Telangana

Troubled waters

Print edition : June 27, 2014

K. Chandrasekhara Rao, the first Chief Minister of the Telangana, during the state's formation day celebrations at Parade Grounds in Hyderabad on June 2. Photo: NAGARA GOPAL

During a bandh called by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti in Hyderabad on May 29 to oppose the ordinance on the Polavaram project. Photo: PTI

TRS legislators and cadre protesting against the ordinance. Photo: K.V. RAMANA.

The problems arising from the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, such as the transfer of 205 tribal villages in the submergence zone of the Polavaram project, begin to haunt K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the Telangana Chief Minister.

ON June 2, the State of Telangana, the 29th State in the country, was born and K. Chandrasekhar Rao, leader of the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), was sworn in as its first Chief Minister. Chandrasekhar Rao had made a slew of promises to the people during the election campaign. Will he be able to deliver at least a small percentage of them with the budget of Rs.2,362 crore standing to the credit of the government on day one? His promises range from a crop loan waiver of up to Rs.1 lakh to individual pensions of Rs.1,500 a month.

Chandrasekhar Rao fumbled in the very beginning of his innings when he went back on the promise to make a person from the Scheduled Caste community the Chief Minister, though his assumption of office was marked by S.C. legislators drumming up support for him. Instead, he gave deputy chief ministership to two persons—one from the S.C. community and the other from the Muslim community. The 12-member Cabinet includes his son and a nephew.

At a meeting with irrigation officials before he became Chief Minister, Chandrasekhar Rao said he aimed at an investment of Rs.1 lakh crore on projects and asked them to complete all of them in 50 months. Funds and staff were no constraint, he said. He wanted to create an ayacut of 10 lakh acres (an acre is 0.4 hectare) in each district.

He has also talked about bringing Central funds to implement his government’s schemes, many of which are in the welfare sector. Hence, he has retained the departments of welfare for the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, Backward Classes and minorities with himself.

There are many challenges facing the government, particularly in the power sector. Power is expected to be in deficit in Telangana as its generation is controlled by Andhra Pradesh. Chandrasekhar Rao has forewarned the people that the situation will continue for three years until Telangana gets its own power projects in the public sector. There would be no private players in power generation, he said.

Polavaram project

Even before forming the government, the TRS had to grapple with the controversial transfer of 205 tribal villages of Bhadrachalam and Paloncha revenue divisions of Khammam district in Telangana to East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh. The villages are part of the submergence zone of the Polavaram project, which was given national status by the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act passed by Parliament on February 20 to carve out Telangana from Andhra Pradesh. As a multipurpose project on the Godavari, it was meant to irrigate 7.2 lakh acres in Andhra Pradesh, generate 960 MW of power and supply 23.4 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of drinking water to Visakhapatnam city and the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant. It was also supposed to facilitate the transfer of 80 tmcft of water annually from the Godavari to the Krishna basin. The Centre was to fund and execute the project.

Not opposed to the project as such, the TRS called for a bandh in Telangana five days before it was set to form the government objecting to the transfer of the villages on the grounds that it would dislocate some two lakh tribal people who were dependent on forest wealth for their livelihood. It received a huge response. The Telugu Desam Party and its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, alleged that the TRS was making a fuss now after remaining silent when the law was passed. They maintained that all parties had agreed to the passage of the Bill after the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, made a statement in the Rajya Sabha that the amendments seeking the transfer of the villages was not possible as the Bill in that case would have to go back to the Lower House. They would be incorporated in the form of an ordinance, he said.

Indeed, the United Progressive Alliance government promulgated the ordinance and referred it to President Pranab Mukherjee. The President returned it to the Home Ministry as the model code of conduct for elections had come into force. After an initial protest, the TRS went into election mode and never really made it an issue in the campaign.

The first meeting of the Union Cabinet, presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on May 26, reportedly gave the go-ahead for the ordinance, and it received the President’s assent. Subsequently, a gazette notification on the ordinance was released. The TRS’ call for a bandh following this crippled normal life to such an extent that 9,500 of the 10,000 buses in the fleet of the State-owned Road Transport Corporation in Telangana were confined to depots. Only inter-State buses plied the roads.

