Thalli Godavari, part of belief and folklore for millions of people for ages, is now fast changing. Godavari as Varadha Godhaari, Perntaalapalli, Kondamodalu, abode of Koya and Konda Reddy adivasis, Rampa tribal revolts under Alluri Seetarama Raju, Nelakota Gandi Pochamma, numerous streams and historical- religious villages and long trails of Gotthi Koyas from Bastar forests trekking every season for coolie works in mirchi and tobacco fields are images of Godavari etched in the minds of generations of people. It is one part of the story.  

There is a new face emerging because of Polavaram Dam. Godavari as life for people and as a space of might for the State. New faces of Godavari, sacred and profane, one that is of people and belief and one that is a site and commodity for traders. Godavari that is life and tradition and one that is being dammed and damned. Two faces of mighty Godavari river. Now also an ‘item’ for consumption

The Threat of Polavaram Dam has  has added new face to Godavari. Fear of damming the mighty river has given rise to ‘special shows’ of riverscape and all that is part of three hundred and more villages with every inch of the vast stretch of forests, river and hills and valleys that is habitat of the Koya people and part of national heritage and belief system. But that is going to be lost with damning in progress where the government is directed by interests of contractors than science or cultural values or norms of democratic governance.

There is rush to catch glimpse of Godhaari thalli. Tourism focused on ‘giving last chance to see river timeless  pristine godavari has special trips, ‘record dance’ and all that of a fun and profitable business. Adds empty bottles and wrappers, disposables and filth on the riverbed. Conflict of life and profit. They ask “Bangaaru katthi ani meda kosukontamaa?” (would you like to cut your throat because the knife is made of gold). And simply they reject the damning project. Illiterate adivasis do not know to negotiate with the challenge.

A telling commenting on the changing face godhaari is the report by Uma Maheswari. I am sure it adds to the growing understanding on the destruction of ecology and people in the name of Polavaram dam.   

JOURNEYA tale of two rivers 

The Godavari has an intrinsic bond with the lives being lived on its shores. It can also be made invisible, a conduit for tourism. Overseeing the transition is the Polavaram dam. R. UMA MAHESWARI 

The two journeys reflected the difference between people’s commerce and that of the State, in league with exploitative private profiteers 

That was a different time, a different Godavari, a different flow and a different “movement”. It was languorous, as if time stopped by, for absorbing each moment of the flow. It was in June last year, one’s first trip across this stretch of the Godavari (incidentally, the second longest river of India, running to around 900 miles) in Andhra Pradesh. It had poured the previous night and still smelt of earth after first drops of rain and a mild breeze blew. It was 3 a.m. when I stepped on to the luggage carrier launch (a medium sized steamer), or “laanchi” in local parlance, at the “laanchila revu” in Rajahmundry. I sat on the deck amidst an assortment of goods — groceries, vegetables, fruits, cardboard cartons and so on.  There was no better way than this to see the “site”— the to-be-submerged villages along the Godavari if the ambitious Indira Sagar Polavaram dam were built. The timing was perfect — an entire stretch of day, between 3 a.m. until around 4 p.m. when we got off at the village Kondamodalu. The first rays of the sun were still a few “miles” away from Rajahmundry. And, as she flowed, the Godavari showed a window to the lives of people she touched, along the East, West Godavari and Khammam districts. My “guide” was 17-year-old Ravi, a Koya boy from a village near Kondamodalu, studying at Rajahmundry 

At her best  

Between Rajahmundry and Kondamodalu, the intensity of the quiet and questions about the future of the place were matched only by the constant interplay of light and shade in the clouds above. The abundant silence broken now and then by the Godavari waters hitting against the boat’s underbelly, the sounds of the crude motor, and intermittent sounds of the women washing clothes along the banks. People were getting ready for another day’s hard work. This was Godavari, at her magnanimous best; and this was perhaps the only way to understand her and the lives of the people who have an intrinsic bond with her. It was an important political time as well — the Andhra Pradesh Government at its ambitious best to build the Polavaram dam. That was another laanchi, that touched the everyday lives of people at each of the villages it anchored at.  

And in April this year, was another time altogether, on another launch, named Punnami — a private tourist launch operating in the Rajahmundry- Papikondalu Wildlife Sanctuary circuit. It was across the same Godavari, but a different world view of Godavari and her people, or people and their Godavari. Actually, Godavari was invisible; or she existed perhaps just incidentally, as a river that may well have been a tarred road! Here I was amongst some 60 odd tourists, a “professional” guide (named Raju!) and sheer cacophony (or, high-decibel latest Telugu film music).  

