Telangana is situated at an altitude of about 600 metres in the Deccan plateau. With an average annual rainfall of not less than 700 mm, agriculture in the State flourished by storing rainwater in hundreds of village tanks built several hundred years ago.
Moreover, the two major rivers — Godavari and Krishna — flowing through the State heralded a rich civilisation in the region. The Godavari, popularly called Dakshin Ganga, originates in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra and traverses through Telangana for about 550 km before entering Andhra Pradesh.
The catchment area of Godavari in Telangana is about 79%, which means the rainwater drains into the river from the State into Andhra Pradesh and further down the Bay of Bengal. Krishna has a catchment area of about 69% in the State.
Telangana’s economy is predominantly agriculture-based. However, the apathetic attitude of the successive governments meant minor irrigation suffered, leading to agrarian distress.
Godavari and Krishna, the largest rivers in South India, and their tributaries crisscross the Telangana region. During monsoon, these rivers flowing down Telangana unutilised has been a common sight for farmers. They silently heard the narratives of the integrated Andhra Pradesh regime that Godavari and Krishna waters cannot be utilised as Telangana lies at a higher contour and no amount of funding would be sufficient to lift water.
The movement for statehood for the region was against discrimination in three key sectors — water, funds and government recruitment. The movement sustained for five decades purely on the foundations of resolve against such discrimination. Immediately after the formation of Telangana, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi under the leadership of Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao initiated steps to irrigate the parched lands and restore dried village tanks. Thus, ‘Bhagiratha’ efforts took shape to irrigate the lands of Telangana situated about 500 m below, to lift water and fulfil the dreams of farmers.
Godavari, the lifeline
The Godavari basin with its tributaries, including Penganga, Wardha, Purna, Pranahita, Indravati and Manjira, sustained life, civilisation, and culture flourished on its banks for centuries. While Kakatiya rulers gifted a network of tanks, the Nizam constructed a dam across the Manjira (Nizamsagar, one of the main tributaries of the Godavari) for effective utilisation of its water for irrigation needs.
However, with the integration of Telangana with Andhra region forming Andhra Pradesh, most plans remained on paper. The only project of considerable size built during the five decades of integrated Andhra Pradesh was the Srirama Sagar Project (SRSP), which took nearly 40 years to complete and by the time of its completion, 20% of the reservoir’s capacity was silted.
Significance of Pranahita
The Telangana government contemplated ways to lift water from the points of availability upstream, paying attention to environmental concerns, without acquiring huge chunks of land and displacing people. The idea was also to deliver water to the parched lands at the earliest, within three years. The outcome of such brainstorming by engineers, irrigation experts as well as the political leadership, particularly KCR, was the idea of using the river as a reservoir.
With its eyes set on utilisation of Godavari water, the Telangana government realised that the declining water flow in the Godavari was a result of a battery of barrages built by Maharashtra over the years that curtailed the water flow into the Godavari. However, hopes revived looking at the water availability in Pranahita, a major tributary of the Godavari, which merges with the river at Kaleshwaram in Karimnagar district.
Realising that the annual average water availability at Medigadda, 40 km downstream of Kaleshwaram, is about 1,650 tmc, the Telangana government planned a barrage and pumphouse there.
Taking Water Upstream
The plan was to construct the barrage where water is available in abundance throughout the year and pump it to fill the barrages built upstream. But the major challenge was lifting water up to about 550 m as Godavari flows at 100 m msl (mean sea level).
As Medigadda is located at the lower end of Telangana and the other side of the river is part of Maharashtra, building a huge dam posed challenges of submergence, land acquisition, rehabilitation, displacement and environmental issues. Particularly, the idea of a major reservoir would have led to inter-State disputes and never-ending legal tussles, watering down the dream of irrigating Telangana lands.
Thus, to take water upstream till a place where it can flow by gravity to the major portion of Telangana, the government planned a series of barrages and pumphouses. (See infographics)
Kaleshwaram, ‘handshake’ barrages
The Kaleshwaram project has been designed to lift 180 tmc of water for 90 flood days during the monsoon months. It would also store about 141 tmc ft with plans for lifting at least 2 tmc ft water every day for 90 flood days. It is designed to irrigate over 18.25 lakh acres of new ayacut and 18.82 lakh acres of stabilisation under SRSP, Nizamsagar and Singur projects, to fill village tanks and to meet the drinking water needs of Hyderabad and villages en route.