More than the physical loss of villages, it is the human element of the project that was apparently at the heart of the agitation. Tribal people take up “podu”, or shifting cultivation, in the forest without any pattas. They have also constructed with their own funds irrigation structures of stone and mud on streams in the forest.

Moreover, the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs gave clearance to the Polavaram project in 2007 on the condition that tribal people losing land as project evacuees should be compensated with land alone in the command area. But tribal organisations say not even one acre has been given in the command area so far. They claim that the government will extend compensation in money and that the gullible tribal people will spend it on liquor and eventually become beggars.

Protest against ordinance

Of an estimated 1.50 lakh acres of agricultural land that will be submerged, 80,000 acres belongs to tribal people. The villages, located close to the picturesque Papikondalu hills, a tourist destination along the Godavari, are rich in flora and fauna. The project is a threat to the wildlife sanctuary and several species of plants and wildlife. The project has also abrogated the rights of the tribal people under Schedule V, which states that they cannot be evicted without their consent, said the local MP, A. Sitaram Naik of the TRS.

He said the ordinance was a hasty measure and that the National Democratic Alliance government could have initiated it after the TRS assumed power. He blamed the government for taking its very first step against the tribal people. On Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s denial about giving governmental clearance for the ordinance, Prof. Naik accused the BJP dispensation of commencing its administration with a blatant lie.

The ordinance has also been criticised on legal grounds because alteration of inter-State borders is within the purview of Article 3 of the Constitution which entails the President to initiate the process and send it to the Assemblies of the States in the dispute for their views. Chandrasekhar Rao, therefore, said the ordinance was “undemocratic” and amounted to bulldozing an elected party. He also highlighted the vulnerability of the site to seismic activity.

The supporters of the ordinance argue that the affected villages were part of Bhadrachalam taluk of the erstwhile Madras province and that they were merged with Andhra Pradesh after the formation of the State in 1956. Why should the TRS lay claim to the villages when it always stood for pre-1956 status of Telangana under the Nizam’s rule?

The foundation for the Polavaram project was laid in 1980 by Chief Minister T. Anjaiah. Work on the Rs.16,000-crore project began in 2005 when Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy was Chief Minister. Nearly 75 per cent of the canal excavation was over when dam construction in the limits of the East and West Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh commenced a few months ago.

T. Hanumantha Rao, a retired Engineer-in-Chief of Andhra Pradesh and a United Nations consultant on water resources, said the National Environmental Appellate Authority had quashed the environmental clearances given to the project in 2005 after the Odisha and Chhattisgarh governments raised objections to the submergence of 50 villages in these States. The project has a huge backwater curve that extends up to 105 km in Telangana from the Andhra Pradesh-Telangana border. Bhadrachalam is in the foreshore submergence area.

According to the social and environmental activist Medha Patkar, the Andhra Pradesh government cleared the project by conducting the mandatory gram sabhas in a hush-hush manner and cooking up reports. She said the submergence would be not just of villages but of archaeological sites and coal deposits.

On Chandrasekhar Rao’s demand that the design of the project be altered to avoid submergence of villages, Hanumantha Rao said it was possible by constructing three small barrages instead of one major dam on the river. One of them could be downstream of the existing site at Polavaram and the other two on the upper contours of the river. By this, the live storage of the project could be maintained. The barrages will also benefit Telangana and Rayalaseema, he said.

The government discarded the proposal for barrages citing that they were not technically feasible and that they would result in silting. But Hanumantha Rao said he had submitted to the government a silt-free design, for which he had applied for a patent. The silt would be washed out as the bottom of the gates was at riverbed level, he said.

Another inconsistency in the project that engineers point out is that the spillway is designed to discharge a flood of 50 lakh cusecs, whereas the floodbanks to protect the submergence of villages downstream, right up to the sea, had only a capacity of 36 lakh cusecs. The project is an earth-cum-rockfill dam, which is exposed to breaching due to overflow, experts have cautioned.

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