National River-Linking Project, which works under the aegis of the Indian Ministry of Water Resources, was designed to overcome the deficit in water in the country. As a part of this plan, surplus water from the Himalayan rivers is to be transferred to the peninsular rivers of India. This exercise, with a combined network of 30 river-links and a total length of 14,900 kilometres (9,300 mi) at an estimated cost of US$120 billion (in 1999), would be the largest ever infrastructure project in the world. In this project's case, the Godavari River basin is considered as a surplus one, while the Krishna River basin is considered to be a deficit one. As of 2008, 644 tmcft of underutilized water from Godavari River flowed into the Bay of Bengal. Based on the estimated water requirements in 2025, the Study recommended that sizable surplus water was to be transferred from the Godavari River basin to the Krishna River basin.
In July 1941, the first conceptual proposal for the project came from the erstwhile Madras Presidency. Later Diwan Bahadur L. Venkata Krishna Iyer, then chief engineer in the Presidency's irrigation department, made the first survey of the project site and made a definitive proposal for a reservoir at Polavaram. Sri Iyer not only visioned cultivation of 350,000 acres (140,000 ha) over two crop seasons through this project, but also planned for a 40 megawatt hydroelectric plant within the project. The entire project was estimated to cost about 6.5 crore (US$1.2 million). The old final designs  of Polavaram dam was planned at full reservoir level (FRL) 208 ft MSL with 836 tmcft gross storage capacity and 150 MW hydroelectric plant. By 1946-47, the estimated cost rose to 129 crore. It was christened as Ramapada Sagar Project since the backwaters of the reservoir would touch the Lord Rama temple at Bhadrachalam. The project presently under construction is scaled down to FRL 150 ft MSL. The project cost estimate in 2004 stood at 8,621 crore.
In 1980, then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh T. Anjaiah laid the foundation stone for the project. However the project stayed idle until 2004 when the Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy-led government came to power. In 2004, the Government of Andhra Pradesh sanctioned 1320 crore (US$240 million) for the project. Soon after, tenders were issued for the commensurate worth of services for the right canal of the project. For the left canal, another 1,353 crore were sanctioned by the state government.
The dam could not be taken up for construction during the last century on techno economical grounds. The proposed dam site at Polavaram is located where the river emerges out of the last range of the Eastern Ghats into plains covered with deep alluvial sandy strata. At Polavaram, the river width is about 1500 m. In view of large depth of excavation which is more than 30 m deep, to reach hard rock at this dam site, the dam project was not found economical to take up. However a lucrative alternate site is feasible located in upstream of Polavaram site where the river passes through deep gorges of Papi hill range. The width of river is about 300 m only in the rocky gorge stretch. Thirty years back, this alternative was found technologically challenging task to connect the reservoir with the irrigation canals via tunnels across the ghat area. Also costly underground hydro electric station is mandated compared to river bed based hydro electric station. When the project was actually taken up in the year 2004, the old finalized designs at Polavaram site are adopted without reexamining the latest cost of upstream alternate site in view of state of the art construction technology of tunnels and underground hydro electric station. The progress up to the year 2012 in construction of dam structures and the hydro electric station is almost nil. The alternate site located in the gorge stretch is still worth of reexamination to reduce the ever increasing cost of Polavaran dam.
The spillway and non overflow dam are founded on Kondalites bed rock in Polavaram Project. Khondalites, which are feldspar-rich, often contain soft graphite, hard garnet, etc. in addition to other minerals. Khondalites are highly weathered and hence unsuitable at dam site.
As of 2004, the proposed project would hold 75.2 tmcft thereby enabling irrigation of an additional 232,000 acre in Krishna, West Godavari, East Godavari, Visakhapatnam, Vizianagaram and Srikakulam districts of Andhra Pradesh.
The project would constitute an earth-cum-rock fill dam of 2,310 metres (7,580 ft) length, spillway of 907 metres (2,976 ft) with 44 vents to enable discharge of 3,600,000 cu ft/s (100,000 m3/s) of water. To its left, 12 water turbines, each having 80 megawatt capacity, were to be installed. The right canal (173 kilometres (107 mi) long) discharges 17,500 cu ft/s (500 m3/s) and left canal (182 kilometres (113 mi) long) discharges 17,500 cu ft/s (500 m3/s) of water.
The proposed project would displace 276 villages and 44,574 families spread across three districts of Andhra Pradesh. Tribals constitute 50% of such a displaced population.Human rights activists came out against the project because of these reasons. In addition, one activist pointed out that this interlinking of the rivers will harm the interests of the Telangana and Rayalaseema regions of the state. Environmental activist Medha Patkar said that the project not only will displace several thousands of families, it will also submerge several archeological sites, coal deposits, a wildlife sanctuary and several hectares of farm land.