The innovation in the design is to use Godavari river as a reservoir for about 140 km. The astounding idea to store water throughout the length of 140 km with a width of 1.5 km and with a depth of 10 m is daunting yet realisable.
Once completed, Godavari will come alive in Telangana districts, which otherwise presents a pathetic look with dried riverbeds for most part of the year. The total cost of the project is estimated at Rs 80,500 crore to be spent for three to four years. Of this, government reports suggest an amount of over Rs 30,000 crore has been spent by January 2018.
Project in 28 Packages
The entire project is divided into 28 packages. Broadly, the works include constructing barrages, pumphouses, surge pools, approach channels and tunnels, involving earth removal, steel and cement concrete works, electrical substations and electric lines. However, the most daunting task for Telangana was getting approvals for the designs and forest, environmental and other clearances from appropriate bodies of the government of India.
Despite red tape and frequent complaints of Andhra Pradesh, the Telangana government could get clearances fast. However, identifying the areas, notifying lands for pumphouses and reservoirs and acquiring these lands posed challenges.
But once finalised, the departments of irrigation, revenue, electricity, forest, roads and buildings, mines have begun acting in tandem to speed up the works. Looking at the controversies surrounding the Polavaram project, one can understand the Telangana government’s sincerity. Coordinating the works of different government departments to move at such breakneck speed has never been seen in independent India.
The Medigadda barrage, the first one downstream, is designed to lift 16 tmc of water through the river length of 42 km. A channel built on the foreshore of Medigadda barrage on the Godavari diverts water to the Medigadda pumphouse through gravity.
Medigadda pumphouse, with 11 pumps utilising 40 Mw power each, lifts water to a height of 35.50 m into the gravity canal, which leads to Annaram barrage. It is built at Annaram village in Bhupalapalli district and has a storage capacity of 10.87 tmc with 32 km of backwater along the river. Annaram pumphouse will lift water to a height of 20 m. This water will then enter the Sundilla barrage, which is about 40 km upstream from Annaram barrage.
Sundilla barrage has a storage capacity of 9 tmc of water with the river storage of 31 km upstream the Godavari. At Gowliwada village, the water of Sundilla barrage is lifted to a height of 28 m into Yellampally barrage. The power utilised at Sundilla pumphouse through 9 pumps is 360 Mw.
Yellampally is a balancing reservoir built with multiple objectives. It not only stores water to irrigate its command area of 1.75 lakh acres but its water is lifted through the pumphouse at Laxmipur village to fill Medaram reservoir as well. Godavari water from Yellampally reservoir is also pumped to Hyderabad for drinking purpose, to meet the needs of villages under Mission Bhagiratha and NTPC as well.
The capacity of the Yellampally reservoir is about 20 tmc with backwater stored for about 36 km in the river. The pumphouse at Laxmipur is an engineering marvel as it is located at about 265 m below the surface. Through two tunnels of 10 m diameter running for 9 km underground, water enters the pumphouse where seven pumps are installed. Water from here is lifted to a height of 120 m and let into the Medaram reservoir. From the Medaram reservoir, water reaches the Mid-Manair reservoir through a twin tunnel of 11.20 km length, a pumphouse at Ramadugu and flood flow canal of SRSP.
Works on these several projects began in 2016. Huge amounts of cement (about 2 lakh bags/day) and steel (1,000 mt/day) are being used every day. Several cubic metres of earth is being excavated. The spirit shared during the agitation is reflected in the commitment of the engineers who are working tirelessly to meet the June 2018 deadline. Going by the magnitude of works, the Kaleshwaram project can be claimed as one-of-its-kind in the world.
The most significant feature of the project is the idea of storing water throughout the year in the river instead of going for huge reservoirs. For social scientists, the idea of river as a reservoir is democratic as all along both sides of the river, villagers and farmers have access to water throughout the year. The use of the river goes beyond irrigation, extending to several livelihood activities like fisheries, water transportation and animal husbandry.
A live river will boost tourism and conserve aquatic flora and fauna, and biodiversity. It also recharges groundwater to a phenomenal level. We know that civilisations flourished along river banks, but the Kaleshwaram project would bring the river to revitalise the civilisations of Telangana.
(Chandri Raghava Reddy is Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad; G Chakrapani is former Dean of Social Sciences, Dr BR Ambedkar Open University, Hyderabad)