Andhra Pradesh’s rice bowl reputation at stake as the water war heats up  

The State’s continuing dispute with Telangana over sharing Krishna River water gives farmers sleepless nights, particularly in regions already struggling with a severe deficit. The Central government’s recent decision authorising a fresh review of the sharing has added to the uncertainty, and raised concerns of political motives and potential losses in the State’s agriculture sector, reports G.V.R. Subba Rao 

Updated - February 08, 2024 03:57 pm IST

Published - October 20, 2023 06:57 am IST

Farmers are concerned about possible delays in water releases for the Kharif season, as upper riparian States tend to fill their reservoirs before releasing water to Andhra Pradesh.

Farmers are concerned about possible delays in water releases for the Kharif season, as upper riparian States tend to fill their reservoirs before releasing water to Andhra Pradesh. | Photo Credit: K.V.S. Giri

“God alone knows what will happen to those of us who have completed paddy transplantation. There’s no water to protect the paddy, which is either in the tillering or stem elongation stage,” rues Gourisetti Nageswara Rao, a farmer from Mulaparru village in Bantumili area of Krishna district in Andhra Pradesh, as he surveys his 12-acre semi-parched paddy field.

Several farmers like Rao, in villages located at the tail end of the Krishna River irrigation system, including Bantumilli, Koduru, and Hamsaladeevi mandals, have refrained from undertaking sowing operations. The handful who have managed to complete transplantation, are keeping their fingers crossed — no one knows how much water they will get, or if they will even get any. 

Rao points out that water is released to select areas on specific days of the week in what is known as vaarabandi (rotation basis). “Farmers close to the sea coast are the worst sufferers as water hardly reaches them under vaarabandi. If this is the case now, we dread to think what will happen if Telangana gets a higher share in Krishna River waters,” he adds. 

He is among hundreds of farmers who fear that nearly 30 lakh acres in the State will be left without essential irrigation, after the Centre’s decision to forward Telangana’s plea regarding Krishna river water sharing to the Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal (KWDT)-II, just ahead of Assembly elections in that State. 

Farmers’ associations are concerned that if the matter if referred to KWDT-II, a potential water crisis could impact as much as 15 lakh acres under Nagarjuna Sagar Left and Right canals, 13 lakh acres in the Krishna delta, and 2 lakh acres under the Srisailam Right Branch Canal (SRBC). Another 15 lakh acres in the Rayalaseema region are also likely to be affected, they say. 

High and dry 

Water holds great significance in Andhra Pradesh, which is often touted as the ‘Rice Bowl of India’. However, farmers are concerned that the State may lose this tag, as several regions are struggling with a lack of irrigation water this year. Their apprehension revolves around an uncertain future, if water shortages persist within the current agreement on sharing Krishna waters with Telangana.

Avula Basavaiah, a farmer from Ramakrishnapuram village in the Koduru area, says no one in their village or even those in Nagayalanka and Hamsaladeevi mandals has initiated paddy sowing yet. “Even if, by some stroke of luck, water becomes available in the next couple of weeks, the harvesting season would extend all the way up to January. So there is no hope for a Rabi crop, let alone the possibility of a second crop in this region,” he laments.

Farmers and leaders of various political parties have alleged that the Central government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is looking to gain electoral advantage in Telangana at the expense of farmers in Andhra Pradesh, which faces serious challenges as a lower riparian State in the Krishna river basin. 

They draw parallels with similar tactics employed by the party ahead of the Karnataka elections, where it declared Upper Bhadra a national project, ignoring Andhra Pradesh’s appeals and concerns. Earlier this month, the BJP issued a gazette notification on fresh Terms of Reference (ToR) to resolve the Krishna water dispute that will reallocate water for ongoing and contemplated projects in the two States. The new ToR is in tune with Telangana’s demands and such a move, farmers say, would turn Andhra Pradesh lands fallow. 

Telangana has initiated multiple construction projects — Palamuru Rangareddy Lift Irrigation Scheme, Dindi Lift Irrigation Scheme, Bhaktha Ramadas Lift Irrigation Scheme, Water Grid Project taken up under Mission Bhagiratha, Thummilla Lift Irrigation Scheme, to name a few — with plans to use up to 150 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft) of Krishna water.

