In the last week of June, Kunja Sai Kumar, a farmer belonging to the Koya tribe, was jubilant as he sat with the 160 families of his community in Mukunuru village for a dinner. The village is situated on the banks of the Sabari river, a tributary of the mighty Godavari. The Koyas sang songs of prayer for a good harvest in Mukunuru, situated in the Alluri Sitharama Raju district of Andhra Pradesh. The men completed all the rituals mandated for bringing down the curtains on the three-day Bhumi Puja, celebrated to mark the commencement of the agriculture season in July. Paddy, sesame, pulses and chilli are the major crops grown in Mukunuru and its surrounding areas. In summer, the farmers earn their income by selling sweet-smelling mahua flowers and nuts collected from the forest.
Their prayers went unanswered. Within a fortnight, the Koyas turned sombre as the Godavari, in all its rage, submerged their crops, fields, homes, and hopes as early as July. They were surprised, for they were generally prepared for floods in the months of August and September every year. This time, the villagers were subjected to not one but three floods in July and the first three weeks of August, which cut them off from the mainland. While they mourn the loss of their crop, they are equally worried about the next harvest. “How can crops now be grown on this land,” asked a distraught Sai Kumar.
Beeraboyina Ramakrishna, 50, said the Godavari floods have “wrecked their plans”. Water gushed into his thatched house and spoiled the seeds he had stored, which were to be sown on 11 acres of land. “Except my bullock cart, which I had tied to a tree, everything was swept away by the floods,” the farmer said.
On August 25, when the waters had mostly receded, thousands of tribal people, who had fled their villages, said they were waiting to return to their houses, which are still filled with mud and yellow-brown water.
Apart from Alluri Sitharama Raju, the flood waters have affected four districts in Andhra Pradesh — Eluru, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema, West Godavari and East Godavari — affecting the lives of over two million people.
A survey of the damage caused by the floods is still in progress. “We have not been able to carry out the survey because of these repeated floods,” officials said. The Indian Navy (Eastern Naval Command, Visakhapatnam) and the National Disaster Response Force were deployed to help the government in relief and rescue efforts.
Tussle over a project
In the neighbouring State of Telangana too, a similar mood of despondency prevailed. On July 16, in the temple town of Bhadrachalam in Kothagudem district, the waters of the Godavari swelled frightfully, taking the flood level to 71.30 ft. This was the highest level the town had seen after the floods of 1986 when the water level reached 75.6 ft. It was way above the third warning level of 53 feet (the second warning level is 48 feet and the first is 43 feet). This year, the flood level rose above the third warning level of 53 ft four times. The flood waters forced the authorities to shut the bridge running across the town for two days. While Kothagudem district was among the worst affected by the floods in Telangana, the Adilabad, Jayashankar Bhupalpally, Kumuram Bheem Asifabad, Mancherial, Mulugu, Nirmal, and Peddapalli districts were battered by heavy rain.
Rambabu of Subash Nagar colony in Bhadrachalam recalled how his family had to move out of their home on July 15. “We left all our belongings behind. We moved to a relief camp at a local school and spent sleepless nights there for over a week. In the last week of July, we returned to our home only to find a portion of the house damaged. Electric appliances were wet and the certificates of our children were soaked,” he said.
The Telangana government blamed the Andhra Pradesh government’s decision to increase the height of the Polavaram irrigation project by 1.5 metres, for its woes. The Polavaram project is an under-construction multi-purpose irrigation project on the Godavari river, in the Eluru and East Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh. Following Andhra Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s direction on July 15, the State government raised the height of the upper cofferdam of the project to increase its capacity so that it could withstand massive floods. The decision helped Andhra Pradesh prevent damage to the cofferdam as well as the overflowing of floodwaters, but, ironically, several low-lying areas of Bhadrachalam were marooned soon after. Telangana’s Transport Minister Puvvada Ajay Kumar demanded that the five villages, which were given to Andhra Pradesh during bifurcation along with six other mandals, be given back to Telangana so that the government can take foolproof measures such as the construction of flood embankments to prevent flooding in the temple town. Andhra Pradesh Minister for Water Resources Ambati Rambabu refuted the contention that raising the upper cofferdam’s height had caused the floods in Bhadrachalam and asserted that the project design had been cleared by the Central Water Commission.
