Ground Report: ‘Marooned’ Manthani, where neglected lives drown because of skewed development

The agricultural fields of two villages in Manthani Assembly constituency are submerged in Godavari waters after the Annaram Barrage was commissioned.

BySumit Jha

Published Oct 25, 2023 | 9:00 AMUpdatedNov 09, 2023 | 4:17 PM

Telangana assembly polls Manthani constituency

With the Telangana Assembly elections 2023 just weeks away, South First is bringing you ground reports from key constituencies. This series brings you voices from the ground, the mood of the voters, and issues that matter — as well as those that don’t.

Stillness appears to be the recurring motif — like the peepal tree in Arenda village watching over polders of paddy fields stretching to the horizon.

Beyond the tree, the fields are inundated with the waters of Godavari — both divine and a bane — long after the Southwest Monsoon has departed.

Life moves slowly as if not to disturb the tranquil stillness in the Manthani Assembly constituency, which the residents claim, is bogged down by botched development plans.

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Discontent wrapped in tranquility

Beneath the tranquil stillness lie smouldering embers of collective discontent, often vented in wry humour rooted in pathos.

The flooded agricultural fields in Arenda village. (Sumit Jha/South First)

The flooded agricultural fields in Arenda village. (Sumit Jha/South First)

“This is not rainwater, but sea,” farmer K Shetty Srinivas chuckled at the waterlogged fields under the azure afternoon sky.

A few kilometres from Arenda, the Saraswati Barrage, also known as Annaram Barrage, stretches across the 1.2-km-wide Godavari. Part of the Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project (KLIS), the barrage halts the flow and harnesses the water for irrigating the fields upstream.

To regulate the release of water downstream, the project has an impressive array of 66 crest gates.

Srinivas, however, is not impressed by the 66 gates. Water from the barrage gushes into the fields of Arenda and Mallaram villages, located at the confluence of Godavari and Manair rivers upstream, leaving the villagers helpless, he tells South First.

The Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation Project is one of the most extensive and ambitious lift irrigation endeavours globally. Its principal objective is to combat water scarcity and irrigate the arid regions in the northern part of Telangana.

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Cost of ‘development’

KLIS is a boon for farmers in the northern regions, but a bane for Arenda and Mallaram villages in the Manthani Assembly constituency.

Satyanarayana Manem. (Sumit Jha/South First)

Satyanarayana Manem. (Sumit Jha/South First)

The government acquired approximately 1,200 acres for the project in Jayashankar-Bhupalpally, Peddapalli, and Mancherial districts, including about 100 acres from Arenda and Mallaram villages. (Manthani constituency falls in three districts but has Peddapalli as its headquarters.)

“When they initially acquired the land, they provided ₹10.5 lakh per acre as compensation to the farmers,” Mallaram village Sarpanch Satyanarayana Manem told South First.

Additionally, the government constructed a five-km long and 20-feet wide mud embankment along the Manair river to prevent water from entering these villages. It proved counterproductive.

Earlier, rainwater from the villages drained into Manair, but the embankment now stands like an adamant sentry, who doesn’t allow anyone in or out. The result: The villages get flooded.

“They dug a two-km canal, 15 feet in depth, connecting the Arenda village reservoir with the Godavari to redirect the backwaters on the other side of the Manair river wall,” Mallaram villager Ganpathi Gudepo was expressionless. His land is now underwater.

He continued without prodding. When the Annaram Barrage stopped the water for the first time in 2018, the water gurgled into the canal. Instead of water from the village flowing into the river, the backwater from the Godavari flowed into the villages.

“So an additional 500 acres got submerged, and since 2018, these agricultural fields have remained flooded,” Gudepo nodded towards the still waters reflecting the blue sky.

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Marooned lives

“During monsoons, we live in Sri Lanka,” Srinivas added, the humour hitting hard like a torpedo. He was mentioning life on a marooned island.