Cashing in  

One was a 12 and a half hour long journey and the other lasted a little more than eight hours. Between these two strikingly contrasting images / experiences with the flow of the Godavari lies yet another dimension of the Polavaram dam, Godavari and the communities in the submergence zone (276 villages in official records) — as to what is happening in the meanwhile, before the dam is built. Perceptible and imperceptible destructions and forms of exploitation continue. The difference lay in the pace of the journey and the form of silence enveloping one. It was the difference between smaller navigations versus the big. About villages as active agents in the State’s socio-economic profile on the one hand and as objects of curiosity tourism.  

The two journeys also reflected the difference between people’s commerce and that of the State, in league with exploitative private profiteers. In just the last year the number of tourist launches plying on the Godavari has increased phenomenally. People say on some Sundays there are as many as 10 to 15 launches between Rajahmundry and Papikondalu Wildlife Sanctuary. The tourist launches move from Rajahmundry via Pattiseema, Posammagandi, Papikondalu and Perantapalli. There are two-day “packages” too, including, in addition, a night’s stay at the bamboo huts in a tribal village, Kolluru (built by a non-tribal landlord) and a visit to the Pamuleru waterfalls. These tours are authorised by the AP Tourism Department. Some sanctions also come from the Irrigation Department (AP) which perhaps also charges commission, as one of the launch staff revealed.  

This tourism thrives in a context where a single Primary Health Centre (locked most days) caters to more than 10 villages (as in Kondamodalu panchayat); and where local ferries are the only means to get a sick person to the nearest government hospital. Deliveries, as well as miscarriages midway, are part of the deal too.
A bus takes tourists from Rajahmundry to Polavaram where we step onto the Punnami launch. It starts off at 10.30 a.m. Within an hour, even before the launch motor is revved up, the riverscape has changed already. Right after breakfast (idlivada) the Godavari becomes a dumping ground; and is no more a living source. Plastic cups, and half eaten idlis adorn the river. Right through the journey, the background music is not the flow of the river, but the latest Telugu film music, including the recent Shekhar Kammula film, “Godavari”, shot on a specially created launch across the same Godavari. The guide announces names of many other Telugu films shot in this area. Most of these had no engagement with the local communities whose villages remained picture-postcard backdrops.  

Scope for exploitation  

These unorganised, unregulated tourist operations have immense scope for exploitation and abuse of ad-hoc workers. As symbolised in Bhavya, a petite girl aged 16. She dances in the launch everyday for a living. She dropped out of school after class X. Her mother is an attendant in a hospital in Rajahmundry. She earns Rs. 250 per day for dancing to the tune of popular Telugu film songs with her “master”, a 20-something Saikrishna, who gets other “students” to dance here occasionally.  

Tourist as consumer  

There are other children employed here too, such as Srinu, a 15-year-old illiterate from Vizianagaram, who earns Rs. 1500 a month. Son of agricultural labourers, he has two sisters to marry off. He has been here for a year now. These children work non-stop through the journey and eat last. Here is tourism which “consumes”. The forests, the hills and the Godavari are also sights to be consumed. You do not touch people’s lives, except by exploiting labour and natural wealth for profit. Since colonial times, the Papikonda hills would have seen one unending sequence of land alienation, exploitation of forests and tribal people’s labour.  

The Punnami launch now stops at the Gandipochamma temple, where pilgrim tourism has become an appendage. Chadala Venkatreddi, a Konda Reddi farmer from Nellakota once told me, “She was our goddess, but not the form you see inside the shrine. Our goddess still lives in the Godavari water, comes during festivals and goes back. That is our belief… Now they make money from the temple. Not a penny goes to the tribal people. ..”  

All-inclusive show  

At Devipatnam, the launch owners pay a toll tax at the Police station — since they are now in the vicinity of the Agency Areas of the east Godavari district. The guide informs us that this was one of the police stations blasted by followers of Alluri Sitaramaraju (the revolutionary leader of the Rampa revolts). Alluri Sitaramaraju, too, is reduced to a tourist attraction, while in a sense the conditions that prevailed in his time continue to haunt these parts even today.  

As the Punnami launch this year sets back on the return journey, the sun sets behind Papikondalu. Kondamodalu, with smoke from its houses, beckons one, but this is not the time for a tourist in their midst! That will perhaps be another time. 

Photos: S. Rambabu, Ch. Vijaya BhaskarSource: Magazine, The Hindu, Sunday, Jun 24, 2007 
Changed lives: Fishermen on the
Godavari near Kondamodalu   
An APTDC boat taking tourists to Papikondalu