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The invisible fishermen of the Godavari

By R Uma Maheshwari

The Andhra Pradesh government has a grand vision for industrial development, and the Polavaram Dam across the Godavari is essential to it. But the dam will submerge 276 villages, displacing farmers and fisherfolk. This FES-Infochange series looks specifically at the fisherfolk in the submergence zone, who are not even counted amongst the project-affected

Polavaram dam construction

At Rajahmundry, in the middle of my journey to the submergence zone of the Polavaram (Indira Sagar) dam in Andhra Pradesh in search of fisher communities, I came across the official four-page advertisement supplement issued by the Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation (APIIC), dated June 30, 2010. The advertisement highlights ‘10 Things Good with Godavari’ -- timeless river, rice bowl of south India, rich agriculture, natural resources, social infrastructure, connectivity, access to sea ports, a willing administration, peaceful politics, and big players already there. The “big players already there” include Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited (ONGC), Reliance, and Cairn Energy.

The Godavari river is a major waterway originating in the Western Ghats at Trimbakeshwar in Nashik, Maharashtra, and flowing eastward across the Deccan Plateau to enter Andhra Pradesh at Kandhakurthi in Nizamabad district, where it turns southeast to finally empty into the Bay of Bengal. It travels a total length of 910 miles from its origin. Rajahmundry, known as the ‘cultural capital of Andhra Pradesh’, is the largest city on the banks of the Godavari, and the river, also known as Dakshin Ganga, is at its widest here -- approximately 5 km from the town to the other bank at Kovvur.

While these are the Godavari’s physical characteristics, the river enters a contested arena in political terms on the question of “utilisation” of a river “wasting into the sea,” as is often quoted. Even as I write this, former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandra Babu Naidu is being held in custody in Maharashtra for voicing his opposition to the Babli project that has been a bone of contention between Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Apart from Babli, the Telugu Desam Party (and other parties, when it suits them) has been opposing 13 “illegal” (as their text messages to media persons, including this writer, say) projects planned by Maharashtra on the Godavari. It’s a different matter that the state of Andhra Pradesh has commenced the ambitious Polavaram project on the Godavari, which will be affected if projects are initiated upstream of the river, in Maharashtra. The ambitious Polavaram project is a major, multi-purpose irrigation project across the river in West Godavari’s Polavaram mandal, some 34 km upstream of Rajahmundry.

In all the talk in the political sphere, the people who stand to lose their lands, livelihoods, homes (in this case, tribal communities, fish workers, dalits, etc) remain invisible.

This series will focus specifically on the fishermen in the submergence zone of the four mandals (Devipatnam, Polavaram, Kunavaram and V R Puram) in the three districts of East Godavari, West Godavari and Khammam, in Andhra Pradesh, whose homes and livelihoods are and will be seriously affected.

Fisher communities settled along the Godavari in the Polavaram submergence zone belong to the caste groups Pallis, Vadderlu, Jalarlu and Gudallu; some like to be referred to as ‘Agnikula Kshatriyas’. In the official caste records, they come under ‘A’ and ‘D’ categories of the backward castes (BC).

I visited the villages of Manturu, Kachluru, Tuthigunta, Vadapally, Singanapally, Devipatnam, Pochavaram, Kolluru, Kunavaram and Kapileswarapuram in the three aforementioned districts. (Kapileswarapuram does not feature in the dam’s submergence zone, but many fisher communities settled in the submergence zone migrate there seasonally.) There are also fisher communities in Tadivada, Nadupuru, Koraturu, Rudramakota, Tekuru, Sriramagiri, Teleperu, Gonduru, Siduru and other villages located across the three districts, all of which are slated to be submerged.