Spot the river: To the road's right is the Manair river. The inundated paddy fields could be seen on the left-hand side. Sumit Jha/South First)

To the embankment’s left is the Manair river. The inundated paddy fields could be seen on the right.
Sumit Jha/South First)

“There is a road connecting the village with Manthani. It also gets submerged. For 15 days, we are essentially living as if surrounded by seawater,” he further explained.

“From 2018, our lands have been submerged, and we have not undertaken any cultivation since then,” another villager, Naresh Reddy, chipped in. He had been so far silently listening to the conversation.

“When the initial survey was conducted in 2016, the pond level was recorded at a height of 119 metres. This lies in the centre of our village near the panchayat building. Last year, when the Annaram Barrage was full, the water reached our panchayat building, and half of the village was submerged,” Sarpanch Satyanarayana Manem offered a glimpse into the days of water.

The villagers also speculated on the reasons for the government not acquiring the land. They felt that “either the government failed to conduct a proper scientific survey to estimate that these lands would be submerged, or acquiring the land would have been an expensive affair, potentially costing the government crores of rupees. To minimise these costs, the issue was ignored,” Reddy said.

However, villagers also suspect that the engineers responsible for the project may have had a vested interest in not allowing the acquisition.

“Acquiring half of the village would require rehabilitation of the villagers, and paying them compensation directly. The Irrigation Department engineers might not gain from this move. So, these engineers misled the government by claiming that the water would not flow into the village. They might have done this because they received commissions from contractors,” Gudepo shared the common feeling in the village.

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The living cost

“These agricultural fields once yielded bangaram (gold) for us,” Srinivas said. “There is nothing left now. These fields, situated along the banks of the Manair, used to produce 35-40 quintals of paddy every season.” The paddy fields now look like a marshy expanse.

K Shetty Srinivas stands beside the fields.. (Sumit Jha/South First)

Villagers who cultivated paddy, chillies, and sorghum, now find themselves migrating, seeking livelihoods in the cities. Skewed development, as they claimed, has uprooted them, forcing them to travel far from their lands and families.

“The main agricultural fields are now submerged. Several families depend on these lands, some owning 10 guntas (one gunta is 1,089 square feet) of land, while others have two acres,” Gudepo added.

“The agricultural land was our only means of survival. On one hand, the government is not acknowledging its failure in acquiring these lands, and on the other, we are facing an uncertain future,” he further said.

These two villages collectively have around 2,000 votes. “We hold less than 1 percent of the vote share in the constituency. So, who will pay attention to our problems? Every political party knows that whatever may be, we will still cast our votes,” Gudepo said, even as a few others crowding around him, nodded in agreement.

“The government provides some compensation for crop loss. The farmers used to cultivate two crops annually. “So far, out of nine crop seasons, we’ve received compensation for four. We were promised ₹19,000 per acre for one crop season, but the compensation is still pending,” Manem told South First.

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Poll-trick at play

The 30 November elections to the state Assembly have brought them some relief.

Ganpathi Gudepo along with other villagers. (Sumit Jha/South First)

Ganpathi Gudepo along with other villagers. (Sumit Jha/South First)

“We received some compensation because the elections are approaching, and the government doesn’t want any issues. The officials explicitly stated that we received the money because of the upcoming election,” Gudepo discreetly shed light on the election campaign.

He emphasised the plight of those with just 10 guntas. He reminded that ₹19,000 compensation is for one acre. “If people have to see through a year with ₹19,000, can they support their family?” Gudepo asked.

The village sarpanch pointed out that the market value of these lands would be around ₹19-20 lakh per acre. “Apart from the agricultural land, the government also needs to acquire some residential land, and the compensation will be different,” Manem explained.

“When we approached BRS leader Putta Madhu, who was the MLA when the barrage was built, he blamed the irrigation department. When we approached the sitting Congress MLA Duddilla Sridhar Babu, he said he had raised the issue in the Assembly and would continue to do so. Politically, we are irrelevant,” Gudepo gave out that wry smile once again.

