Flooding, meagre compensation, piers collapse: Will key irrigation project backfire on BRS?

Questions have been raised about Kaleshwaram project’s quality after the sinking of piers in Medigadda.

WrittenBy:Anjana Meenakshi
An old man driving a bike on a road at Kaleshwaram project.

Nearly all complaints voiced by people living near Telangana’s Medigadda barrage start with the phrase Ganga ostadi (water comes), referring to the flooding of their homes and fields whenever it rains. 

The construction of the barrage in Ambatipalli and Surraram villages has made life difficult for the residents because water diverted during heavy rains inundates their crops and houses. People living near the second Annaram (Saraswati) barrage under the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project, also known as KLIP, have similar concerns.

The Kaleshwaram project has become a major talking point ahead of the November 30 assembly polls after a few piers of the Medigadda barrage sank. 

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi did an aerial survey of the area and attacked the governing Bharat Rashtra Samithi, alleging that the Rs 1 lakh crore irrigation scheme was riddled with irregularities. Leaders from the BJP who also visited the site, questioned the quality of construction and demanded a detailed probe.

The News Minute visited villages in Jayashankar Bhupalpally and Pedapalli districts where all the three barrages of the Kaleshwaram project are located to understand whether the Congress and BJP’s claims that the structure is in danger have triggered a cycle of fear. While nearly all the villagers said they were not fearful of a structural collapse, they are far more vexed with how their day-to-day life is hindered because of the barrages.

A cartoon by the Telangana Congress mocking KCR, KTR, Kavitha and Harish Rao.

Little or no compensation for giving up land

The Medigadda barrage has been shut for over a week now with the imposition of Section 144 of the CrPC, disallowing people from using the bridge atop the barrage. 

Less than two weeks after the piers sank, water started leaking from two gates of the Annaram barrage. The irrigation department officials placed some sandbags at gate numbers 28 and 38 to prevent the flow of water.

The resentment among Ambatipalli’s residents with the KLIP was clear. Several of them told The News Minute that it wasn’t just the loss of land that bothered them, but also that they either received limited or no compensation at all. 

In this backdrop, the piers’ sinking has been the talk of Ambatipalli for the last week with several upset and angry at the fact that the flagship project of the BRS government was boasting about was turning out to be a failure.

“The government acquired around 300 guntas [about 7.5 acres] of land from me for a road to be built by Larsen and Toubro near the Medigadda barrage. Till date, I have received no compensation whatsoever. Considering what’s happening now, it all seems like a waste,” said Laxmi, a tenant farmer.

Rajalakshmi, another resident of Ambatipalli who cultivates rice and red chillies, spoke about how her farm was often affected by the flooding due to the project. “There is only nashtam (damage), no labham (profit).”

Since it was inaugurated in June 2019, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, BRS working president KT Rama Rao, and several members of the governing party have referred to the KLIP with pride, reminding voters time and again that it is the “world’s largest lift irrigation project” that was built in four years flat. 

Cited as proof of development and a major support system for farmers, it has found its way into several of the CM’s speeches. Meanwhile, each time KTR refers to Telangana as the “most successful startup of Independent India”, he invariably mentions KLIP.

But in the last two weeks, the star project has come under scrutiny after the piers of the Medigadda barrage sank. This also brought the traffic on the way  to Maharashtra to a halt, as vehicles would need to pass the bridge atop the barrage. 

The 1.6 km-long barrage has 87 pillars, of which pillar number 19 suffered damage and pillar numbers 20 and 21 showed cracks. The police halted heavy vehicle movement, while officials opened all 46 gates of the barrage and discharged around 10.7 TMC of water.

Yerram Setti Raju, a grocery store owner in the area, said he was initially unwilling to give up his cultivable land for the project. “I didn’t want it to be acquired because the compensation wasn’t satisfactory enough. I wasn’t opposed to the barrage construction but just wanted my due. They dumped sand in my field and surrounding areas repeatedly until I had no choice but to settle three years later,” he added. Raju has since quit farming and used the limited compensation he received to set up the store."

Telangana CM KCR offers prayers at Kaleshwaram.

Residents of the adjacent Surraram village expressed similar concerns. 

Sarpanch Laxma Reddy said that 100 acres of land from his village was acquired by the state government but they gained nothing in return. “We didn’t benefit from the barrage but it caused quite a bit of damage,” he said. 

