Book review
When Godavari Comes: People’s History of a River–Journeys in the Zone of the Dispossessed by R Uma Maheshwari, New Delhi: Aakar Books, 2014; pp 486 + xviii, Rs 595.

N Venugopal (venugopalraon@yahoo.com) is the editor of Veekshanam, a Telugu monthly journal of political economy and society.

Polavaram multipurpose irrigation project across the Godavari River is likely to displace more than 3,00,000 people, mostly Adivasis, by submerging over 300 habitations. It will also submerge forests with rich biodiversity, a hill range, a river and several streams, agricultural lands, and cultural sites. The highly controversial project, first envisaged in the 1940s under the colonial government, was actually taken up by the Government of Andhra Pradesh in 2006, without proper sanctions and clearances from many statutory bodies. The project violates safeguards provided to Adivasis in the Constitution as well as several legislations, including the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), 1996, the Forest Rights Act, 2006 and the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.

The works on the project began and continued without approvals like clearance for revised costs by the Expenditure (Finance) Committee; Central Electrical Authority’s clearance for power component; approvals from gram sabhas in the submergence areas in Odisha and Chhattisgarh states; approval of Forest (Conservation) Act for submergence areas in Odisha and Chhattisgarh; techno-economic clearance from the Central Water Commission (CWC); and CWC approval for dam design and operation schedule. In fact, the project is under litigation with several cases pending in the Supreme Court (SC) filed by governments of Chhattisgarh and Odisha as well as environmental and Adivasi groups. The project is also in violation of the National Tribal Policy as it violates the direction, “any project which displaces more than 50,000 tribal people should not be taken up.” In 2006, the SC appointed a Central Empowered Committee (CEC) to study the concerns and the CEC report said,
there is, therefore, a strong case for a second thought and explore alternative location and design of the dam to avoid the colossal loss in terms of apprehended sufferings and disruption of life style of the local inhabitants.

Tussle between States

Despite these counterpoints, the Government of Andhra Pradesh continued the works without any respect for the legal process, technical objections and social debate. The people’s movement for bifurcation of the state and formation of Telangana somewhat slowed down the pace of the works and during the movement, many Telangana votaries including Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) opposed the construction of the dam, primarily on the displacement plank. However, when the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill was moved in Parliament, recognition to Polavaram as a national project was mooted. The leaders of would-be Andhra Pradesh expressed suspicion that Telangana may oppose the project and raise litigation if the to-be submerged villages are left in Telangana and sought the villages to be given to Andhra Pradesh. All the villages passed resolutions in their gram sabhas to retain them in Telangana.

The bill became an Act in February and in May, the new government that came to power in Delhi promulgated an ordinance favouring the demand of Andhra Pradesh, transferring six mandals and some villages. Telangana immediately responded with a bandh called by the ruling party TRS against the ordinance, but, later the ordinance (amendment to the act) was almost accepted, without even challenging it in a court of law. The funniest part is that the “people’s representative” elected by the transferred villages now sits in Telangana Assembly while the people he is supposed to represent live in another state!

Movement and Resistance

Thus, Polavaram is a classic case of Adivasi displacement, deception, violation of laws, political gimmicks, constitutional and legal improprieties, corruption, etc. Notwithstanding this unique position, the comprehensive story of Polavaram is yet to be told. Over the last decade, it occupied a large space in local language media but not the deserving attention of the country. Though the people in the submergence zone as well as outside have been fighting against this gross injustice, the people’s movements against displacement have not attracted national attention. In this context, When Godavari Comes: People’s History of a River by R Umamaheshwari is a much-needed and remarkable attempt based on a number of journeys the author made in the zone of the dispossessed during five years between 2006 and 2010 and updating her story till mid-2014.

The author aims at correcting the popular image of a movement at one level and presenting the everyday forms of resistance of people on whose heads hangs the sword of displacement. She writes:
popular resistance and struggle against the dam among the tribal communities, continues in its own steam at the local level. Hence the idea of ‘movement’ and the way we would like to look at it, needs to be revisited. Everyday battles that people continue to have with the government authorities over matters of the compensation, or not accepting the terms that the authorities have laid out, are also movements of everyday in ways that are not always visible… (p 388).

However, the book achieves much more than just portraying the movement of “tribal communities” as it deals with fisherfolk, women, government policies, rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) packages, political parties, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), tourism, so on and so forth.

As the author says,
Godavari and people of, around, by the Godavari are central to this book. The making of the Polavaram dam begins to shape these lives in newer ways. There are two thematic threads to the book: people’s opinions, voices, in the current context of the ongoing dam (though not always about the dam) interspersed with some historical facts (seeing the past from the present) during the course of five journeys (with short and long ‘visits’ within each journey) and; one’s distance from the scene (circumstances and some choices in order for the book to happen) which allows me the space and context to look at larger issues that surround this significant political event of AP.
In the process, she took up “(T)he act of recording two kinds of truths—a truth outside of me, as narrated by the people I met—and the circumstances I saw, and a truth within, of my feelings and reflections.”

