Dense forests in the distance form a lush backdrop to a large picturesque lake at Vemulaghat village in Telangana, fringed with pastel-coloured rocks. On the other side of this traditional water body, endless fields of paddy stretch as far as the eye can see. Can we give all this up and move out is the question that villagers ask.

Lands in eight villages nearby have been acquired for the Mallannasagar reservoir under the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project and only 800 acres are left to be acquired in this village, according to the project authorities. With continuing protests against the controversial massive irrigation scheme, even political parties cannot campaign here for the forthcoming assembly elections in Telangana on December 7.

This is among the few villages holding out against the Rs 810 billion (Rs. 81,000 crore) Kaleshwaram Project, touted to be the world’s largest lift irrigation project. The affected people have filed hundreds of petitions and even approached the National Green Tribunal for stopping the project.

In Vemulaghat, Siddipet district, about 80 kilometres from the state capital Hyderabad, with a population of 5,000, people are on a chain hunger strike since June 5, 2016, in protest of this project, located 190 km away. It is probably India’s and the world’s most expensive lift irrigation project. The government has planned to pipe water through a series of 22 reservoirs and a network of pipelines for irrigation to the water-starved state.

The project has become a favourite punching bag for its critics. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi, the political party that leads the state government, dubs opposition to the project as a conspiracy by the Congress party and is jubilant that it has got all clearances and is going full steam ahead.

The land acquisition process though is incomplete and there are court orders to complete the resettlement process before construction. But a few kilometres before Vemulaghat village, there is frenetic construction work already on the gigantic Mallannasagar reservoir which will store 50 thousand million cubic feet of water.

Resistance ongoing across several villages in Telangana

In the centre of Vemulaghat, near a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, there is a stage where people gather every day to protest. Opposite it, on the walls of a brick house, are enlarged sheets of photographs of the police action on the people. “Not a single government person can come here,” said Mohammed Hayathuddin of the Mallana Sagar Vyatireka Porata Samiti. The people opposed the forcible land acquisition on July 24, 2017 which led to firing and some were injured in the lathi charge. The police registered 26 cases against the agitators.

Taramma is among the women in the forefront of the protests and she proudly points to her photo up on the wall. She is among those who have filed cases against the project. Her husband Tirupati is from the Mudiraj fishing community and earns a steady income from the fish in the tanks. “Since I was child I haven’t seen this tank dry up,” he said.

Taramma points to enlarged sheets of photographs of the police action on the people of Vemulaghat. Photo credit: Meena Menon

The large tank has a capacity of 0.5 TMC and despite the less rain this year, it has some standing water. Thanks to the two major tanks and many smaller ones, people can get two or three crops in a year. Most people grow rice, cotton, maize and also practice sericulture. “We don’t want this project which will displace us and take us away from this rich place,” they said.

Vemulaghat is not the only one resisting this project. According to S Ashalata, of Rythu Swarajya Vedika, which mainly works with women farmers, there were many protests in the state against other reservoirs where lands have already been acquired. Some villages did not give up all land and in Medigadda, Anaram and Gujiwada villages, people had also filed cases in court. Some lands were acquired forcefully and the money was deposited in court. Women who didn’t own land but worked on it lost out. Even people who have been compensated are fighting for their lands. In some cases lands have been acquired for entertainment parks as in Siddipet and people don’t know how to fight this, she said.

The project was envisaged in 2003-04 by P. Venkata Ramarao, chief engineer for the Godavari lift irrigation scheme, to use water from Pranhita river in Telangana. Water and Power Consultancy Services Limited, a central government consultancy organisation, conducted the survey and submitted a detailed project report and the tender for works was approved in 2007.

Protests began in 2016 when the collector tried to convince people in Etigadda Kishtapur, the first village which refused to give up its land for the Mallannasagar reservoir. There is overall disappointment and many people are antagonistic towards the government as a result of all these policies, said Ashalata.

In June 2018, in response to writ petitions by over 100 landless labourers, the Hyderabad high court issued an interim stay on construction on lands acquired for the Mallannasagar reservoir till the Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R and R) is completed for Etigadda Kishtapur and Vemulaghat villages.

