Jagan govt mulls lowering Polavaram dam water level to cut rehabilitation cost

With the Union finance ministry remaining firm on restricting the cost of Polavaram major irrigation project on Godavari river at Rs 20,398 crore as per 2013-14 estimates, the Andhra Pradesh government is planning to bring down the water level in the project so as to bring down the number of villages to be submerged, thereby also reducing the cost of rehabilitation of people to be evacuated.

A senior official of the state government, who was involved in the land acquisition and rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) of project evacuees, told Hindustan Times that the state government was contemplating maintaining the reservoir level of Polavaram project at a contour of 41.15 metres, as against the full reservoir level of 45.72 meters.

“There will be no change in either design or the height of the dam. The height of the project spillway and earth-fill-rock dam would remain as per the original design. However, the water level in the reservoir would be maintained below the contour of 41.14 metres, and any excess water flowing in the river would be discharged downstream through the spillway gates,” the official, who refused to be quoted, said.

The issue came up for discussion at a meeting of the irrigation department convened by chief minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy last week to discuss the fallout of the Central government’s decision to cap the project cost at Rs 20,398 crore as per 2013-14 estimates, though the Central Water Commission and Polavaram Project Authority had approved the revised estimate of Rs 47,725 crore as per 2017-18 estimates.

The chief minister also wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating that the cost of land acquisition and R&R itself would be around Rs 29,000 crore and it was impossible to complete the project at Rs 20,398 crore.

“But since there was no positive response from the Centre, the only way left with the government is to reduce the cost of R&R. At last week’s meeting, the officials told the chief minister that if the contour level of water is brought down from 45.72 metres to 41.15 metres, the R&R cost will be reduced to around Rs 2,000 crore,” the official said.

Polavaram envisages displacement of 98,818 families or over four lakh people from 271 revenue villages of eight revenue blocks, 80% of whom are tribals. They are supposed to be rehabilitated in several alternative locations like Buttaigudem, Jeelugumilli, Darbhagudem and Yetapaka in East and West Godavari districts.

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“If the contour level is brought down, it will result in displacement of around 20,000 families, which can be done with the money released by the Centre,” the official said. “However, the government will keep the option of increasing the water level in the reservoir open when it has money to rehabilitate more families,” he added.

On Sunday, state irrigation minister P Anil Kumar also indicated that there would be reduction in the contour level in the Polavaram project. “We shall take up R&R package for 20,000 families in the first phase, involving the water level of 41.15 metres. We shall provide them new houses by March 2021. Houses for the remaining families to be displaced, when the water level is maintained at 45.72 metres, would be taken up later,” the minister said.

Opposition Telugu Desam Party strongly objected to the Jagan government’s plan to reduce the water level in the Polavaram project. “The project is supposed to store 194 TMC (thousand million cubic feet) of water. A higher water level also helps diversion of Godavari water to Pennar basin so as to augment irrigation in drought-prone Rayalaseema,” TDP leader and former irrigation minister Devineni Umamaheshwar Rao said.

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