"The day they show me and say to me 'this is your house, your tree, your land, your forest', I will go. Only if they show me all these. Not until then. Ask them to also show me the road to my forest, the hills, and ask them to give me my livelihood. I will go ..." says Suramma, a very vocal Koya woman of Chegondapally village, in Polavaram mandal in Andhra Pradesh's West Godavari district. Suramma is one of the lakhs of people – many of whom are tribal koyas, koyadoras and kondareddis, besides dalits and few others - who will be displaced if the Indira Sagar dam is constructed at Polavaram. This possibility became a little more real recently when the state government obtained the Central environmental clearance for the project.

Ironically, the recent disaster that struck the Godavari river and the villages by its banks (along with a few facing backwater flooding) in early August this year provided a preview of what these villages might look like once the dam is built. For the disaster was worst precisely in those villages that stand to be submerged once the dam is built. There was water everywhere, where once there were roads, homes, schools, hospitals, and bus stands.

The Rs.8000 crore dam proposed at Polavaram will transfer 80 thousand million cubic meters (tmc) of water to the Krishna basin via a 174 km-long Right Canal, and to Vishakhapatnam district via a 181.53 km-long Left Canal. The project, proposes to irrigate 7.21 lakh acres in Krishna, Godavari (east and west) and Vishakhapatnam districts, and generate about 960 MW electricity. [1] Water from this project will also feed the proposed Vizag-Kakinada Industrial Corridor; two Special Economic Zones, the Apparel Park, Pharma City, probably a Naval Establishment, and perhaps an atomic research station. The project's stated aims are to irrigate 54 mandals in 4 districts - Krishna, Vishakapatnam, West and East Godavari; to sustainably increase agricultural production; to assure water supply for drinking in Vishakhapatnam and towns en route; to link the Godavari and Krishna rivers, thus reducing pressure on the Krishna waters; and also facilitate recreation, pisciculture, etc.

Small navigation provides support for many livelihoods on the river, besides being an important form of transport for many. (Picture by R Uma Maheshwari)

Over 276 tribal villages in the agency areas of East and West Godavari districts and Khammam district will be submerged. Based on the 2001 census of these areas, it is estimated that 237,000 people will be displaced. [2] About 53 per cent of those displaced will be adivasis, two-thirds of them being Koyas and Konda Reddis. More than 300 hectares of prime forest land, comprising the Papikondalu Wildlife Sanctuary, will also be inundated [3]. The likely agricultural loss is also phenomenal; in the submergence area, cotton is grown in over 10,000 acres, each providing an average of 150 person-days of work. Paddy is grown in 10,000 acres, providing an additional 75 person-days of work each. Tobacco is grown in 6,000 acres and gives 250 person-days of work per acre. And losses in other livelihoods will worsen this situation further. The levels of displacement of lives and livelihoods, besides destruction of environment from this project will far exceed the impact of the Sardar Sarovar dam over the Narmada river. What is more important, a lot many more tribal households stand to be displaced in this project when compared to the latter.

These likely losses have attracted the attention of the Supreme Court, and a Centrally Empowered Committee has been constituted to study and give recommendations to the SC. The team visited parts of the Polavaram dam-affected areas between the 29th and 31st of July 2006. But while this visit offered some sign of welcome scrutiny for such large-scale displacement plans, the three days were not enough for the team to visit the entire submergence areas; they went to Polavaram dam site, Bhadrachalam, part of Burgampadu, Koyda and through a small stretch of the Godavari river until Perantalapally via the Papikonda wildlife sanctuary area. Thereafter they left for Kolleru lake, which isn't part of the Polavaram dam affected zone.

Ironically, the recent disaster that struck the Godavari river and the villages by its banks in early August this year provided a preview of what these villages might look like once the dam is built.