Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stepped in to assure Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu that the Centre is keen on completing a major part of the Polavaram irrigation project across the Godavari river and release water by gravity flow canals by March 2019, at least weeks before the next general elections.

By this gesture, the PM also has satisfied the TDP and averted a crisis like situation, where the party, a key constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), threatened to leave the ruling coalition, protesting against the delay in completing the project, a major poll promise to the people of Andhra. AP Irrigation Minister Devineni Uma Maheshwara Rao told The Sunday Guardian on Friday that “the Centre’s response is good as of now”.

PM Modi, who is busy with electioneering in Gujarat, has been requested by Naidu for an appointment to discuss the situation arising out of Union Water Resources Minister Nitin Gadkari refusing to replace the existing main contractors, Transstroy, with another firm to speed up the project works to meet the timeline of completing them by the end of 2018.

When the AP government wanted to allocate some key works on the reservoir construction to others floating tenders, the Ministry of Water Resources sent a missive, stopping the process on the ground that there was no provision to call for fresh tenders when there was already an existing contractor. Gadkari, too, objected to removing Transstroy, at an earlier review meeting with state officials.

As the PM couldn’t spare time for the CM before 14 December, when the Gujarat elections would be over, Naidu has indicated that his MPs might raise the issue during the Winter Session of Parliament that begins on 15 December. There appeared an embarrassing spectacle of TDP MPs demanding debate as well as protesting over delays in completion of the Polavaram project. 

According to sources, the PM has asked his Cabinet colleague Gadkari to defuse the situation immediately by talking to all stakeholders. Complying with the directive, Gadkari, who returned from a foreign visit last week, held a meeting with AP irrigation minister and other contractors in Delhi on 5 December. At the meeting, Gadkari put forth the formula to end the standoff between the Centre and the state.

Gadkari said that the PM and the Centre was keen on completing the project before the 2019 polls and that water would be released through gravity flow canals by March that year. A majority of reservoir works would be completed by the end of 2018 and there would be visible improvement in the ground situation at the dam site.

Transstroy would be kept under watch for its performance. All the sub-contractors who got works too would be monitored for their progress and any delay would not be tolerated.

Gadkari would visit the project once in every 15 days and the first visit would be on 22 December.

When CM Naidu, who was in South Korea at the time of the meeting, called up Gadkari at the start of the meeting and demanded that Transstroy should be removed and the state government should be permitted to appoint a new contractor, the Union minister is learnt to have sought at least 15 days’ time to issue an ultimatum to Transstroy to improve its performance. Otherwise, the firm would be removed.

More than these measures, Gadkari, for the first time, agreed to look into the state government’s demand to fund the cost of rehabilitation and resettlement of the project displaced people, which runs into around Rs 31,000 crore. However, as the money is huge, it needed to be settled in the presence of the PM and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley later.

Minister Uma Maheswara Rao has said that there was a marked improvement in the minister’s response to the state’s demands on the project. “Never before the minister agreed to arrange a meeting with the PM and the FM to solve the rehabilitation costs reimbursement. We are happy that the minister has agreed to visit Polavaram once every fortnight,” Rao told this newspaper on phone from Vijayawada.  

The minister has agreed to set up an administrative office for Polavaram project at Rajahmundry for close coordination of works. Though the AP government was not happy over the cancellation of its tenders for some works of the project, Minister Uma Maheswara Rao is confident that it would be permitted to float fresh tenders soon.   

As per the Andhra Pradesh Reorganization Act, 2014, the Polavaram multipurpose project is a 100% Centre funded venture. At the request of the TDP government in AP after 2014 elections, the BJP led NDA government at the Centre had agreed to entrust the execution part to the state while it kept the job of overall monitoring and funds release.

In a way, the project has become the baby of both the Centre and the AP government, with dual ownership. While Naidu has mounted pressure on the contractors to finish works as per a schedule drawn by him a year ago, the contractors had resisted the timelines on the ground that they cannot go further unless payment was made for the previous works, since 2012.

The escalation of the overall project cost, from Rs 16,500 crore in 2014 to Rs 56,700 crore in 2017, too, has become an issue between the Centre and the state. This increase includes costs of rehabilitation and resettlement of the displaced people. Gadkari’s refusal to go by the claims of the AP government has kicked off a political storm as Naidu in the state Assembly complained of Centre’s non-cooperation.

While TDP leaders, including some MPs, have attacked the BJP government at the Centre for trying to let down AP, Opposition YSR Congress leader Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy defended the Centre on the ground that the TDP government has misused Central funds for Polavaram. Jagan has sent a delegation of his MPs and MLAs to the project site and they alleged that Naidu had enormously inflated the project costs.

 

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