He was referring to the crop loss during the Vanakalam season (the state government’s new term for Kharif crop). “The water rising from the nearby canal that runs the stretch of our village floods everything. Our fields are filled with water, drowning any crops we grow.”

Annaram residents also point to land grabbing as one of the reasons for their disillusionment with the Saraswati barrage.

In Peddapalli district, Siripuram village sarpanch Dande Prasad, however, disagreed as did several of the residents while discussing the third barrage. “We haven’t benefited from the Sundilla (Parvathi) barrage. But we haven’t suffered from it either. Everyone in the village has received compensation for giving up their lands. Once in 2021, cotton farmers lost their entire yield but weren’t given any crop loss compensation. More than us, the nearby village of Bestapally suffers more as a result of water that floods farms when the barrage gates are opened during heavy rains,” Prasad said.

However, for the most part, nearly all villagers employed in agriculture near Medigadda and Annaram barrages referred to a second, oft-neglected, problem.

‘Backwater’ crisis: How rains turn into floods

While in common parlance, backwater refers to a stagnant part of a river where the current is negligible — it has a different meaning in Peddapalli and surrounding areas. The backwater here refers to the flooding upstream caused by the barrage obstructing the natural free flow of the river. 

In fact, on the Telangana government’s insistence that the Polavaram Project Authority in Andhra Pradesh carry out a study on Polavaram’s backwaters in June 2023, the Maharashtra government in a letter asked Telangana to do the same for the Medigadda barrage as the backwater from Medigadda had an adverse impact on Maharashtra’s Sironcha town during the floods in 2022. 

Telangana villagers involved in agriculture refer to this precise ‘backwater’ issue while bringing up their resentment regarding the barrages.

Ratna Raju, who lives close to the second barrage in Annaram village, said: “Earlier we used to have rain. Since the construction of the Saraswati barrage, we have floods.” 

She further said, “When it rains heavily, they [authorities] need to release water and so they open the gates. The stored water along with the rain descends on us.”

Kishore, a tenant farmer in the village who cultivates cotton, explained that cotton fields generally require less water. “Any more and the crop fails.” 

He said the flooding because of the barrage had made farming unprofitable. “We can only plant cotton in June or July. When the floods hit in August or September like they did in 2022, we cannot attempt to sow cotton again. We then end up growing vegetables or crops that are less lucrative and invariably incur a loss.”

This is not to say that the Kaleshwaram project is resulting in flooding in all areas. The scheme has been a significant success in districts like Siddipet, Medak, and Kamareddy. But none of these districts witness backwater from the barrages.

Water leaking from gates of Annaram Barrage.

“Mandals like Dubbaka, Gajwel, Thoguta, Mirudoddi have benefited from the Kudavelly vaagu (stream). However, only farmers on either side of the stream benefit from the Kaleshwaram project. Farmers located away from it aren't as lucky,” said Sukuri Praveen, a member of human rights group Caring Citizens Collective. He added that if backwaters were a part of Siddipet’s geography, farmers would face the same problem.

On the functioning of Kaleshwaram’s barrages, an engineer employed by the Telangana government, requesting anonymity, said the backwater problem recurred due to poor planning. “The barrages already store water. When it rains heavily, the barrage which hinders the free flow of water, causes it to flow into the fields. Coupled with the water flow, when the barrage gates are opened, the fields are completely submerged.”

He also noted that the flooding was an easily avoidable problem. “When it rains in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, it takes a few hours for it to start pouring in Telangana. If water were to be released intermittently when rains start, we can avoid this problem. In fact, estimating the flow of rain is quite simple as we have computer simulations to do it for us. However, this problem persists because at the time of conception itself the government neglected the backwater problem and was in a hurry to finish the construction,” he claimed.

“Under normal circumstances, it is easy to issue warnings. However, if the barrages collapse, there will be no time to warn the public which could result in massive loss of life and property,” the engineer said.

Unprofitable farming, migration 

A kilometre from Ratna Raju’s residence in Annaram, Padma, a marginal farmer with three acres of land, said that she is unable to find people to work in her fields. “Tenant farmers initially help with cultivation but if that fails, they accept their payment and don’t return. That means I lose out on money and help, and have no way of cultivating.” 

Raju also pointed out that his kutcha house floods every year since the barrage came up. “When we hear the warning horn which is issued each time the barrage gates are to be opened, we pack up our things, get into tractors and go and stay with friends who live on higher land. This is the plight of everyone who lives in low-lying areas close to the barrage,” he added.