Naresh Reddy. (Sumith Jha/South First)

Naresh Reddy. (Sumith Jha/South First)

Additionally, villagers complained that the water storage in the barrage has led to a tenfold increase in humidity. “We have never experienced such high humidity in our lives. People in Vizag might be accustomed to this level of humidity, but in the past few years, we have been experiencing it here,” Gudepo added.

Humour seems to be the only solace for the villagers. “One good thing that has come out of the submerged land is that we now have abundant fish,” he said with a laugh.

It should be mentioned that not only these two villages, but two other villages in the same constituency — Kansaipet and Ammagaripalle — also, face flooding during the monsoon.

Besides complaints of the regular flooding of Manthani town during rainy seasons, they also pointed at the continuous burning of garbage dumps in front of the Maternity hospital, which has become a part of daily life for the residents.

Yet another menace they face frequently comes from the woods. The presence of a small forest range in the constituency brings wild animals into the villages, causing significant issues.

Monkeys, in particular, disrupt daily life by consuming homegrown vegetables, forcing residents to travel to nearby towns or wait for the weekly market for their greens.

“My village has more monkeys than humans,” a resident of Mallaram said.

The villagers have a stoic but calm demeanor that breaks into a smile as they present their life conditions wrapped in humour. They have learnt to smile back .at adversities.

They stand firm and rooted, hoping for the best, akin to the Buddha-like meditative peepal tree, craning towards the watery fields.

Manthani Assembly constituency.

Manthani Assembly constituency in numbers. (Click on the image to enlarge)

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Rao’s land — Maoists’ too!

Historically, Manthani has been a Congress stronghold. Former prime minister PV Narasimha Rao represented it in the Assembly from 1962 to 1978, and his tenure as a legislator eventually led to his elevation as the chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh from 1971 to 1973.

Later, former united Andhra Pradesh Assembly speaker Dudilla Sripad Rao represented the constituency from 1983 to 1994. By then, Manthani’s former MLA had become a Union minister and later the prime minister.

In 1994, Sripad Rao lost to Chandrupatla Ram Reddy of the TDP. Before he could contest again in 1999, Maoists assassinated him.

His son Dudilla Sridhar Babu successfully contested the election in 1999. Sridhar Babu has been representing the constituency since then, except 2014, when he was swept away by the Telangana movement wave and lost to TRS (now BRS)’s Putta Madhu.

Babu later reclaimed the seat in 2018. Now, Babu and Madhu are in the fray.

Once recognised as part of the “red belt” due to the presence of left-wing extremist groups, the constituency has undergone a significant transformation. Maoism no longer has a grip on the region.

However, some still expressed their wish for Maoist presence to exert pressure on politicians for a prompt resolution of issues.

“Earlier, the MLAs used to visit villages out of fear that people might turn to Maoists to get their work done. But, with the decline of the Maoist movement, we hardly see our MLAs,” Gudepo said.

A resident of Arenda village stated that if the Maoists were still active, the issue of flooding might have been resolved in a few months. “Leaders used to pay attention to Maoists.”

Despite an upper-caste politician representing the constituency, the segment’s 60 percent of the population belongs to the Backward Class, 22 percent to Scheduled Castes, 2-3 percent to Scheduled Tribes, and a small percentage of other minority communities.

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Deciding factors

The voters of Manthani lauded the K Chandrashekar Rao-led BRS government for its welfare initiatives. Largely an agrarian community, the farmers have been receiving the Rythu Bandhu payments every six months.

Their agriculture products, too, have found smooth marketing channels due to the government’s intervention. Members of the Munnur Kapu community comprise 25-30 percent of the population, and they are proudly claiming BRS’s Putta Madhu as one of their own.

However, there is a twist. The Manthani voters have an affinity towards the sitting MLA Sridhar Babu, and his father Sripad Rao is a god-like figure for them. Before concluding that the contest will be between the goodwill created by the BRS initiatives and the affinity towards Sridhar Babu, consider one more factor that could even overshadow Sripad Rao’s godly image.

“Both candidates are corrupt. We will vote for whoever offers us more money,” a villager, who did not want to be identified, said. The same sentiment was palpable across the segment.

Gallery: Satellite images of fields