given 10 kg of rice and 3 litres of kerosene; the balance was to come in instalments. Satyanarayanamurthy, Deputy Tahsildar, said, "We take launches on rent. The ITDA does not have launches. We have been trying to come here for the past three days...We do not get helicopters. Only boats or jeeps."

Tatikula Appayya of Kokkiralagudem said: "The government does not care about us. They knew of the heavy downpour in Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh. Why did they not prepare us in advance? Launches? Since ages we have been demanding that road. Now they are making roads. What use will it be after we all die in the Godavari?"

Kondla Gangaraju of Kondamodalu said: "Every time the Godavari came in the past, there were a few launches. This time there was none. We approached the ITDA project officer three months ago but he did not do anything about either the launches or the road. The fishermen saved our lives this time by ferrying us in their boats."

Images of 2006 Godavari seemed like a sneak preview of what these villages would look like when the Polavaram dam is built. Local people feel that the floods make it easier for the government to intensify efforts to shift them prior to the dam construction.

August 9 is the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, but for the indigenous people of Andhra Pradesh - Koyas, Kondareddis and Koyadoras - it was a day of misery. They remained virtually cut off from mainstream Andhra Pradesh. For more than five days, food, water and other basic needs failed to reach them. At Polavaram, one could not see a single tribal family in any of the relief shelters.

Little do people know that the road to Kondamodalu would take them nowhere. For the Godavari would have come to stay there forever.

R. Uma Maheshwari is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad and recipient of the Prem Bhatia Memorial Fellowship for Journalism 2006.

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