Polavaram dam will submerge a total area of 38,186 hectares, including 22,882 hectares of un-irrigated (rain-fed) agricultural land, 12,801 hectares of what is called ‘poramboke’/government or wasteland), and 3,223 hectares of forest land. Officially, over 276 tribal villages in the agency areas of East and West Godavari districts and Khammam district (of which 274 are in the Fifth Schedule area) will be submerged. Villages that will go under first are in the Polavaram and Devipatnam mandals (in West and East Godavari district respectively), followed by Chintur, Kunavaram, V R Puram, Kukunuru, Velairpadu, Burugampadu and Bhadrachalam (in Khammam district). The project will also submerge villages in Orissa and Chhattisgarh.

Livelihoods that will be affected include agriculture (settled and shifting), forest-based livelihoods (collection of minor forest produce, etc), livestock rearing (cattle, goats, and backyard poultry), and fishing.

The states of West Bengal, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh produce about 50% of total inland fish production in the country. Nearly 70% of the 0.71 million fisher workers in India, fish in rivers, reservoirs, lakes and other inland waters (1). And still there is no suitable policy catering to the rights of fish workers, especially those displaced by dams.

How does the government view the displaced fisherfolk? Perhaps in the government’s narrow vision, the fishermen of the Godavari can move and fish in locations that are not affected by their plans to use the river for power-generation. The fact that these communities have indeed moved along the river for centuries works against them, because it absolves the government of the responsibility to compensate them for their now-settled existence and livelihood.

Fisher communities/fish workers move with the river’s flow, depending on the nature of changes in fishing and the amount of fish catch. A decline forces them to move to newer territories to fish; where the catch is good, they stay. Policies also force movement on these communities. For instance Kapileswarapuram may soon not be home to pulasa (a fish variety) if the sand mining there continues unabated, thanks to government sops to sand mining contractors by way of roads etc for the movement of heavy machinery.

The fish workers who stand to be displaced by the Polavaram project do not claim any ownership over the river, or its fish. They simply see their vocation as hereditary -- they were born to fish and that is what they will do, they say. All they want is that this be recognised by the government.

But the stakes over the Godavari today are high. A changing world economy and liberalisation have opened up spaces for activities that require the whole river, leaving little room for smaller communities with ‘smaller’ needs.

The fisher community feels short-changed. They are not even counted among the project-affected despite the fact that the entire stretch of the river, their livelihood canvas, will be rendered inaccessible to them.

It would be naive not to acknowledge that the Polavaram dam that is coming up in West Godavari district is being built to secure water for industry. It’s not about providing irrigation to ‘parched fields’. The investment is big, so is the concept and design. Who will it feed, once it comes up? The “big guys already there”, and others on the way. To quote again from the advertisement mentioned at the beginning of this article:

“APIIC has secured four blocks of oil fields -- two offshore and two onshore -- covering 4,587 sq km. The proposed Petroleum and Petrochemical Investment Region (PCPIR), covering a sprawl of 603.58 sq km is coming up with an investment of Rs 3.43 lakh crore between Kakinada and Visakhapatnam. An astounding 12 lakh people will be included in the employment footprint of this grand project. The state’s chief facilitator is the shaping hand in 300 industrial parks, covering a cumulative extent of 1.30 lakh acres. In just the last five years, APIIC made available 30,000 acres of land to entrepreneurs, besides accumulating a land bank (for future use) of 82,000 acres. The Kakinada Special Economic Zone is coming up over 10,000 acres in East Godavari straddling Tondangi and Uppadakothpalli mandals. In addition, many other projects are in the pipeline, prominent among them being a 138 km Petro Corridor with an investment of Rs 2 lakh crore between Kakinada and Vizag.”

Clearly, a big-time river-grab is in progress to feed this grand industrial vision. Do the fisherfolk stand a chance?

(R Uma Maheshwari is a journalist based in Andhra Pradesh. She has been covering issues related to development and displacement for a number of years. This is part 1 of her series on the fisherfolk displaced by the Polavaram Dam, researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowship 2010)

1V Sugunan, Reservoir Fisheries of India.

Infochange News & Features, September 2010