“This, combined with the extension of ayacuts (area under irrigation) under SRBC and other projects, could potentially result in the unauthorised utilisation of 255 tmcft,” says Alla Gopala Krishna Rao, president of Andhra Pradesh State Water Users Associations Federation. 

Agreements and objections 

The heart of the matter lies in the historical agreements between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, as well as their arrangements through the Krishna River Management Board. 

The original agreement, following a joint meeting of officials on June 18, 2015, had allocated 512 tmcft to Andhra Pradesh and 299 tmcft to Telangana out of the total 811 tmcft allocated to the erstwhile composite State.

The minutes of the meeting explicitly stated that taking into account the Bachawat Tribunal allocations in 1976 and two adjustments previously implemented by the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh government, 20 tmcft was allocated for the Bheema project in Narayanpet district of Telangana, and 19 tmcft for SRBC project in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh.

However, the Andhra Pradesh government did not insist on project-specific allocation of 299 tmcft to Telangana when the agreement was signed. As a result, Telangana has been constructing lift irrigation schemes on the river course with no account of how much water is being utilised. 

For instance, Andhra Pradesh has been raising concerns about the Palamuru-Rangareddy Lift Irrigation scheme in Telangana, claiming that it will jeopardise the interests of its farmers, particularly in Rayalaseema region.

According to the AP Reorganisation Act 2014, any new project must be cleared by the apex council, chaired by the Union Jal Shakti Ministry, with the Chief Ministers of both States as members. However, the Centre cleared the decks for approval without the apex council’s resolution and without considering Andhra Pradesh’s objections. 

The Palamuru-Rangareddy project is designed to divert 1.55 tmcft of backwaters from the Srisailam backwaters daily to meet the irrigation needs of Palamuru district in Telangana, amounting to nearly 90 tmcft in a year (or roughly 58 days as backwaters are available only if the flood reaches and fills the Srisailam dam). 

Andhra Pradesh has alleged that Telangana intentionally split the project into two phases, one for irrigation and another for drinking water (83.9 tmcft) and also took into account evaporation losses (6.1 tmcft), in order to evade legal scrutiny. 

These concerns would be resolved if the Krishna Drinking Water Treatment-II (KDWT-II) project were exclusively designated for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. “Andhra Pradesh may not receive water from shared projects like Srisailam and Nagarjuna Sagar as Telangana would divert the water even before it reaches these projects,” claims a farmer. 

Farmer leader M.V.S. Nagi Reddy, who is vice-chairman of the A.P. Agricultural Mission, contends that within the Krishna River basin, there are four riparian States. “Then on what basis can the Centre appoint a tribunal exclusively for two States? It should ask the tribunal to thoroughly examine the matter and include the other two states, Maharashtra and Karnataka, too,” he says. 

Bojja Dasaratha Rami Reddy, president of Rayalaseema Saguneeti Sadhana Samithi (RSSS), mirrors his sentiments. “The Centre’s decision to change the ToR for two States is meaningless and in violation of the law. As per Section 5 of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act 1956, the tribunal has to conduct a comprehensive study of water utilisation by Maharashtra and Karnataka as well. Considering only A.P. and Telangana is against the law,” he says. 

He asserts that about 15 lakh acres in Rayalaseema would not get irrigation waters if the present developments were to be considered. For instance, this year, due to uncertainty and lack of proper planning, farmers in the Rayalaseema region are estimated to suffer a loss of ₹6,000 crore to ₹10,000 crore. The farmers had invested ₹40,000 to ₹50,000 per acre this season, but irrigation waters were not available as Telangana allegedly utilised the waters for power generation. 

Polavaram predicament 

Farmers find themselves in a precarious situation as the State government switched its stance in a month, encouraging farmers to change their crop from paddy to other non-water-intensive crops. This was after farmers had already made their investments. This kind of uncertainty is not new, though. The Centre’s recent decision has further complicated matters for farmers. Allocation of water to Telangana from Polavaram — a multi-purpose irrigation and hydroelectricity project located on the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh. — has come as a blow. 

