BHADRACHALAM: A trail of lies unravels as one travels through the Papikonda hills, with the Godavari river slicing through it. Village after village certifies that the authorities have lied - first about complying with the Forest Rights Act provisions and now about compensation to tribals.
Far from being a boon to both Andhra and Telangana as is being bandied about, the Polavaram project will be causing a huge devastation. The multi-purpose project would massively displace people numbering over two lakh (nearly four lakh unofficially) from over 300 villages in nine mandals of Khammam (VR Puram, Kunavaram, Chintur, Bhadrachalam, Velerpadu, Kukunur and Burghampad), Devipatnam mandal (East Godavari) and Polavaram mandal (West Godavari), all of them in the Fifth Scheduled area, besides parts of Konta block in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh and Motu block of Malkangiri of Odisha.
Though the government officially claims that the displacement would be less than two lakh in Andhra Pradesh following merger of the seven mandals of Khammam district and a few thousands in the neighbouring Chhattisgarh and Odisha, the reality seems to be different. Sunnam Venkataramana, secretary of People Against Polavaram Project(PAPP) says, “Most villages that will be submerged due to the Polavaram project have not been given their rights.”
Only recently, a majority of the tribals came to know about the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act-2006, popularly known as Forest Rights Act (FRA). Section 4(5) of the Act states no forest dweller can be removed from his land until the process of recognition of rights is completed. Apart from FRA, the agitators fighting against the project claim that there was gross negligence in abiding to the 1/70 Act of AP (prohibits alienation of land in the scheduled areas to a non-tribal), Fifth Schedule Area rights, Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act-1996 (mandates the approval of the affected gram sabhas) and special rights to tribals under the Constitution.
“The forest clearance given by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in 2010 for the project was the result of plain violation of FRA on a number of counts. The State government had lied to obtain the clearance telling the MoEF that there were no forest rights to be settled under FRA in the project-affected areas. The reality is that gram sabha consent for diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes has not been obtained,” argued VS Krishna, general secretary of Human Rights Forum.
As per the announcement made by the Centre in Parliament and the Andhra Pradesh government assurances, the relief and rehabilitation package, including land-to-land compensation, will be made as per the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act-2013.
“Under the Second Schedule of the Act, the land-for-land compensation clearly mentions that persons losing land and belonging to Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes will be provided land equivalent to land acquired or 2.5 acre whichever is lower. That means even if a tribal has a 10-acre land, he will be given mere 2.5 acre or less. This is nothing but cheating people,” says Muthyala Puliraju, an activist of Telangana Joint Action Committee at VR Puram. Even under the relief and rehabilitation package, only six out of the 370 habitations have been rehabilitated so far and work on 14 others is in progress.
Tribals who are on a warpath against the construction of the project want the government to settle their forest rights first before commencing land acquisition for the project.