K. VENKATESHWARLU

Fear of displacement, loss of livelihood and police repression ... Indigenous tribes from villages and hamlets to be submerged by the Polavaram project face an uncertain future.

DRIVING past acres of cotton, chilli, tobacco and sugarcane crops, punctuated by palm trees, you reach a roadside village on the bank of the mighty Godavari. A strategically placed red signboard with a garish skull and cross bones catches your attention."Here is a warning," it announces in Telugu, as you wonder if you have strayed into Maoist territory. To make sure, you stop and read. "No official is allowed to enter the village. He will be doing so at his own risk and whoever ventures will be punished", screams the board.

Latest round

Reassured that it is aimed only at the authorities, you move on and come across more such boards in village after village on the Burgampadu-Kukanoor stretch of the resource- rich Khammam District in Andhra Pradesh. "This is the latest round of our protest. We want to prevent officials from conducting a survey of people affected by the Polavaram project. What options do we have? The project may benefit others but for us it spells doom", says Irpa Satyam, a Koya tribesman of Alliguda, near Raavigudem, the last of the villages to be submerged by the project. Like others, Satyam was among those resettled on the fringe of a reserve forest, after the huge Godavari floods of 1986. He grows cashew, cotton and paddy on five acres of land. "We slogged for 20 years to come to a stage when we are able to send our children to school. Now we are asked to shift to an alien land where we will have to start all over again," he laments. Fear of yet another displacement, an uncertain future and police repression stare at the indigenous tribes from villages and hamlets to be submerged. The strong-arm tactics were already on show in Gundrampalli of West Godavari district recently. G. Anil Kumar, a social activist and his supporters were arrested and released after 10 days in police custody. His crime - he organised a protest march against the project. At Sabarikota, Seethamma, a CPI (M) Zilla Parishad Territorial Constituency member, sustained a fracture in a police charge. Irrigation and Revenue officials tentatively put the figure of displacement at a whopping 1,95,000 people - a majority of them Koya and Kondareddi tribes, making it one of the biggest shifting of indigenous people in the country for an irrigation project. The number of villages to be submerged is put at 280 in all, 209 in Khammam, 42 in East Godavari and 29 in West Godavari districts. Twenty more villages in Chattisgarh and Orissa could be submerged.

Government's argument

The Government's argument in favour of the project is on familiar lines - harnessing river water for overall development, preventing water from flowing waste into the sea and sacrifices by sections of people are inevitable. The project, which is to be built on the Godavari, near Polavaram village in West Godavari, is expected to irrigate 7,21,000 acres in Krishna, West and East Godavari and Visakhapatnam. The project cost is estimated at Rs. 8,188 crores and another Rs. 4500 crores for resettlement and rehabilitation. The project obtained site and environmental clearance recently and already work has begun on the Right and Left canals and the spillway. But the issue of displacement, which the State plays down promising "the best Resettlement and Rehabilitation package", and submergence of 3,500 hectares of forest area including a part of the Papikonda wildlife sanctuary has kicked up a row and a debate on big dams. The Narmada Bachao Andolan leader, Medha Patkar who visited some of the villages, is not impressed by the R and R policy. "Such dams perpetrate cultural genocide of tribals. The Government's offer of land and resettlement is a sham given the poor track record from Bhakra Nangal to Nagarjuna Sagar. Tribals are left to fend for themselves as was the case with Sardar Sarovar Project". "It is unimaginable how the Government is going ahead with a project involving such large scale displacement of poor and vulnerable sections. It was not even prepared to look at the alternatives? What is the worth of a project that submerges 2,00,000 acres of fertile land uprooting 2,00,000 adivasis and creates a new ayacut in an already agriculturally well-developed region?" asks B.V. Raghavulu, CPI (M) politbureau member. His party is spearheading a tribal struggle against the project, beginning with a 610 km long march from Ipporu village to the project site. He says there was no Presidential approval for the project as required by Constitution nor was it discussed in village gram sabha and Tribal Advisory Committee.

The other side

There was no cost-benefit analysis and the Government was not factoring in the cost incurred in mainstreaming the hill tribes by creation of infrastructure facilities like roads, bridges, housing and school buildings over the years on one side and loss of cultivated land, crops and natural resources. "It may level off if a comparison is drawn", adds Raghavulu. He rubbishes the claim of Government providing land for land saying there is no mention of it in the latest R and R policy. "We were in gochi (loin cloth) when the Government brought us down from the hills in the name of mainstreaming us. But just when we are about to stand on our legs, learning to wear proper clothes, we are being pushed back to that primitive stage of civilisation. We will not allow this to happen at any cost even if they give us gold coins," says Sriramulu of the Kondareddy tribe that continues to use traditional bow and arrow. The primitive tribal group had put up a "check post" at Ipporu to prevent Revenue department officials from conducting a survey. Another problem for tribals like Satyam who survive on podu (shifting cultivation) is that there is no "patta" (proof of ownership), which means he would be left out of R and R package and not even be eligible for cash compensation. He would be lucky if he gets a house. As anticipated, some ofthese tribes have started "vertical migration" back to the hilltops occupying large chunks of forest areas.

Feeling the pinch

The non-adivasis of the villages to be submerged echo similar sentiments. "I have raised sugarcane that yields a high 60 tonnes an acre and tobacco eight to 10 quintals. Should we leave all this and go to a new place?" Param Verabhadra Rao of Upperu argues. For the same reason, Gaddam Veeramma of Koonavaram is not prepared to move, "even if I am paid one crore rupees." The project may take years to complete but the people here are already feeling the pinch. Says Jakkam Appa Rao of Kukunoor, "Our relatives from other areas look to us with pity. They are reluctant to give their wards in marriage here. Banks have stopped giving us loans fearing recovery. Given the long gestation period for the project, how will we survive?"The social and economic impact is enormous. "With none going in for construction of houses or even repairs, we have not had work for the last two months", says Bojja Venkateswarlu, a mason from Koonavaram. No less is the ecological cost. The project when completed would gobble up 3,500 hectares of forest area, some of it typical to the Eastern Ghats. Capt. J. Rama Rao, environmentalist, charges the Government with adopting questionable means to get environmental clearance. He points to the way the Environmental Public Hearing was pushed through and clearance obtained within a fortnight of it at "breakneck speed".