On June 12, Vetla Mutyala Reddi, 36, from the Konda Reddi tribe, put forward his charter of 10 demands to the President of India, Droupadi Murmu, at Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi. In the four minutes granted, he boldly read the demands out. He asked for adequate compensation for his tribe notified as a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG). Describing what he believes is a combination of injustice and fate, he talked about the consequences of the Polavaram irrigation project being built across the mighty Godavari river in Andhra Pradesh.
Ms. Murmu, herself a Scheduled Tribe, listened intently to him.
Mutyala Reddi represented the Konda Reddi tribe of Andhra Pradesh at the PVTG Summit hosted by the President to interact with India’s 75 PVTG representatives from across India. Selected by the State government, Mutyala Reddi got out of his traditional loin cloth and donned trousers and a shirt for the event.
A question of 371 habitations
The Polavaram irrigation project is a Centre-funded project that touches A.P., Odisha, Telangana, and Chhattisgarh, with A.P. bearing 90% of its brunt. The project cuts through the undivided East and West Godavari districts in the State.
In the project submergence area lie 371 habitations. Of these, 123, with 21,000 families, inhabited mainly by Konda Reddis and Koyas (another tribe in the area), are being rehabilitated in the first phase of the Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) package scheduled to be completed by August. Of these, 8,800 families are yet to be relocated, in a process that began in 2015.
The Polavaram saga
In the early 1940s, the Chief Engineer for Irrigation had proposed a storage reservoir on the Godavari at Polavaram. Further developments gave the Ramapada Sagar Project national status, as per the Andhra Pradesh Reorganization Act, 2014.
Konda Reddis have been living on the banks of the Godavari, in the green hills that abut the river. Here, the mist moves in and out of the valley, and the air smells of chlorophyll. Culturally, the tribe is tied to River Godavari, which they regard as the mother goddess, and also give it a patriarchal status.
“Our life cannot be separated from the sacred river. From birth and wedding to death, every ritual is connected with the river,” says Mutyala Reddi. In some rituals, soil and sand are collected from the river to perform puja to tribal deities.
They sustain themselves with fishing, canoe operations for locals, and small and marginal land holdings where they grow cashew. However, they are mostly hunter-gatherers, depending on the small game such as rabbit and wild boar. The community trains boys aged seven or eight to hunt with bows and arrows, with children accompanying the elders over the weekend on hunting expeditions. The literacy rate is arguably below 20%, and schools are rare in the neighbourhood.
Mutyala Reddi hails from Kolluru, a Konda Reddi village (Tummileru Gram Panchayat), located in the foothill of Papikonda in the V.R. Puram mandal of the Chintoor Agency in Alluri Sitarama Raju district. The village has about 50 thatched-roof houses supported by bamboo pillars. Local grasses and palm leaves, with mud, make their homes an extension of their nature-led lives.
Battles for claims
The main complaint of the tribe is that the R&R package has grossly neglected their culture. They are being settled in places as far as 10 km from the forest, separating them from the river. Once the package fund gets exhausted, they will be left with nothing for their sustainability. “We won’t have the river to fish, no land to grow any crop, and most importantly, we won’t have any forest to hunt for game,” says Mutyala Reddi.
This apart, they say that the compensation was finalised on the basis of a survey done 10 years ago (for some villages) by the Grama Sabhas. These are State government-constituted bodies under the Revenue Department, headed by the Mandal Revenue Officer with a representative from the project rehabilitation unit.
A notice was issued with families that needed to be present at the Grama Sabha, where people were asked to register themselves and resolve issues of not making it to the list. The meeting also served as a cut-off date for the community to declare their family members.
As per the R&R package, every affected family should get ₹6.5 lahks and a house in the R&R colony. It also says that the youth aged above 18 years will be entitled to ₹6.5 lakh and a house separately.
Mutyala Reddi explains that now that the R&R package for many villages is ready for disbursement and many children have turned 18. They meet the prime eligibility criterion but cannot claim the amount because of a cut-off date.
The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, says that children, then minors, now adults, are entitled to the package.
“As many as 61 tribal families of our habitation will soon be rehabilitated to the R&R colony at Nimmalagudem village in Eluru district. Our new settlement has nothing that we had been blessed with in our ancestral village. We are the first generation to be disconnected from the sacred river Godavari only to make way for the Polavaram irrigation project,” says Mutyala Reddy.
His is not the lone voice. A little downstream, in Thoyyuru village in Devipatnam Mandal, the family of Sadala Bhagyasri, 23, from the same tribe, has waged a legal battle against the Andhra Pradesh government since 2021. They are joined by 17 more families.
“Post the Grama Sabha held in 2016, government officials showed us an area for our R&R colony but later changed it to another location 3 km further from there,” she says. In 2021, they were compelled to shift.
“We have decided not to shift to the rehabilitation colony until the legal dispute is settled. Since 2021, our family has been living in a rented house in Gokavaram town,” says Bhagyasri, a graduate and single child to her parents.
Mukunuru in Chintoor Agency is one of the 48 habitations recently included in the first-phase R&R as they were submerged in the recent Godavari floods. The habitation sits on the banks of the Sabari river, which originates in Chhattisgarh and joins the Godavari in A.P.
By June 2023, 79.61 % of the construction of the Polavaram project was complete, while the R&R was only done for 22%. Up to the 41.15 contour (a mark to which the river will rise), 69.71% R&R has been done; for areas up to the +45.72 contour 22.20% has been completed.
Water Resource Minister Ambati Rambabu told The Hindu that the Central Water Commission’s guideline is not to store the flood water to the fullest capacity of the project until the R&R is completed up to the +45.72 contour.
Data shows that the previous government (2014-2019) had ignored the R&R component only to register progress in the project construction component to commission the project.
In 2019 Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy changed the project developer under the Reverse Tendering policy, inviting the MEIL group to complete the project. Meanwhile, the diaphragm wall (part of the main dam) collapsed on the project site owing to record floods reported since 2020 due to the diversion of the course of river and the dam-ing process, leading to a delay in the construction activity.
During the 2022 floods, scores of Koyas habitations were submerged in the Polavaram project submergence area. The Koyas lost everything to the flood, including houses and seeds, which washed away.
Polavaram Project Administrator (R&R) C.V. Praveen Adithya says, “Post 2022 Godavari flood, we have identified an additional 48 habitations (16,600 families) for rehabilitation under the first phase of the R&R. An additional ₹17,300 crore is required to complete the first phase by August 2023.” He adds that ₹12,000 crore was recently pledged by the Ministry of Finance. “The proposal for more than ₹5,000 crore aid is under scrutiny by the Polavaram Project Authority.”
Chased away by nature and governments
Balu Akkisa is an activist fighting for the R&R package in the Rampa Agency, further downstream. He explains that in the 2022 floods, the Devipatnam front got submerged due to the backwaters of the Cofferdam facility of the project rushing in. The Polavaram-displaced have been forced to settle in their R&R colonies despite the incomplete construction status and without a resettlement package, he says.
“The project construction should be done only after rehabilitating the displaced families. However, it has never happened before at any stage of the execution of the project,” he says.
In another village, Pochavaram, the State government has asked villagers to shift to their R&R colony before the next Godavari flood is expected in July. The village sits directly on the banks of the river Godavari.
“How can the government expect us to shift to our R&R colony, where not even a school building and drainage are ready?” says Murla Mangi Reddi, the village elder in his 50s. A moment later, he is reflective: “This summer, we had performed three weddings, the last to be performed in our ancestral habitation.”
Tears spill onto his face. “In our life, nothing will replace the Godavari river.”