The Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project in Telangana has attracted considerable national attention. The project site has now become a tourist destination for politicians and representatives of the media. There have been hyperbolic reports about the scale, size, the speed of the construction. It remains, however, moot whether this project will generate the projected benefits for Telangana farmers who continue to be victims of prolonged drought and acute water shortage.

The project

Kaleshwaram is a small temple town on Godavari right bank about 300 km downstream of major dam, Sriram Sagar project, known as SRSP. At Kaleshwaram, the major tributary Pranahita, which merges with Godavari, brings large quantity of water. The place is also known as Sangam and Dakshin Ganga.

The project proposes to lift about 180 TMC (about 5 billion cubic meters) of water. It includes construction of barrages, high speed pumps for transport of water upstream for providing for irrigation. Besides, it involves constructions of network storage dams, series of tunnels, canals water passing through several stages of pumping and reverse flow into Godavari main river. Perhaps, it is one of the most complex and expensive lift irrigation projects in the country.

The Detailed Project Report (DPR) states that it would provide water for irrigation for 18.25 lakh acres and stabilise water for another 6 lakh acres of existing irrigated area. The estimated project cost is ₹80,450 crore and the annual maintenance costs including interest payments will be around ₹13,923 crore. The projected net annual benefits are estimated at around ₹21,521 crore.

Independent analysis of the DPR by civil society organisations involved in water management and resettlement of evictees have questioned the proposed benefits accruing to farmers. They argue that: (a) the 180 TMC water is not enough for 26 lakh acres for any meaningful irrigation; (b) the crop yields have been grossly inflated almost 10 times as compared to the current levels for projecting highly favourable benefits/outcomes; and (c) the complete omission of social and ecological costs in the report.

Another disturbing conclusion, which is also acknowledged in the DPR, is that the operation and maintenance costs will be around ₹53,000 per acre. The report, prepared by civil society organisations in November 2016, has called for an impartial and unbiased Independent Review of the project to assess the claims made by the Telangana government.

The DPR, for example, states that out of ₹21,521 crore of annual benefits, the agriculture sector will contribute ₹12,730 crore. Even these figures are not properly accounted in the DPR. The benefits from the agriculture sector in the report are based on three assumptions. They include: (a) the project will provide irrigation to 24 lakh acres; (b) increases in the yield of 12 crops will be of 500-900 per cent more than current reported yields; and (c) all the produce will be getting higher prices.

A crop like chillies, for example, will get close to ₹4,500 crore annually because of the projected increase in the yield from 500 kg per every hectare to 4,500 kg per hectare.

At present, the cultivation of chillies in the entire Telangana State is spread over 80,000 hectares with the production turnover of 2,27,000 tonnes or 2.8 tonnes on an average per hectare. The Kaleshwaram lift irrigation project aims generate production of 52,20,000 tonnes of chillies at an average yield of 4.5 tonne per hectare Consequently, the increase in production of chillies is estimated to be 20 times of the current levels of output.

Normally, when production of chillies increase by 20 per cent more than the average of the previous year, prices tend to slump to historic lows with few buyers in the market. Indeed, this was the case in 2017, when farmers in their frustration actually burnt their produce after prices dropped. It is not surprising that this became a major issue with violent protests on the streets. Against this backdrop, it would be difficult to imagine the market response if chillies production increased by 20 times.

The farmer who is cultivating chillies, for example, is currently getting net income of ₹12,000 per acre as net benefit. But, with KLIP water, the same farmer is expected to get ₹1,56,000 per acre, which is 13 times more than the current return. Significantly, this is also the case with other crops.

Even the data on the projected increase in the area of irrigation, yields, and profit margins in the DPR are based on questionable assumptions which fail to reflect the current realities of costs of products and prices of the products at the market place.

It is clear as daylight that the figures indicated in the DPR fail to reflect the current realities of cultivation of these crops. In short, this project is unlikely to generate benefits of more than ₹4,000 crore while the State would spend ₹13,000 crore every year. The Telangana government is going to spend four times more on the operation and maintenance costs than all the benefits that would accrue to farmers.

In addition to this, the project will displace at least 30,000 people in 19 villages. Further, the project is going to affect the total land of around 100,000 acres (40,015 hectares). Considering all other costs, this project is going to be a major burden for Telangana people and farmers for generations to come. The Kaleshwaram project needs an independent review of costs, benefits, and technical specifications. This needs to be done at the earliest. If such a review, which can be completed within three months, confirms that this project would generate the benefits and turnover for the farmers and solve the farming crisis in Telangana, then, it should be implemented.

Instead of submitting the DPR to an unbiased independent assessment, the speed with which the State government is implementing the project raises serious questions. That it will lead to irreversible and massive economic, social and ecological damage is beyond doubt. One thing the DPR clearly proves is that the project is not about sustainable development of the State. It is about something else which is not difficult to fathom.

It is not still too late to carry out an independent review.

The writer is Founder and Chairperson, AgSri Agricultural Services Pvt. Ltd.