Sixty-four years after the initial conception of the project, the Government of Andhra Pradesh secured the environmental clearance from the central agency in 2005. This clearance was obtained after the state government prepared a 4,500 crore forest management plan and rehabilitation and resettlement proposal covering 59,756 hectares that were being lost under the project. In addition, 40,000 was to be allotted for each dwelling to be constructed for the displaced as against 25,000 provided by other states. Despite this clearance, the project faced political roadblocks. The Communist Party of India (M) and Telangana Rashtra Samithi were troubled with the issue of submerging agricultural lands and the detriment to Telangana, respectively.
Meanwhile, work on the project began in April 2006 and was expected to be completed by February 2007. After 30% work of excavation work on the canals and 15% of the spillway works had been completed, the work was halted in May 2006 to seek clearance from the Ministry of Forests and Environment.
The neighboring state of Orissa also expressed its concern on the submerging of its land and decided to study this together with the officials from Andhra Pradesh. In response, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Late Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy clarified that neither Orissa nor Chattisgarh would be affected by the construction. The problem continued until 2010, when Chief Minister of Orissa Naveen Patnaik remained steadfast in his demand for compensation and rehabilitation of tribals of his state who would be displaced due to the submerging of their land.
Orissa and Chattisgarh have filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the Project which submerges large areas of its state and allege that Andhra Pradesh of going ahead with the project without the necessary permissions from CWC and Environment Ministry. The states also allege that public hearing in the effected areas for not held.
Interstate river water disputes
Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh entered into agreement (clause vi of final order, page 80 of original GWDT) which were made part of Godavari Water Disputes Tribunal (GWDT) award. The agreement allows Andhra Pradesh to construct the Polavaram reservoir with full reservoir level (FRL) at 150 feet above the mean sea level (MSL). Orissa approached Supreme Court against the design discharge capacity of the Polavaram dam spill way stating that it should be designed for five million cusecs (cubic feet per second) which is the estimated maximum probable flood once in 500 years duration. Orissa argues that otherwise there would be additional submergence above 150 ft MSL in its territory during peak floods.
Thirty two years have passed after GWDT award in 1980, Maharashtra, Orissa and Chhattisgarh have not made serious efforts to harness the major Godavari tributaries such as Sabari River, Indravati River and Pranahita River to utilize the allocated share of Godavari waters. This underutilization of water is the main reason for the very high flood flows at Polavaram dam site. Vast area in excess of 10,000 square km up to sea are frequently flooded (at least once in a decade) by Godavari floods in Andhra Pradesh by the flood waters originated in Madhya Pradesh, Maharastra, Orissa and Chhattisgarh states. The land submergence due to Polavaram dam in Orissa and Chhattisgarh states is fraction of Andhra Pradesh area which is affected by the floods in Godavari River. During years from 1953 to 2011, Andhra Pradesh suffered nearly 558 billion rupees which is 26% of total flood damage in India. It is justified to raise the FRL of Polavaram dam further on this ground alone. One single criterion shall be applied by the tribunals / courts for all the submerged lands whether they are related to reservoir projects construction or due to river floods (i.e. non utilization of river water). Upstream states shall not take granted that downstream state areas are permitted to be flooded /inundated by the river flood water without offering agreeable relief / comforts.
Orissa and Chhattisgarh entered into agreement (clause 3e, Annexure F, Page 159 of original GWDT) to construct a Hydro electricity project at Konta / Motu just upstream of the confluence point of Sileru tributary with Sabari River (tri-junction point of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Chhattisgarh boarders. When this project is constructed, the land submergence would be more than that of Polavaram back waters. It would be better that Orissa and Chhattisgarh enter into agreement with Andhra Pradesh to shift the location of this Hydro electricity project further down stream in Andhra Pradesh territory to harness Sileru river water also for hydro electricity generation. This joint project of the three states would eliminate the back waters issue of Polavaram dam.
The 200 km long stretch of the Sabari river forming boundary between Chhattisgarh and Odisha drops by 2.25 meters per km length on average. This stretch of the river has substantial hydro electricity generation potential by building medium head (< 20 m) barrages in series to minimize land submergence. The surplus water of Indravati River in Odisha can also be diverted to Sabari river via Jaura Nallah through which Indravati River flood waters naturally overflow into Sabari basin.
The projected back water level build up at Konta due to peak flood flows in Godavari river after construction of Polavaram project with designed maximum water level (measured at dam point) shall be cross checked with the projected maximum flood level that can occur at Konta for the peak flood flows with once in 500 years probability at Konta in Sabari tributary when the downstream main Godavari is not under spate. Then only enhanced submergence with once in 500 years occurrence probability in Orissa and Chatisgarh states can be assessed due to Polavaram dam construction.
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