Is there an alternative?

The project has its supporters who feel there is no alternative to lift irrigation. Engineer-in-chief of the Kaleshwaram Project, B Hari Ram, who has been working on the project since 2006 says that there is no better option than this project. According to him, the Godavari river levels are very low and the terrain is 200 to 600 metres above the river level and so it is essential to lift the water, without which it is not possible. “We are 100% correct on the water flow, otherwise the Central Water Commission would not approve this project,” he said.

The project will irrigate 8,025,000 acres of new area in 13 districts and stabilise 188,200 acres under existing irrigation, said Hari Ram and that additionally, the water surplus of 1500 to 2000 TMC in Pranhita river, which was going waste, will be used in the project instead. “The cost per acre of irrigation is Rs 3.5 per acre (all told) and we have worked out a very good cost benefit ratio that has been approved by the Central Water Commission,” he added.

Farmers in Vemulaghat get two or three crops a year thanks to two major natural tanks and many smaller ones. Photo credit: Meena Menon

But some who have opposed this project from the start like M Dharma Rao, a retired chief engineer irrigation department of Andhra Pradesh, said the Kaleshwaram project is a fait accompli. Many statutory provisions were not observed including those of the central Land Acquisition Act 2013. “Even before the resettlement is in place, construction has begun and land is still to be acquired. People feel threatened by such moves. Is this the correct way of doing things? It is damaging their right to life.” he said.

There are many alternatives which could have been considered and discussed in the public domain instead of forcing things on people, he said, adding that as things stand, it is an environmentally unsound project as also socially and financially. He said that instead of reservoirs, natural storage in the ground or in the many natural tanks could have helped percolation and recharging ground water levels but now there will be so much loss due to evaporation. Also such projects don’t take into account the cropping pattern and water use, he added.

Hari Ram however feels the resistance at Vemulaghat is for want of more money. “Everybody has given their land except these people. They are politically motivated people and they filed 197 cases in the high court. Many smaller farmers in fact want to sell their land,” he added.

Questions over clearances

The Telangana government promulgated a government order on July 30, 2015, to acquire land speedily for public projects and the affected people had to go to court to enforce the provisions of the central Land Acquisition Act 2013. The government order, one of the few issued by the government, would “allow land owners to participate in the development process by willingly” selling their land through an agreement with a district level “procuring agency”.

People from all parts of the state challenged this order and the Hyderabad high court, in an interim order, in January 2017, ruled that the state cannot acquire land in this manner for irrigation projects. The high court had said that the protection to poor labourers and the landless under the central law which entitles them to resettlement must be enforced.

However, not to be outdone, the state passed another law, Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (Telangana Amendment), in 2017, which activists said was a copy of the Government Order 123, where people could sell lands willingly.

“The government cannot justify the huge project cost of Rs 81,000 crore or why we have to leave our homes. The high court said the lands cannot be acquired under the GO 123 and the government cannot proceed without a plan for resettlement,” said Hayathuddin of the Mallana Sagar Vyatireka Porata Samiti. The government used private parties to negotiate land deals and people were paid amounts ranging from Rs. 600,000 to 800,000 an acre, he said. Hayathuddin had petitioned the National Green Tribunal demanding that all permissions for the Kaleshwaram project be withdrawn and also demanded an inquiry committee to look into the illegal construction that had begun. But the NGT dismissed both the petitions in August, saying that the project had got all clearances. Hayathuddin’s appeal in the NGT will be heard on December 17.

Many women who didn’t own land but worked on it lost out as the government acquired land across the state for the project. There have been many ongoing protests in Telangana and land acquisition has been the major bone of contention between villages and the government. Photo credit: Meena Menon

There was little information to the affected people about the project and no public consultation worth the name. While the government made a PowerPoint presentation in the assembly, the affected people were left out of the whole process even as involving people is mandatory under the law, said Karunakar Reddy of Vemulaghat. The village had voted for the Telangana Rashtra Samithi after the new state of Telangana was formed and expected a lot from the government. “We supported the TRS [Telangana Rashtra Samithi], now they have killed us,” remarked Yella Reddy, another resident of Vemulaghat.

