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Displacing Godavari's women

By R Uma Maheshwari

The Polavaram dam will irrevocably alter the local adivasi economy of cultivation and collection of forest produce. It will also displace 85,000 agricultural workers in Andhra Pradesh, 62% of whom are women. The women recognise one basic principle that State policy ignores: the Godavari's flows are linked to their lives and livelihoods. But when it comes to compensation for this incalculable loss, women do not figure in the calculations

"For four months in a year Godavari feeds us, for three months the agricultural fields feed us, and the rest of the months these hills and forests feed us." -- Kunchaiah Varalakshmi, mandal president, Pydipaka panchayat, West Godavari district

The coming of the Godavari is very crucial for the M ala , a dalit community in villages like Pydipaka, in Andhra Pradesh, which is nearest to Polavaram . When the Godavari swells up and lashes through these lands, the M ala men gather the teak and bamboo logs that the Godavari brings along in her rage. They go to the upper reaches during the floods and, with the help of a log to navigate, gather the logs and tie them with a rope. The destroyed trees they thus collect are sold for Rs 100 to Rs 5,000 depending on the amount collected. This is one way in which the Godavari "feeds" them.

"We look forward to Godavari coming. She sustains our crops, our lives. Our agriculture occurs in the three months after her coming. The rest of the months we make a living by daily wage labour on the prawn farms (of upper caste Kammas and Kapus). Or we go out to work in other places. If Godavari did not come, our agriculture will not be... The rain and Godavari give us our crops. Only when floods come we get some good water. If the Polavaram dam is built we will not get that water; Godavari will not come as she does now," says Vijayalakshmi, a dalit from East Godavari district.

The dalits here grow pulses and paddy on their plots of 1-3 acres of land. The village is by the mangrove forests, close to the Godavari estuary. When they are not cultivating, women work as wage earners. Vijayalakshmi says: "When the dam is built we will only have saline water, not the floodwaters, which our crops need."

This village of 150 M ala families has nothing directly to do with the Polavaram dam -- on the records they do not come within the submergence zone. But the dam will irrevocably impact their livelihood patterns. The women here recognise the one basic principle that State policy usually ignores: the economics of the Godavari 's flows, which is linked to their lives and livelihoods. This economics is different from the crude mathematics that informs statistical tables. It is rooted in their everyday concerns and lives. It is an economics based on the perspectives of the women living in villages by the banks of the Godavari, in nine mandals of East, West Godavari and Khammam districts in Andhra Pradesh, which are threatened by submergence by the proposed Indira Sagar Polavaram dam.

This perspective is rooted in a socio-economic and cultural context where the Godavari never floods: she "comes" (1) (" vacchinappudu" ), "stays" for a week or more (the last time she stayed for two days) or "goes". The Godavari 's flood pattern has never been referred to as " varadalu" (Telugu for floods) by the people, unlike in official parlance.

In the statistical shadow of the Polavaram dam

The Rs 8,000 crore Polavaram project will transfer 80 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 generate 960 MW of electricity. It will submerge more than 276 villages.

The total area under submergence is 38,186 hectares, which includes 22,882 hectares of un-irrigated agricultural land, 12,081 hectares of poramboke ('government' or 'wasteland'), and 3,223 hectares of forestland (2). This directly affects the food security of over 300,000 people. The forests include 69,225 productive trees valued at Rs 21.82 crore, besides miscellaneous wildlife, including the endangered golden gecko (3) in the Papikonda sanctuary spread over 360 sq km of East, West, and Khammam districts. The tribal communities of Koya, Koya Dora, Konda Reddi and a few Kammara predominantly inhabit the areas contiguous with the forests.

The Resettlement and Rehabilitation package (4) for the "project affected" families will be Rs 40,000 for a house, Rs 3,000 for a cattle shed, Rs 5,000 for transporting material, 625 "man-days" (wages) for labourers, and 500 "man-days" for tribal people. For "project displaced" persons, an extra "subsistence allowance" of 240 "man-days" will be given. If a landowner become landless: wages for 750 "man-days"; if the landowner becomes a marginal farmer: wages for 500 "man-days"; and if a landowner becomes a small farmer: wages for 375 "man-days". Women are absent in these calculations.

