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Holes in Polavaram’s great wall

Belatedly, Jairam Ramesh questions his party’s government in Andhra Pradesh over a 30-km wall — among other issues — supposed to contain a river that generates some of the world’s fiercest floods. Orissa and Chhattisgarh aren’t impressed. Samar Halarnkar reports. Mine is bigger

india Updated: Nov 03, 2010 01:46 IST
Samar Halarnkar

A 30-km-long, 45-foot-high embankment to stop a river that generates one of the world’s fiercest floods from inundating parts of Orissa and Chhattisgarh is being belatedly questioned by the Centre as it puts on notice one of India’s largest dam projects.

The wall escaped attention on Monday when India’s environment boss Jairam Ramesh — smarting from accusations of political bias for cancelling infrastructure in non-Congress states — issued notice to the Polavaram Indira Sagar project in Andhra Pradesh, a state ruled by Ramesh’s own party, the Congress.

The wall, technically an embankment, was one of the ambitious promises made in 2006 by an anxious Andhra Pradesh (AP) government after the Orissa High Court cleared the project on the condition that no people or villages would be displaced in Orissa by the Polavaram dam’s reservoir on the Godavari river and twotributaries.

The project received its final clearance — from the forests division — in September this year.

That clearance is becoming increasingly hard to justify because no studies were done, as environmental laws require, on the land, people and forests the giant embankment would displace. No plans were made for drains and pumps in a cyclone-prone land.

In India there is no reservoir that is restrained by embankments.

In referring to the wall, Monday’s bland notice asked the AP government "why a show-cause notice should not be issued … as work is continuing without getting the environmental clearance amended for additional components like construction of embankments, drainage sluices and pumping arrangements".

"How can anyone now accuse me of bias?" Ramesh, a Congress Member of Parliament from AP, said on Tuesday.

The notice was the first evidence of impartiality from India’s ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA). Polavaram’s irregular clearances led both Orissa and Chhattisgrah to request Supreme Court intervention in 2007.

Yet, both states say they are not impressed with Ramesh’s recent actions.

"At last the ministry has issued a notice, but it is an eyewash," said Surya Narayan Patro, Orissa revenue minister. "The AP government did all kinds of illegal things to push the project but got clearance after clearance."

"We are not opposed to anyone getting water, but what was the hurry in clearing it (Polavaram) and then issuing notices?" N Baijendra Kumar, principal secretary to the Chhattisgarh chief minister, told Hindustan Times. "We share the concerns of the Orissa government."

Allegations of bias from Orissa and Chhattisgarh — both states that could have objected at least 12 times during the Polavaram clearance but soft-pedalled instead — grew after Ramesh’s environment ministry questioned or cancelled clearances this year to high-profile projects as prestigious to them as Polavaram is to Andhra Pradesh.

First proposed in the 1940s, the 150-foot-high Polavaram dam will submerge a greater area than any other in India today. It is vital, observers say, that Ramesh’s ministry now follows its own laws and rescinds clearances that violated its own procedures.

Here are only some examples relating to Polavaram’s great wall:

When the application to clear Polavaram went to the environment ministry on October 19, 2005, there had been no public hearings as required. The first and only public hearings in four districts of AP were held on October 28, three days after the clearance was given.

The minutes of the Environmental Impact Assessment, a requirement, did not even mention that areas in Orissa and Chhattisgarh would be swamped by the tail end of the reservoir, 150 km from the main dam. Only when the two states protested did AP hastily propose a wall, or embankment, in 2006.

In April 2007, the Central Water Commission (CWC) said it was possible to avoid submergence in Orissa and Chhattisgarh by building embankments. Neither the CWC nor any other agency ever explained how, as required.

In February 2009, the ministry’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) first cleared the embankments and then called for an impact assessment and public hearings in Orissa and Chhattisgarh. None of this was done.

"That decision of the EAC was flawed," said Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, an advocacy group. "How can Ramesh claim (as he did in a letter to Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik in August this year) that not a hectare of forest land will be submerged, when he does not even know how much forest and non-forest land will be required (for the embankment)?"

Monday’s notice reminds AP that despite a reminder, there have been no public hearings in neighbouring states and that construction is continuing (the main dam hasn’t started yet but canal-building is in full swing).

Thakkar argues, as do Orissa and Chhattisgarh, that the condition of "no submergence", as outlined in the September 2010 forest clearance and Ramesh’s assurance, is "impossible to adhere to", that these are grounds enough for cancelling forest clearances.

"The conditions under which Polavaram was cleared were absurb," said Harish Behara, the engineer-in-chief of Orissa’s water resources department, arguing that the great Polavaram embankment could be built on the plains, not on hilly land, as AP now proposes.

With so much wrong, who then cleared Polavaram? It was Ramesh’s cabinet colleague, telecom minister A. Raja, whose methods of issuing telecom licences are, similarly, under the Supreme Court’s scrutiny.

(With Priya Ranjan Sahu in Bhubaneswar)