An Observer’s Journey

The book consists of five chapters dealing with each of the journeys, a chapter on Personal Memorabilia for Life, a chapter on reflections, besides epilogue and an introduction. A foreword by Felix Padel and some people’ petitions add up. Each of the chapters has photographs taken by the author.

The book is a combination of three different, perhaps related, issues of people’s history of a river, journeys of an observer and problems of dispossession. Though they are related, lack of focus, inadequacies of care and brevity on the part of the author, make the book a difficult read.

The third aspect, particularly dispossession due to Polavaram dam, is the supposed centrepiece of the whole narrative, but it is lost in many details and trivialities which could have been easily avoided or edited or reserved for a future book. The lack of brevity not only makes the book double the size than it could have been, but also makes it a holdall of field notes. Complaints, compliments and spontaneous feelings during the field visits, semi-encyclopedic information, film criticism and poetic bouts pervade the book and obscure its main focus area—perhaps a result of an inability to edit or a fascination to retain everything that came to mind during the field visits.

There is no denial that the author has put in painstaking efforts in covering a developing scenario for over six years and it is a highly commendable work. However, in a scenario of evolving data, a reader expects a comprehensive assessment and an overall compilation of the end data, not the bits and pieces of the data at different points in time. Most of the data of the previous journeys might become irrelevant or outdated in the last journey and what matters is a complete stocktaking at the end of the day. It seems the author tried to be a meticulous journalist, a perceptive social scientist and a sensitive artist at one go and their interests clashed at times.

This kind of unedited narration coupled with poor copy-editing ultimately resulted in several repetitions, too many details, different spellings of proper nouns and wrong spellings of Telugu words. Of course, the author does caution her readers that she “could not trim down (the book) to size.” Trimming down to size or being concise is a different matter. But avoidable errors abound. For example “2006, or enabhai-aaru” (p 12) when enabhai aaru is 1986. Telugu expressions are misspelt and wrongly translated at many places. A quote from colonial times is said to talk about “sugarcane” while the actual quote talks about tobacco (p 19). An officer is referred as “Sub-deputy Collector” once, described as “Sub-Divisional Collectorate” a couple of sentences later (p 131) and called Special Deputy Collector on the next page. The Vana Samrakshana Samithi is called Vana Suraksha Samithi (p 167). Kandakurti is wrongly located (and misspelt, to add) in Adilabad (p 201) when it is in Nizamabad. Pulichintala is described as a project on the Godavari (p 274) when it is on the Krishna. A P Rayons is said to be located at Mancherial (p 300) when they are separated by at least 150 kilometres. Maheshwari mentions, “Sangareddy, Siddipet and few other districts” (p 386) when the two are towns in Medak District—the former being the district headquarter. Araku is wrongly located in Khammam (p 399).

Similarly, the author’s observation that “The state-banned outfit of Maoists in Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, were not (or so I observed) heard making too many statements (regarding Polavaram) in the villages that I traversed in the years 2006–2010… I did not have access to their statements sent out to selective Telugu media regarding the project…” (p 395) shows insufficient data collection. The Maoists have been posting their statements on Polavaram on the net since 2006. Her description of T Nagi Reddy is also incorrect. She says “the group that broke away from the Communist Party of India (CPI) following the end of the Telangana Armed Struggle” (p 41). This is repeated at least five times (pp 89, 205, 224, 376, 377–8). Telangana Armed Struggle was officially withdrawn in 1951 and T Nagi Reddy was with the CPI till 1964 and with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) till he was expelled in late 1968.

Conclusions

The errors do not diminish the significance of the work. The author notes:
as for Polavaam, I have sought an answer to the question as to why Polavaram does not evince such a sustained interest in national media or politics, when compared to the issue of mining and steel industry projects. Is there politics to it? Media seems to arrive when an iconic figure takes up the cause, or visits sites of struggles that have been ongoing even before the icon visited them

As a person from the region told the author:
For those of us who live on her (the Godavari), she never lets us down; she never destroyed us; it is just a matter of inconvenience for a few days; this is dam (Polavaram) is throwing all of us out of here forever! Godavari never did that! Since my grandfather’s times we have been hearing of her coming and we are still living here, where we heard these stories; but will we be able to tell these stories to our grandchildren in this same village, after the dam is built?

The author should be complimented for bringing all this to one’s attention.

source: Displacing Godavari and Its People, by N Venugopal, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol – L No. 44, October 31, 2015 http://www.epw.in/book-reviews/displacing-godavari-and-its-people.html