However, in the population that will be dispossessed/displaced, women outnumber men. Of the approximately 85,000 agricultural workers that stand to be displaced by the project, nearly 62% are women, according to B Venkat, state general secretary, All-India Agricultural Workers Union, Andhra Pradesh chapter. The total population of project affected villages was 236,834 according to the 2001 census. The number of males was 117,321, and females 119,513, indicating a sex ratio of 1,019 females for every 1,000 males (5).

In terms of work days, women will lose out in larger numbers over men in the farming context. The AP Rythu Sangham and AP State Agricultural Workers Union estimate crop-wise distinction for wages and person-days of work. For instance, cotton is grown on over 10,000 acres and gives an average of 150 person-days of work per year (Rs 32 per day as wages); paddy is grown on 10,000 acres and each acre gives 75 person-days of work per year (Rs 30 per day); tobacco is grown on 6,000 acres and gives 250 person-days of work per acre per year (Rs 60 per day). Thus, a loss of Rs 5 crore per year for cotton, Rs 3 crore for paddy, and Rs 8 crore for tobacco is hardly being compensated by the government's R&R (rehabilitation and resettlement) package.

Women seem to have little or no place in the discourse both for and against the project. The discourse has been one of numbers, the expanse of the area, compensation (to be given to men), the design, the technicalities. Women may just belong in there as statistics -- but as yet there is no systematic enumeration of the number of women, barring a few unofficial surveys by departments that produce varying figures. None of the women's organisations based in Hyderabad have made a public statement on the dam or on its impact on women.

Last year, two books were released on the Polavaram issue (6), but neither of these reflects a gender perspective nor do they state the impact of the dam on women. While women and their work have not been part of the estimates for the R&R package, the forest department has been quick to evaluate the economic value of certain kinds of timber from the forests. There seems to be no economic value for trees the tribal people consider sacred. Much of their flora and fauna will not have economic value in government records.

'Our land reaps gold'

Vidya of Kathanapally, a village in the Papikondalu sanctuary, says: "This project is not for our benefit. We do not know what they are making, but people are telling us it is for the moneyed. We have also understood that. Government people came for a survey, but they never talked to us or our elders. They did not seek our opinion. Here we have the forest and the Godavari to fetch fruits, nuts, fish, and we have our agricultural land. We have never gone hungry in this village. There is always enough food to eat. If we moved out of this village, we will have to buy food from the shops. Here we have it in our homesteads. We also store grain in the palaasa (a collective grain storage system). Each family gives a share from the produce to the palaasa . Any family or individual in need can take grain from here. Tell me, will we get all these things in that place? Even our hamlets will be broken if they move us out from here."

Vidya also asks about lack of access to basic essentials for women: "Since 30 years we have been requesting a hospital. They have not given us one. What they have not given for so many years, what is the guarantee they will give it if we leave this place? At least here we have other tribal people around." Women in these parts do not have a maternity care centre or a government midwife. For deliveries they have to trek hours to the boat (available only at fixed times) and go to Devipatnam after another hour or two on the river. Sometimes, babies have been delivered midway.

But they have access to one of the most essential elements: food. And they see this as their asset. Reva, from the same village, says: "We bring things from the forest. Will we get all these anywhere else? We do konda podu ( shift cultivation), we eat what we get." Appayamma says: "We will be economically affected. The soil there (wherever the government settles them) will be different. Our land reaps gold. Our forests give us other things. We get pulses, have konda podu (shifting cultivation). If we leave our village we will lose all."

Many do not consider tribal communities as farmers. But in these parts, in the East, West Godavari and Khammam districts, tribal communities cultivate lands and have lived on the food they grow, supplemented by forest produce. Their lives are intricately linked to the forests, the land, the seasonal floods. After the floods, the silt gives the most abundant crop. This is the season when the land is covered with diverse crops -- chillies, jonna (maize), pulses, lentils. Tribal farmers cultivate paddy in small pockets. Non-tribals have brought in tobacco cultivation (used to make the local chutta and the more posh cigarettes).

I met Sakkubai, a Koya woman from Chegondapally, when the spillway construction was going on despite a Supreme Court stay on work on the dam. The loss suffered by this village even before all clearances were given to the dam will never be compensated. She had said then: "The project is a loss for us. They are dumping rubble on our fields. We sought help from the revenue officials many times. There is no compensation for us farmers who have lost cultivable land due to this dumping."

