As the Collector of Khammam district in 2006, Shashi Bhushan Kumar was instrumental in acquiring one of the first parcels of land in Vinjaran village of Kukunoor mandal for Polavaram project. He never imagined then that Polavaram would become a national project in the future and that he would be at its helm of affairs as the Water Resources Secretary. Twelve years later, as we sit down in his chambers, Shashi excitedly says, “Yes, we are just a year away from getting water from the Polavaram project.”
How is the progress of the Polavaram project?
We have completed close to 56 per cent of all the civil works of the project. We are working towards providing water through gravity by monsoon of 2019, and I am convinced that we will achieve it.
But, is it possible as there seems to be a delay in land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement (LARR) of villagers to be displaced by the project?
The Full Reservoir Level of Polavaram dam is 150 ft. The next relevant height, that of the cofferdam, is 135 ft. The purpose of the cofferdam is not to enable diversion of water to canals through gravity. It is to create a water-free area to take up the construction of earth-cum-rock fill dam. However, in this case, as per the design, the cofferdam’s height is enough for water to flow into the canals by gravity. That is why, we have divided the work of land acquisition into two slots. One, acquisition of villages that come for submergence at 135 ft and the other between 135 and 150 ft. So, we are on schedule as we have completed LARR for the 135 ft mark. In fact, of the entire 1.6 lakh acres of land to be acquired, 1.15 lakh acres of land has already been acquired.
What about the approval of the revised cost estimates of the project to be approved by the Central Water Commission (CWC)? Will the delay in release of funds affect the progress?
As far as the finances are concerned, we have to get `400 crore as per the approved detailed project report. Over and above the approved amount, we have spent close to `1,500 crore, which will be reimbursed after the revised estimates are approved. We submitted the revised estimates (of `58,000 crore) in August, 2017. The CWC has made several remarks and raised queries. We have sent our replies to the last set of questions — which are on LARR and left and right canals — on Friday. We will go (to New Delhi) shortly and sit with the officials for two-three days (to get the revised rates approved).
Why has there been a drastic cost escalation from G16,010 crore before 2014 to G58,000 crore?
The reason for cost escalation is the acquisition of land under the LARR Act, 2013. We have to pay the same compensation for assigned land as we pay for private patta land. We have to pay for the government lands that are under occupation. These were not payable when the previous DPR was prepared. One of the queries by the CWC was how did the number of project-displaced families (PDFs) increased. It is because the definition of PDFs has been redefined in the new Land Acquisition Act. If there are unmarried adult daughters and sons of the landowners, they should be treated as separate families and given the same compensation. This resulted in cost escalation.
Your views on Telangana demanding the surplus water being diverted from Pattiseema and Polavaram projects
Telangana may demand sharing of water, but the tribunal has to decide it. I am convinced that sharing Pattiseema water has got no base. For the sake of an academic argument, if we have to share 80 TMC of Godavari water diverted to Krishna, Telangana has to share over 200 tmc of water that it has diverted. Mind you, this is without taking into account the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation project being built now.
Concerns are being expressed by experts that the State government is rushing through the project and that quality may be compromised?
It is irresponsible, and, in fact, scare-mongering, to talk about quality in the terms of may or might. All the State government’s actions are thoroughly being scrutinised by the CWC. We also have a three-layered quality assurance by our own department, third-party firm from Delhi appointed by the Polavaram Project Authority, and WAPCOS. Every week, tests on various parameters are conducted and remarks given are uploaded on the government website for everybody to see. If you go slow, people question if the water could be given by 2019. If you go fast, they say we may be compromising on the quality. It is a part and parcel of the job and we are prepared to live with it.
What is the progress of interlinking of Pennar and Godavari project?
The first phase of the project, for which an administrative sanction of `6,200 crore was given recently, will be going for tenders in a week or two. The entire cost to interlink both the rivers is over `80,000. But, given our financial resources, we are going with the first phase for now.
Is the project really viable?
Viability is defined based on the benefit-cost ratio. (BC ratio). The BC ratio, as per the CWC guidelines, should be more than 1.5 for a project to be deemed viable. If it is 1 in Drought Prone Area Programme districts, then it is taken to be viable. The Godavari-Pennar interlinking project has scored 1.7-1.8.
On a personal note, what is Polavaram to you?
It is a humongous task. It gives us inspiration to just be a part of it. It will serve the direct interests of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, and indirectly to the whole country. It will be one of the last interventions towards ensuring food security in India. That is why it is a true national project.