PEDDAMETTAPALLY, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Eight-year-old Sandhya Rani tries to walk faster. It is 6 p.m. already and soon the sun will set.
But the three water pitchers balanced on her shoulders - filled from a borehole well about half a kilometer from her home - slow the child down.
Currently the well is the only source of drinking water for Rani’s family and neighbors in PeddaMettaPally village, in the Chinturu block of South India’s Andhra Pradesh state.
In a few years time there will be abundant water here, thanks to a planned 50-metre-high, 2.3-kilometre-long megadam on the Godavari River.
But Rani will not benefit. Her home – and those of hundreds of thousands of other tribal people – will be drowned by the planned dam, and she and her family turned into what critics of the dam term “development refugees”.
Conceived in 1980, the Polavaram dam – also known as the Indirasagar dam – is part of India’s plan to inter-link its rivers, and to harvest and hold more river runoff, largely to use for agricultural irrigation as climate change-related droughts worsen.
The project is seen as crucial to the country’s water and food security by the current government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But critics say its benefits are outweighed by its effects on the region’s environment and its people.
Maneka Gandhi, India’s minister for women and child development, before taking office last year called the plan “extremely dangerous,” saying it would destroy the local ecosystem and cause huge losses of land.
At the proposed dam, 2.2 trillion liters of water from the Godavari River - enough to fill more than 2,000 Olympic swimming pools a day – will be diverted each year to the Krishna River, another river in the region.
The diversion is designed to capture some of the 700 trillion liters of Godavari River water that today flows out to sea via the Bay of Bengal each year.
The saved water will be used to irrigate over 700,000 acres of land, officials say. The dam will also produce 960 megawatts of hydroelectricity – a boost for Andhra Pradesh, which is seeking rapid development and to build a new capital city, but has a shortfall of just over 1,000 megawatts of generating capacity.
But neighboring states have objected to the plan, including Telangana, which in 2014 saw 130 of its villages transferred to Andhra Pradesh in anticipation of the project. All 130 would be submerged by the dam.
“The dam will cause great human miseries because it will mean loss of homes, livelihoods and culture for people (in the region) who are from primitive tribes like the Koya and Konda Reddy,” said Kavita Kalvakuntla, a member of parliament and the daughter of Telangana’s chief minister.
The states of Orissa and Chhattisgarh are also worried about potential environmental impacts such as flooding within their borders and loss of forest and farm land. They oppose the dam, and Orissa has filed a Supreme Court case asking that the project be canceled.
But the government, which cleared the way for construction by passing the Polavaram Bill last July, insists there is no significant criticism of the project. According to Venkaiah Naidu, India’s minister for urban development, there is “no controversy over the dam whatsoever”.
The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, another supporter of the dam, has asked the federal government to speed up approvals and construction, with the aim “to complete the project in the next four years,” he told reporters after meeting the country’s water minister in New Delhi on January 15.
The government says building the dam will submerge 276 villages and displace 200,000 people; activists say more than 300 villages will be destroyed and over 300,000 people displaced.
People living in the threatened villages say they have had no clear communication about what is to happen to them and their land.
”Until today, we haven’t received a single circular or notice from the government on the dam. We have no idea when it will be built, how exactly we will be affected and where we are going to be relocated. There is a complete information blackout,” said Bhanu Chandar, a 27-year old Koya tribal man who lives in Ummadivaram, a village of 627 people that would be submerged by the dam.
Chandra is a member of Adivasi Vidyarthi Sakshema Parishad, a tribal rights group.
Eru Kondalu, an anti-dam activist from neighboring Laxmipuram village, said that the decision to drown the villages follows a decade-long lack of government investment in them.
“No road, office or school has been built, no scheme introduced. The government is treating the villages here as lost cases,” he said.
The frustration of the tribal communities could fuel an existing Maoist insurgency in the region, analysts warn.
Madkami Sema, a Maoist leader in neighboring district of Sukma in Chhattiagarh, is one of those who oppose the dam.
The project “will only benefit some rich, but will harm marginal farmers and tribal people. Instead of such a large dam, the government could build small dams and tanks to provide water for irrigation,” said Sema, who goes by the name de guerre Surendra.
Some people living in the threatened villages, tired of the suspense over their fate, say they are ready to relocate.
”If we have to go, we will go,” said Kadasar Muttamma, a 55-year-old tribal farmer in Bhagwanpura village. “But first, we want land for land.”
Others are digging in their heels.
“We won’t go unless the land (for relocation) is fertile. And the height of the dam must never be increased further” to widen the flooded area, said Munjappa Pochamma, a villager in Ummadivaram.
Reporting by Stella Paul; editing by Laurie Goering