Muchika Suramma, a vociferous opponent of the dam, had said: "Now they sweet talk, the moment we ask them questions they will put us in a vehicle and take us away." Today, Suramma is in the Women's Cell in Rajahmundry under various charges including Sections 341 ( "wrongfully restraining any person/official on duty"), 153 (A) ("promoting enmity between classes in places of worship") and 124 A ("sedition")! Suramma and her prison mates had questioned the revenue officials and joint collector when the spillway work was underway.

Women of all social groups, who will be losing their lands to the dam across the three districts, invariably spoke of the environment. The men, except some Konda Reddi and Koya Dora, while not wanting to leave their homes, still addressed the R&R package. Even in opposition to the dam the differences in perspective were clear.

There was another perceptible difference -- the non-tribal upper caste women (mainly small and medium landholders) almost always let their men do the talking. Most non-tribal upper caste landlords were the first to accept the government's package, though they too acknowledged that this environment would be hard to access anywhere else. They were well aware of previous projects that had usurped tribal lands and given nothing in compensation.

Can these losses even be calculated?

Women hold an important position in many of these villages, and they understand they will lose this position when they become part of the many displaced in an alien land. Their burden of making a living will increase and they will have to constantly seek work as labourers on fields or elsewhere.

Many tribal people will become landless since many do not hold pattas on their land. These districts have a history of alienation of tribal lands and illegal usurpation of lands by non-tribal upper castes from the coastal plains. Yet, some of them continue to cultivate small fields, which on record belong to absentee landlords. The "land to land" compensation that the government talks about will actually be denied to tribal farmers.

So, while tribal women are equal partners in cultivation and in the overall tribal economy of farming and collecting forest produce, in the R&R colonies they will be severely constrained since most of them will have houses but no fields or access to forests. For their home needs, apart from the agricultural produce, they have the forests nearby from where they get fruits and nuts and tubers (some of which they sell) and in lean seasons they have the river to catch fish for supper.

Tribal socio-cultural systems are connected to their economy. Each ritual is related to the agricultural pattern and rhythms of the seasons. They celebrate festivals like Samakotta (in the monsoons, celebrating the crops) where they offer samalu , gongura , pottalu , totakura (green and leafy vegetables), the Kondajonnakottalu festival to celebrate the harvest of the hill maize, and Mavidikai panduga , or the mango festival. Each of their gods/goddesses (Polam rajulu, Chikati rajulu, Gamutyalamma, Sayilamma) has an associated tree. Those trees are never cut down. The gods are not human-made icons/forms. Just a 'concept' placed under a tree and propitiated. For that festival, that occasion, in that moment. These will never figure in the economics of displacement.

So Seetamahalakshmi wonders about the loss of these facets of their lifestyle. The government's package may give them sites for houses and some land but can these other aspects be recreated? She asks: "Will we get our mango trees there?"

The rhythms of the river

The Godavari as a river, too, does not figure in the dominant discourse. It is time the river was brought in. It is rooted in the very basics of everyday living in these parts. This region has a history of colonial intervention, whereby some of the forests and some of the Godavari were mapped out of access for many of the people. Colonial interventions created regional disparities within what is now Andhra Pradesh (the erstwhile Nizam's Dominions and Madras Presidency). The creation of the Agency Areas and the construction of the Godavari anicut at Dowlaiswaram, by Arthur Cotton, are crucial to understanding the question of access to natural resources, and the imbalance caused between the delta region and Telangana, for instance. The Polavaram dam will accentuate and consolidate these disparities.

Mydu Satya Rao, headman of a fishing community hamlet in Kobbarichettupeta Tallarevu mandal in East Godavari district, brings home the point when he says: " Godavari must go to the sea, that is the law of nature. Sir Cotton built the anicut at Dowlaiswaram but the Godavari still flows and the floods are bigger than earlier. How much water will you hold? What has to flow into the sea will do so."

One cannot at the same time romanticise the river and its flow and the havoc caused due to regular flooding. But the flooding patterns are fairly regular and systematic enough for the itinerant and seasonal fishing communities settled along its banks to be able to tell when the Godavari will rise and what will be its impact during that particular season.

The dalits and tribal communities also observe the Godavari 's temperament and levels. However, despite having the river flowing by their villages, many of these communities do not have the wherewithal to access the water for their agriculture or for drinking. Some with resources have managed to route water from the river with pumps and motors, others depend solely on the rain.

