THE GODAVARI RIVER wends its lazy way between the Papikondalu Hills of the Eastern Ghats in Andhra Pradesh. Bright jungle spills down the steep hillsides, reflected in the broad, slow bends of the magnificent river. On the December day I visited, a pall of pollution damped the view. The flanks of the hills were dotted with small villages, but nearly all of them were ghost towns—empty, voided spaces where not a child played, not a dog snoozed, not a cow grazed. These were the remains of a few of the over two hundred and fifty villages that will be flooded when the Polavaram dam is finished, not far downriver, creating a vast reservoir that will drown this spectacular landscape.
At the site of the Polavaram project, where the dam is currently under construction, dozens of gargantuan steel cylinders towered above the dusty road, awaiting their placement in what will become one of Asia’s largest hydroelectric dams. Dams are not only disastrous for the people who must leave their villages but are environmentally calamitous as well, destroying wetlands, inundating ecosystems, disrupting the natural flows of silt and nutrients and the migrations of riverine creatures. They affect the livelihoods of people living downriver, too, as conditions for fishing and farming change around them. For towns and farms above the dam, the reservoir may provide a source of water more reliable than the changing monsoons. Yet, having directly displaced around a hundred thousand families from relatively poor and marginalised rural communities, the power generated by the dam will primarily serve a different set of people: those who can most afford to pay for it. Much of what we call “development” across the globe has followed this modus operandi for centuries, dismantling the systems of the non-human world in service to “economic growth,” while doling out the costs and benefits unevenly among people.
This hints at the shape of things to come.