The Gundlakamma Reservoir Conundrum -a story that narrates about the “behind the scenes” audience

Andhra Pradesh, the south-eastern part of the subcontinent, had taken up the ambitious decision to construct the Gundlakamma Reservoir in 2004 in the Prakasam District which was one out of the 74 irrigation projects taken up by the state government for its quick completion within two years. The project envisaged irrigating 80,060 acres and supplying drinking water to 43 villages and the town of Ongole, the district headquarters. One of the most important project in Andhra Pradesh that uprooted hundreds of lives in the land of Andhra Pradesh. Rehabilitation and Resettlement of the families have become difficult for the state government authorities due to the lack of funds primarily on account of the discontinuation of a number of schemes that were introduced during the 13th Finance Commission but stopped after 14th Finance Commission recommendations.

The objective of the scheme was to provide drinking water facility to inaccessible tribal areas. An amount of Rs.200.00 cr. in a phased manner for four years from 2011-12 to 2014-15 at the rate of Rs.50.00 cr. each year was allocated. During 2011-12 & 2012-13, sanction accorded for taking up 2076 drinking water worked with an estimated cost of Rs.199.13 cr. An amount of Rs.6911.00 lakh was provided in the budget 2014-15 for completion of 758 works. 6 Major and 2 Medium Irrigation Projects were completed and one Medium Irrigation Project at Gundlakamma have been under progress since then. Under the 13th Finance Commission grants, an amount of Rs.28774.00 lakh had been provided under the scheme ‘Assistance to PR Bodies for PWS’. This scheme and many more of them were discontinued the commencement of the recommendations of the 14th Finance Commission.

This short piece of mine is an attempt to reach out the problem to the masses by exemplifying one such reservoir project that uprooted hundreds of lives and not for a better future tomorrow.

The decision was to construct this project that was originally taken up in 2004 but was officially completed and inaugurated by the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh in 2008. Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) for “Project-affected” people continued to be an issue of serious concern, given that those who were displaced by developmental projects were still disregarded by authorities in project implementation. This is a problem that has been persisting for the past six and a half decades since modern development projects were initiated in India.

The oustees were not only forcibly deprived of their lands and livelihoods and uprooted from their habitations in the project-affected areas, but were often not cared for and thus continued to be deprived of proper rehabilitation. In most cases, they belonged to the disadvantaged and minority sections. Their right to life was violated in the name of development, although Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees citizens the right to a decent life. To project a precise picture, the project affected 13 villages, including five that were completely submerged. R&R for the affected people was done according to the 2005 R&R policy of the Government of Andhra Pradesh, which came into effect on 8th April 2005 as a vague rehabilitation policy. Of course, the R&R policy was amended several times, first in 2006 because of the protests by the affected people of the Gundlakamma project demanding a just R&R policy. In this major amendment, two problematic provisions were rectified.

So let’s have a peep into what actually went wrong with the project. To begin with, the uprooted people still continue to face certain problems at the community/village level, such as deprivation of certain basic rights and community facilities. This is perhaps because of the present government’s assumption, besides their arbitrary actions, that rehabilitation ends with relocating and resettling the displaced. Clearly, this is a misconception for the process needs to continue till the people concerned resume normal life.

Secondly, the displaced families have faced and are still facing, various problems regarding their R&R. These problems were mainly due to the negligence of project authorities and officials in implementing R&R policy, and the lack of concern towards the welfare of the affected people. For instance, some essential infrastructural facilities or basic amenities have not been provided in the resettled villages even now, several years after they were relocated.

The extent of and range of corruption in this project can be gauged from various reports that have come before the public. It is reported, for example, that Rs. 25.21 crore was collected by project officials as a bribe for paying a total amount of Rs. 134.76 crore to the displaced people towards compensation for houses/structures and R&R packages. Prior to this, large amounts as bribes were also collected for paying land compensation cheques to the displaced. A case against the special deputy collector for land acquisition of this project, who was also given the full additional charge for the R&R of displaced families, was registered by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB).

Ghadiyapudi was the first fully submerged village in the project of Gundlakamma. The affected people from this village were displaced and relocated in 2006. But even after 12 years of their resettlement at Maddipadu village, certain amenities have been missing from the resettlement colony. These include portable water, earmarking of burial and cremation ground, suitable drainage particularly for rainwater, among others.

A borewell has recently been constructed to overcome the scarcity of water supplied from Gundlakamma, but this has a high level of salinity. Even the undrinkable water from the above sources is being supplied irregularly, causing trouble particularly for families of daily wage earners, with all members of these families going out for work and with nobody left at home during the daytime. The displaced people have been forced to find alternative solutions for meeting their requirements for water. Thus, those who can go out are getting potable water from a commercial water plant located at a distance of 1.5 km from the host village, spending Rs.7 for 20 litres. Households that cannot do so, such as those composed only of elderly or women members, or those with no personal means of transport, have to adjust to the available water supply, which is unsafe for drinking.

These households had never faced such problems earlier because their native village was situated close to the Gundlakamma rivulet and people used to fetch spring water from its banks for drinking. And then the water from wells and borewells located around their households was also drinkable, besides being suitable for general use. The officials involved in the project coaxed families to leave their homes for the resettlement side in different ways. One such tactic involved raising the water level in the reservoir and thereby inundating some of the houses, forcing these families to abandon the village immediately. But when they shifted to the resettlement site, there was no water to be found for construction of houses or shelters. Though a few borewells were dug for household uses, these were not at all useful for construction purposes. The water from these borewells had a high salinity level. Most of them were either non-functional or unavailable.

Given these circumstances and the pressing need for water, people found a solution in two ways:

-First, fetching water from nearby ponds for their immediate and urgent needs, and,

-Second, constructing borewells to meet the pressing need for water for construction of houses and, then, for household uses.

No burial ground yet: The other issue of grave concern is the lack of burial and cremation grounds for the resettled population. Today, people are going to the extent of burying or cremating the dead on the earth embankment of the canal that abuts the village or alternatively, reusing old burial pits for new dead bodies. The death rate in the resettlement colony is very high in comparison to that of Ghadiyapudi. For instance, there were 17 deaths among 41 households (41.46%) in a single street of resettlement colony during the past 9-10 years. In other words, one death for every 2.41 households on an average. Since the village badly needed burial and cremation grounds, different communities in the village were forced to share the small stretch of land on the earth embankment of the canal to perform funeral rites. This is unlike their normal practice of using different burial grounds with large spaces for different burial grounds with large spaces for different communities, mostly located on the banks of the Gundlakamma rivulet in Ghadiyapudi.

The basic human rights to a decent life, resettlement, and rehabilitation of displaced people continue to be violated, as becomes evident in the case of the Gundlakamma Reservoir Project and the people of Ghadiyapudi village. Such violations are due to various reasons. R&R policies are arbitrary. Often, government functionaries believe that it is both necessary and normal for displaced people to make sacrifices for the larger good, revealing their archaic mindset. R&R policies continue to be arbitrary and poorly implemented, besides “intentional negligence” of officials and authorities due to vested interests.

It’s time, therefore, that the discontinuation of the aforesaid schemes are re-visited and re-implementation is considered, once again for the welfare of the society.

Bidisha Bhattacharya
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Bidisha Bhattacharya works ScrollStack. Prior to
this she was a Consultant to the Fifteenth Finance Commission, Government of India and has worked as a Political Researcher in Prashant Kishor’s Strategic Research and Insights (SRI) team at I-PAC.

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