Apart from its problems with the Telangana government, the Andhra Pradesh government is also engaged in a tussle with the Centre on the relief and rehabilitation package. This has led to doubts on the rehabilitation of the tribal people from the submerged areas, who are mostly from the Koya community and the Konda Reddi community, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group. Jagan Mohan Reddy said the Centre is yet to release funds to the State for relief and rehabilitation (the project was accorded ‘national status’).
While the dispute over the project raged on, aggrieved residents of Subash Nagar Colony in Bhadrachalam staged a dharna in July to draw attention to the recurring problem of flooding. Scores of people, mainly women, squatted on the main road in front of the Government Degree College to press for a permanent solution to the problem.
“We are apprehensive that the water level in the Godavari will constantly hover above the first flood warning level of 43 ft at Bhadrachalam once the Polavaram project is completed,” said Swamy, a resident of the temple town. “Both the Telangana and Andhra governments should work together to safeguard Bhadrachalam. This is home to the 17th century Sri Sitaramachandra Swamy temple. It is frequented by devotees from both the States.”
Anxieties over the project deepened, especially after the last round of flooding. “There is a worry that the severe flooding in Bhadrachalam was caused by the increase of the height of the upper cofferdam of the Polavaram project,” said M. Venkateshwarlu, District Secretary, Telangana Vyavasaya Karmika Sangham. “This needs to be addressed by both the State governments. They must constitute an expert panel to study the backwater effects on Bhadrachalam and other upstream areas of the Polavaram project.”
Jhansi, of the flood-prone Kotha Colony in Bhadrachalam, is an activist of the All-India Democratic Women's Association. “Strengthening the two-decade-old karakatta (flood bank) along the banks of the Godavari in Bhadrachalam and extending it to the entire flood-prone area in the Bhadrachalam and Pinapaka constituencies is the only way to find a lasting solution to the flood menace,” she said. “It is imperative that the five gram panchayats situated near Bhadrachalam in Andhra be transferred back to Telangana’s Bhadrachalam division so that the karakatta can be extended.”
On July 17, Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao announced the allocation of ₹1,000 crore to take up works for the protection of Bhadrachalam town. “This should be immediately released and alternative housing should be provided,” said Deva of Ayyapa Colony. Officials said compensation of ₹10,000 each has already been disbursed to about 16,000 families affected by the floods.
‘We can never leave the river’
In Andhra Pradesh, the Godavari meets the Bay of Bengal through its five branches — Gowthami, Vridha Gowthami, Coringa, Vasista, and Vynateya — which together let a staggering 1,300 tmcft (thousand million cubic feet) of floodwater into the sea last August alone. The division into these five branches occurs downstream of the Sir Arthur Cotton Barrage at Dowleswaram near Rajamahendravaram city. “In the central and eastern delta, spread across the Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema district, 98 habitations in 17 mandals had been affected by the Godavari floods by July 16. More than 14,000 people were evacuated,” said District Revenue Officer Ch. Sattibabu. A majority of these are island villages.
On the rainy midnight of July 16, Malladi Peda Satyam, 60, had fled his thatched house in Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema. Half his house, at Vakala Garuvu village, was already under water. He ekes out a living by fishing in the Godavari.
“All my six daughters are married. This year, I borrowed ₹70,000 from them to replace the roof of my thatched house. But now the floods have shattered my hopes of building a permanent house,” he said. Peda Satyam named his youngest daughter after the Godavari. “We can never leave the river,” he said.
In the Godavari region of Andhra Pradesh, the flood causes losses to the tune of ₹2,000 crore every year. In 2020, the estimated loss was above ₹2,000 crore, as per government records. This year, the losses have not been estimated due to repeated floods.
In the low-lying Eluru district, villagers said the situation was so bad that they ran out of drinking water. Villagers in Toorpu Mettu said they were compelled to drink the flood water. The Navy was pressed into relief operations. Those suffering from prolonged illness were forced to brave the flood waters to reach nearby hospitals, and pregnant women had to be airlifted. This Koya tribal habitation has 79 families.