Experts critique project cost saying not worth the little benefit

The protest against the Kaleshwaram project gained momentum after the Telangana Joint Action Committee released a critique in 2016 by experts including K Raghu, the chairperson of Telangana Joint Action Committee. He said the report clearly identified the gross errors in the project, based on false premises. “It is a blunder to pump up water from existing reservoirs downstream to a lower level and bring it up again. The project is based on a certain water availability which is in question,” he said. The report “Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project – Will it benefit Telangana State”, pointed out that significant changes were made to the earlier version of the project called the Dr BR Ambedkar Pranahita-Chevella Sujala Sravanthi project.

Fields of paddy in Vemulaghat village. Photo credit: Meena Menon

The report highlighted various irregularities in the project and the lack of a proper detailed project report or accurate figures for water availability and pumping.

It also questioned the water allocated for irrigation, saying that when complete, the Kaleshwaram project will allocate 169 TMC of water for irrigation. With this water about 18,19,550 acres (7,36,345 ha) in seven districts of Telangana are expected to be irrigated. Again this is far less water, for too much area of irrigation.

Additionally, shifting the intake point for the lift irrigation project from Tummidihatti to Medigadda has added to the costs. Under the original scheme, water was to be lifted at Tummidihatti, and both under the original scheme and re-engineered scheme water will be delivered from the intake point to Yellampally. However, to lift the same quantity of water (180 TMC) from Medigadda now, there is an additional cost of Rs 1,253 crore every year, along with more investments to construct barrages and pumping stations at Medigadda, Annaram and Sundilla.

Engineer-in-chief Hari Ram cites that the reasons for the change of intake point at Tummidihati to Medigadda was that Maharashtra did not approve of the barrage at Tummidihati as it would submerge 3,700 acres of land in the neighbour state. The redesigned 148 metre barrage will cause minimum submergence and the total storage was now 147 TMC, said Hari Ram.

Biksham Gujja, a water resources expert, who also co-wrote this report, told Mongabay India, that this “project is technically complicated, economically too expensive and the benefits are going to be too little.”

He pointed out that the current detailed project report is bogus and that spoke volumes for the project. “What is feasible, what is not, requires major technical and scientific studies, analysis and a planning process. On such fraudulent documents [like the detailed project report] the government of Telangana has decided to spend Rs.85,000 crore (Rs. 850 billion) and this will mostly be at least doubled. We made it clear in the scientific and technical analysis, that this project as presented detailed project report is certain to be a major burden and will give little benefits to farmers.”

On the issue of the project construction already apace, he said that this was another common practice. “The ‘sunken costs fallacy’ where you spend huge amounts and say, ‘how can we now stop the work’ and continue to foolishly pour more money in order to finish. Mallannasagar, to store 50 TMC of water, pumped at 90 metres RL and storing at 430 metres RL is a totally crazy idea. Doing it at any cost with public money is only what a totalitarian government with no responsibility of public finances can do. That is what happening in Telangana now. This project will never stand any reasonable financial, technical or scientific scrutiny.” He noted that there is a possibility to revisit this project, reduce operational costs and have a more efficient system.

B. Hari Ram, the engineer-in-chief of Kaleshwaram Project, criticised the Telangana Joint Action Committee report and said the writers didn’t know hydrology. There is reverse pumping of water but that is due to the terrain – the critics don’t understand the science or the scheme, he pointed out. Hari Ram said that under the project, 30 TMC is envisaged for drinking water for Hyderabad and Secunderabad and 16 TMC for industrial use, adding that apart from irrigation to almost 900,000 acres, drinking water would be supplied to 10 districts. The total land needed for the project was 80,000 acres in 13 districts, of which 50,000 has been acquired till now, he said.

Hari Ram told Mongabay-India that “The CWC [Central Water Commission] team travelled to all the proposed barrages and said it was a “marvellous” project not seen anywhere in the world and that it was essential they we take it up.” He added that even the 15th Finance Commission has been impressed by the work. He waved aside all criticism, saying it was a perfectly sound project.

This is the second article in a two-part series on the role of environment in the upcoming elections in Telangana. Part One examines the scarcity of water in the state despite mega water projects by the government.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.