Several residents of Annaram and nearby villages are reported to have left the region to find better employment elsewhere. “Two of my friends are now employed as security personnel in companies in Hyderabad,” Raju said.

Around 200 farmers in Annaram staged a protest after the 2022 floods demanding compensation for crop loss. “We never get compensation. At best, someone from the government comes and drops off some ration which tides us over for a couple of weeks,” Kishore said.

Rehmat Ali, who runs a chicken shop in Ambatipalli, and his sister Tahira Begum told The News Minute about how their house was entirely damaged in the flooding. “We were given ration to tide us over. But nothing else. No compensation whatsoever was given for the 2022 floods,” Ali said.

While the scientific community has raised concerns regarding the faultlines in Medigadda and potential problems Annaram might have to deal with in the future, residents are mainly concerned with crop failure or displacement caused by floods. “I wouldn’t be opposed to the barrage being demolished. Even the nearby villages of Sandupalli and Nagapalli are affected by it,” Raju asserted.

Sarpanch Laxma Reddy said that while there is no fear in Surraram, residents of villages downstream of the barrage might feel differently. “Our concern has always been solely with crop loss,” he said. 

Narayana, a resident of Surraram, said he was a victim of the issue every year. He gave up two acres of his land for the barrage and has been cultivating the remaining three acres. “The water cuts through the crop during monsoons. We have to keep levelling it. We told the revenue officials to acquire this land too because there are recurrent losses but no relief is provided,” he said.  

Unlike others in Surraram, Ratnakar, owner of a small shop, said he was worried about the consequences of the damage to the barrage. “The damage occurred during the non-monsoon season, so people think that the villages aren’t vulnerable. I believe this will not be the case when the dam is at full capacity. I saw it in the news and the dam safety report has said that this project is faulty. I worry that any other technical fault with the gates could submerge our villages.”

Ratnakar added that the only significant development from the barrage construction was improved connectivity between Warangal and Maharashtra. “My in-laws are from Sironcha mandal in Maharashtra. In the absence of the road on the Medigadda barrage, it is a 50 km route,” he said.

The residents of the area are also demanding accountability for potential damage in their villages due to structural issues in the barrages. 

“We used to have enough irrigation facilities even before the barrages were constructed. We did not benefit from the project,” a 32-two-year-old Challa Mahesh told The News Minute. “We have suffered a lot during the construction of the dam. The roads were occupied completely by trucks. Irrespective of our affiliation to different political parties, we want accountability.”

Medigadda bridge shut, Section 144 imposed following the collapse of a pier.

Collapse of piers, questions of safety 

Following the collapse of the piers at Medigadda, a six-member National Dam Safety Authority team headed by Anil Jain visited the site. In its report, the NDSA team flagged that the dam owners did not inspect or maintain certain structures – the cement concrete blocks or launching aprons – since the commissioning of the barrage in 2019. 

“This maintenance deficiency of the dam owners has progressively weakened the barrage, leading to its failure. This is a significant lapse on the operation and maintenance front,” the report said.

The two barrages constructed upstream of Medigadda under the Kaleshwaram project – Annaram and Sundilla barrages – have similar designs and construction methodologies, which makes them prone to similar damage, the committee said. 

“Signs of boiling already exist downstream of Annaram barrage, a precursor to failure. These barrages also should be examined urgently for signs of piping/ distress,” it said. 

In response, the state irrigation department dismissed the findings as “unsubstantiated”, saying: “We have studied your comments and suggestions comprehensively, and noted that many of them are either unsubstantiated or made without a full appreciation of the facts.”

Following the NDSA report, Telangana BJP chief Kishan Reddy faulted the BRS government for failing to adequately provide the data points sought by the expert committee for their analysis of the reasons behind the piers sinking. 

Further, Telangana Congress chief Revanth Reddy said, “Dams are meant to last for over 100 years withstanding floods and earthquakes. The damage suggests corruption took place.”

“Politics aside, the fact remains that people living near the barrages are on the losing side of this issue. They lost their land, their crops are submerged each monsoon, and there is no administrative assistance,” said the engineer attached to a government department, adding that all this was because the state government “hurried” and “politicised” an engineering project.

With inputs from Bhavani.

This report has been published as part of the joint NL-TNM Election Fund and is supported by hundreds of readers. Click here to power our ground reports.

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