Apart from the people, the floods have also affected the wildlife of the region. Deer and black bucks can be found on at least 20 islands of the river, all of which have been affected by the floods. In the flood mitigation plan of the State government, the protection of wildlife is still to get any attention, said environmentalists.
On the Chintoor-VR Puram stretch, thousands of tribal women waited for clothes as all their belongings had been carried away by the floodwaters. At Mukunuru village in Chintoor mandal of East Godavari, a Koya tribal girl said she had no clothes left. In Hyderabad, G. Yadaiah, who previously ran Koitur Bata, a school for the Koyas, agreed this was a major problem. “We have been flooded with requests from the Koyas and Konda Reddis in the flood-hit villages for clothes. We have managed to arrange some hundred sets of clothes to be distributed by August-end.”
Residents of the region were also worried that their fertile agricultural lands along the Godavari would be taken up for construction of the guide bund of the barrage of the Sitamma Sagar multi-purpose project.
For those living in remote areas in the forest, commuting during floods is nothing short of a nightmare. A pregnant woman of Aswapurampadu village in Karakagudem mandal had to be carried on a ‘doli’ (makeshift stretcher) by her family members through slushy terrain to a road point, when a local stream flooded the kutcha road connecting their village. She was subsequently shifted to the District Headquarters Hospital in Kothagudem in an ambulance.
“About 190 pregnant women from the flood-prone areas were shifted to our hospital based on the expected delivery date, by the officials between July 10 and 29,” said Dr. Ramakrishna, Superintendent, Government Area Hospital, Bhadrachalam. All of them had safe deliveries at the hospital last month, he said.
There are dozens of tribal habitations that lack pucca roads, said Aruna, a former Zilla Praja Parishad member of Yellandu. “Bike ambulances fitted with sidecars should be immediately pressed into service in such areas in the tribal majority district until all the tribal habitations get pucca roads,” she suggested.
Devastation in Kaleshwaram
The floods have left a trail of devastation not only in Bhadrachalam, but also in the upstream area of Kaleshwaram. Here too, there is a debate on a project — the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project. Construction on this project by the Telangana government began in 2016 after redesigning and re-engineering of the Pranahitha-Chevella Lift Irrigation Project taken up by the united Andhra Pradesh government in 2007. The project is expected to provide water for drinking and irrigation purposes to about 45 lakh acres in 20 districts in Telangana, apart from Hyderabad and Secunderabad.
The July floods inundated two pump houses of the project on the night of July 14-15 as the river witnessed an unprecedented flow of 28.71 lakh cusecs (cubic feet per second) at Medigadda, one of the three key barrages of the project. (The other two are Annaram and Sundilla.) According to the project authorities, the flood level in the Godavari at Kaleshwaram, located in the upstream of Medigadda Barrage, surpassed the previous highest level of 107.05 m, recorded in the 1986 floods.
The first pump house constructed to lift water from Medigadda at Kannepally is designed to stand a flood level of 107.5 m at that location against the highest flood level of 106.7 m recorded in 1986. However, the pump house was flooded as the level crossed the 107.5 m barrier this time. Opposition parties have alleged that the pump houses were designed at levels lower than what was recommended.
As there was damage to crops as well as siltation along the course of Godavari and its tributaries, the flood level in the river at Kaleshwaram reached a new flood level of 108.8 m. A senior engineer of the Irrigation Department said this had ripple effects, with the pump house at Kasipeta, in the upstream of Annaram Barrage, also being submerged.
New records of the flood level were also seen at several other locations in the upstream.
‘Our lives have been paralysed’
With the Godavari witnessing heavy floods in 36 years of the last 70 years, people living along the river’s course both in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh brace themselves to face the impact every alternate year on an average. As Venkatesh Jatvi, a resident of Chintoor, said: “Since July, our lives have been paralysed. People who died of prolonged illness during the floods could not even get a decent farewell.”
This year, the river has discharged nearly 4,277 tmcft of surplus water into the sea from Sir Arthur Cotton Barrage as on August 26. This is the highest in the last decade. The disaster calls for the two governments to strengthen embankments of the river in the stretches where people live, to minimise the impact of inundation, and address their concerns about irrigation projects and water levels.