“Telangana’s formation was contingent on its acceptance of the Polavaram project without conditions. However, the Centre issued a Government Order allocating 22.5 tmcft to Telangana, although it had no rights to Polavaram waters. The Andhra Pradesh government indirectly supported the move,” alleges the RSSS president. 

The Polavaram project, which is in the Eluru district of Andhra Pradesh, envisages the transfer of 80 tmcft of surplus Godavari water to river Krishna to be shared with Karnataka and Maharashtra — 45 tmcft for A.P. and 35 tmcft for the two neighbouring States as per the decision of the Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal award. 

As for Andhra Pradesh’s 45 tmcft, the Central government issued a G.O. allocating half of it (22.5 tmcft) to Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh was left with 22.5 tmcft. However, of the latter’s share, 20 tmcft was then allocated to the Bheema project, situated upstream of the Srisailam reservoir in Telangana, effectively leaving Andhra Pradesh with just 2.5 tmcft. 

According to Rayalaseema leaders, the problem lies here. They point out that 9 tmcft has to be earmarked for evaporation losses at Pulichintala. But the water available at Andhra Pradesh’s disposal is 2.5 tmcft and therefore, the State gets -6.5 tmcft. In simple terms, Andhra Pradesh will not get any water. “This means that the water reaching the Pothireddipadu head regulator of SRBC is likely to decrease in the days to come,” explains Dasaratha Rami Reddy. 

Rayalaseema farmers fear that bestowing further ToR to the Brajesh Kumar Tribunal, which is looking into the Andhra Pradesh-Telangana Krishna water dispute, might deprive them of irrigation waters and endanger the future of the drought-prone region. 

They recall the combined Andhra Pradesh government’s special leave petition filed in the Supreme Court, which stayed the KWDT-II award in 2010. Despite the court stay order, the Centre cleared the Upper Bhadra project in 2017, ignoring concerns and opinions. Even the Central Water Commission granted technical clearances for 29.90 tmcft in 2020, disregarding Andhra Pradesh’s objections. Later, the Upper Bhadra was declared a national project with an estimated cost of ₹16,125 crore. This clearance poses a serious water availability threat to Rayalaseema from the Tungabhadra river, which is the region’s lifeline.

Andhra Pradesh Intellectuals Forum convener Chalasani Srinivasa Rao says the Centre allocated ₹5,300 crore for Upper Bhadra in Karnataka for political gains, hurting the interests of farmers in Rayalaseema region. 

Rayalaseema Intellectuals Forum convener Purushottam Reddy feels that the Centre should give ‘national project’ status to Gundrevula like it did in the case of Upper Bhadra. The Gundrevula project is expected to benefit over 2.65 lakh acres.  

“Our argument is that water from Polavaram, which is often touted as A.P.’s lifeline, should be allocated to the State itself,” he says. 

From boom to bust 

Farmers are also concerned about possible delays in water releases for the Kharif season, as upper riparian States tend to fill their reservoirs before releasing water to Andhra Pradesh This year, the State government released water into the Krishna Eastern canals on June 7, while in the previous year, it was on June 10. Over the past 10 years, the water release date has ranged from June 17 to August 5.

These delays in water release are a cause for worry among farmers who fear the negative impact on their crops. As a lower riparian state, Andhra Pradesh is vulnerable to natural calamities. Farmers believe that early release of water would help them combat unseasonal rain or cyclones during the critical harvest period in September-October. 

As per government available information, early release of irrigation water for the Kharif season has led to a 15 lakh-tonne increase in agricultural production. The average food grain production has risen to 165 lakh tonnes during 2019-23, compared to 153 lakh tonnes during 2014-19. 

The agriculture sector, which had reported a negative growth rate (-11.71%) in 2018-19, rebounded, achieving a positive growth rate of 20.72% in 2022-23. 

However, with the Centre’s recent decision on referring the water dispute to KWDT-II, all progress made in the agriculture sector will be undone, fear farmers. “The Union government’s efforts to favour Telangana in this water-sharing issue might lead us down a dark path,” says Cheruku Rythu Sangham leader Mangati Haribabu.

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