They waited years for compensation, and after being denied justice for a decade, farmers in Andhra’s Hiramandalam area turned into an arsoning mob.
Two days after unprecedented violence in the Hiramandalam area in Andhra's Srikakulam district, the work on the Vamsadhara Phase II irrigation project has been stopped indefinitely.
A massive crowd of over 5,000 villagers from 29 villages staged a protest at the project site on Monday, even setting fire to vehicles belonging to the Soma Construction Company.
The violence was a result of the villagers’ anger over not receiving compensation for their land from the government, 10 years after their land was taken for the irrigation project. The protesters have been demanding that the work on the project be stopped until they receive their money.
After sloganeering, protesters entered the construction office and also ransacked furniture. The company later said that it had suffered an estimated property loss worth Rs 1 crore.
While the state government has deployed heavy security including several policemen at the project site while also taking Gangadhara Rao, who is the local leader of the oustees, into custody, it has been reported that engineers and supervisors of the company are reluctant to work due to fear.
But while the state government has assured that the villagers’ demands will be met, the anger in Hiramandalam that has been brewing for a decade has now hit a peak.
The Vamsadhara River is one of the main rivers in North-Eastern Andhra, and originates in Odisha. The river chiefly flows in Odisha, before entering Andhra and eventually emptying into the Bay of Bengal.
According to government records, the original Vamsadhara project report was first submitted in 1961 and proposed a barrage at Neradi and a reservoir at Gotta to irrigate a total ayacut (area served by an irrigation project) of 2.55 lakh acres on either side of the river.
The plan was to execute the project in two phases.
Phase 1 was to include the construction of a barrage across the river at Gotta, along with the left main canal, while Phase 2 would include a barrage at Neradi, and a right bank flood canal. The second canal would also divert any potential flood waters into the Hiramandalam reservoir.
However, no work took place for decades as Andhra and Odisha had trouble settling on an agreement, where both parties were satisfied. The two states held several inter-state meetings in the 80s followed by meetings between the Chief Ministers of the two states in the 90s.
But it was 2006 when the the project finally started, with a budget of Rs 930 crore, to store nearly 9 TMC of water collected from the Vamsadhara river. Around 6,000 acres of agricultural land which belonged to 10,000 farmers from 29 villages were taken by the government for this purpose.
In 2008, then Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy formally released water into the right main canal of the Vamsadhara project at Krishnapuram.
Relief and Rehabilitation
What the project neglected to do was compensate the villagers. Ever since works began, the displaced villagers have been running from pillar to post, demanding relief and rehabilitation.
Initially, the villagers alleged that proper assessment of their properties was not done by revenue officials, while several thousand farmers were not provided new houses under the Indiramma scheme.
There were also allegations of irregularities as many 'ineligible' persons also reportedly got a house under the scheme.
In 2007, thirty villages were marooned, and crops were damaged in 40,000 acres, after the left canal breached at Nivagam, Vasapa and Sirusuvada, inundating fields and cutting off villages.
Despite this, the villagers claim to have seen no compensation even a decade after the incident.
And even as farmers outraged over the delay, the state government planned to go ahead with works for phase-2 in July 2016.
While the villagers alleged that they had not seen any compensation, state Irrigation Minister Devineni Uma Maheswara Rao expedited the process, and ordered the officials to complete the project by June 2017.
It was precisely with this built up anger that the villagers attacked the construction site last week.
A lesson to others?
A slew of construction projects in Andhra started and implemented over the span of several years have also left many people displaced.
For example, the Polavaram project is expected to displace nearly two lakh people in 216 villages, more than 50% of whom are tribals.
While many tribals were promised 'land for land', there are allegations that many of the promises were not met, including rehabilitation houses that were built for them, but reportedly collapsed even before they moved in.
Even for the Gandikota Reservoir, villagers in the submerging area have alleged that the state steadily released 1,000 to 1,500 cusecs of water every day, and forced the villagers out with fear, after they refused to leave unless they were given the full compensation amount.
Following the bifurcation of the state, the potential for construction projects in building the infrastructure of an entire state from scratch, only raises more concerns.
This includes the Swiss Challenge method for the construction of Amaravati.
Following the Vamsadhara protest, Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu appealed to the farmers that there was no reason to panic as land would not be acquired forcibly, and adequate compensation would be paid as per the 2013 Land Acquisition rules.
"There will be not be any injustice to a single farmer," he proclaimed.
Blaming district officials for failing to implement the orders, he asked for cooperation from the oustees.
Following Naidu's statement Minister for Water Resources Devineni Umamaheswara Rao and Labour Minister K Atchannaidu declared that the displaced people would be given cheques by January 31 as the government had already released ₹150 crore of the ₹421 crore that had to be paid.
“Special counters will function regularly both in Hiramandalam and Kotturu Tehsildhar offices for the distribution of cheques. The villagers who have grievances can submit their petitions to the officials in the counters. The government will go through them and do justice as early as possible,” Rao stated.