Every community living by the river observes and respects the movement of the river, and has formulated its own survival strategies. But the pathos of these ad-hoc strategies also highlights the government's lack of engagement with the dalit and tribal communities, which don't have access to education, health or employment and are now threatened by displacement. At most, there is neo-colonial talk of 'civilising' the tribal people and settling them amidst the devices of modern living. As a project officer said to me: "It is time to get them out of these forests and develop them."

Alienating dalit and adivasi communities

The dalits were brought here over the years mostly by upper caste landowners to cultivate tribal land. They are not even mentioned in the R&R reports. They may get a meagre one-time monetary settlement as landless agricultural workers. Even that is not guaranteed for those who have no ration cards to prove their identity. Some dalits managed to take lands on lease from non-tribal absentee landlords years ago, but these landowners are returning to claim the compensation benefits.

An agitated and angry Sarojinamma, 70, of Marrigudem village in Khammam district says: "Where will we go? Drown in the Godavari ? What do we eat there? These packages will kill people like us, who have no land. Will your government be happy then? The landlords will get their land. What about us? Maybe the Polavaram project will be happy if small workers like us die. We can just cry holding on to these trees."

Varalakshmi, sarpanch of Pydipaka, says: "We are asking for a colony specifically for the SCs (in the R&R package). We also need three acres of land because the dalits, who will be displaced by the Polavaram dam, will become landless. At least here we own small pieces of land. Where else will we get this kind of environment? We know we will lose out. But if we must leave, at least the government can make sure the dalits do not suffer. While all others (tribal communities) are getting Rs 40,000 (for the houses), we are getting only Rs 20,000."

Most of the beneficiaries of the Polavaram dam's R&R package are the non-tribal upper caste landlords. Despite many cases pending in the high court against them, they have managed to sell their lands and leave thousands of tribal communities and dalits in the lurch.

A Koya Dora farmer, Kosi Radha's land was part of the tribal community's land (in Pedabhimpally in East Godavari district) taken over by revenue officials for the Polavaram R&R colony. Compensation for the land, however, went to absentee landlords in the plains. Radha says: "For 15 years we have been cultivating on these lands. The RDO told us they have bought this land and we have no right to enter here. When we questioned him he sent us a notice... We used to grow millets, paddy, brinjal and cotton. We also go for agricultural labour or other kinds of wage labour. We sometimes go to pick cashew nuts from the forests. We survive on our lands for six months and the rest we work as daily wage labourers."

Some of the Koya Dora men from here are in jail on charges of criminal trespass and sedition. The R&R colony is built on 22 acres of land that is disputed in the high court. A Konda Dora woman, Nagamani, has set up a tea shack next to the R&R colony in Pedabhimpally. Ironically, it is her land that houses the colony for tribal people from the submergence zone villages. Compensation for this land also went to non-tribal absentee (Kapu) landlords. She awaits justice for her case pending with the high court.

On one of my visits to Kathanapally, the Koya women were dancing. They moved in circles, each placing her hand over the other's shoulder. The dance looked like a metaphor of how bound the people here are to each other, to the land, to the Godavari . The Polavaram dam will break these bonds which will never be understood by the economics of 'multi-purpose' big dams.

(R Uma Maheshwari is a freelance journalist based in Hyderabad . A part of her research and writing on the Polavaram issue was done with the support of the Prem Bhatia Memorial Trust scholarship 2006-07, for her project titled 'Taming Rivers Damning Hopes. The Polavaram Project: Irrigation or the Deluge of Contracts'. Versions of this extended article have been published in the Telugu and English media during the last year)


  • For the metaphor I am indebted to Surakka and Muttu Rama Rao of the fishing community on the banks of the Godavari , in Warangal district, who first introduced me to the terminology
  • Note on the Polavaram dam prepared by the I&CAD (Irrigation and Command Area Development) Department, Office of the Chief Engineer, Indira Sagar Polavaram Dam, Government of AP
  • According to information provided at WWF India, AP state office
  • Note on the Polavaram dam prepared by the I&CAD
  • Source: Project Affected Persons Economic Rehabilitation Plan (PAPERP) of the Indira Sagar (Polavaram) project, prepared by Agricultural Finance Corporation Limited, Hyderabad, September 200, p 35
  • 'Perspectives on Polavaram', brought out by WWF International (Academic Foundation) and ' India 's Dam Shame' by Gramya Resource Centre for Women

InfoChange News & Features, September 2007