Hyderabad: A mega project in Telangana designed to bring drinking water and irrigation to its parched areas has run into troubles with land acquisition and charges of cost escalation.

The Rs80,500 crore Kaleshwaram project, jointly implemented by Maharashtra and Telangana, aims to divert water from the Godavari river basin to Telangana.

The National Green Tribunal (NGT) stayed the project in October after farmer Mohd Hayathuddin from Vemulaghat in Siddipet district moved the tribunal. The state has challenged the order in the high court.

On 30 October, the Central Water Commission (CWC) issued the hydrology clearance for the project. A week before that on 24 October, it also received the stage one forest clearance from the union environment ministry.

Sridhar Rao Deshpande, officer on special duty (from the irrigation department) to Telangana irrigation minister T. Harish Rao, said a total of 225 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) is to be drawn through the project. This includes 180 TMC from the Godavari river basin and the rest through other projects. The project, which will involve building reservoirs at various places, is expected to irrigate 18.24 lakh acres, provide 56 TMC of drinking water and another 10 TMC for industrial purposes.

The Kaleshwaram project’s work has been split into 7 parts or links. “So far, about Rs20,000 crore has been spent, and we are expecting to draw water from . link-2 (out of 7) from coming June. Trial runs are expected to begin from January onwards," Deshpande told Mint.

Another official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said 74,315 acres is required for the project, of which 34,410 acres have been acquired. “The arguments on the NGT stay in the high court are done. We are expecting a judgment in a day or two," this official added.

Opposition parties and the Telangana Joint Action Committee (TJAC) says the government tried to skirt the 2013 Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act, by issuing government order (GO) 123 in 2015 to acquire lands ‘through mutual consent’. The GO was struck down by the high court in August last year.

One contentious issue is the Komarevelli Mallannasagar project, a 50 TMC reservoir for which eight villages are to be submerged and 17,511 acres of land acquired. Of this, only 1,416 acres are yet to be acquired by the government, and 1,173 acres of this is in Vemulaghat village in Siddipet district. Here, many villagers are unwilling to hand over the land unless the state follows the LARR Act.

The state government had made amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, which was passed in Telangana assembly in April this year, after it received the President of India’s assent. The Act makes land acquisition easier and faster for the state government to take up irrigation projects and other development.

“Earlier, water was to be drawn from the Godavari river by constructing a barrage at Tummidihatti village (in Adilabad district) at a cost of Rs40,300 crore to irrigate 16.14 lakh acres. Now, the same is to be done at Medigadda village (in Karimnagar district) with an expenditure of Rs80,000 crore for 18.25 lakh acres. You have to explain how the cost has increased," said M. Padmanabh Reddy, secretary of Forum For Good Governance, which has filed a petition with the state Lokayukta on the issue.

The state government’s representative refused to provide a white paper on the project, stating there is no such provision, stated Reddy. “The government can claim it is the best project, but we have these doubts about the project’s cost and they should be cleared," he added.

The irrigation department official, however, said that constructing a barrage at Tummedihatti was not feasible, as the water that could be drawn from there was much less. “Also, Maharashtra was not ready for an agreement because of a large area for submergence. At Medigadda, it is minimal," he added.

The Kaleshwaram project was originally called Pranahita-Chevella project, which was in the Congress-ruled erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh. After TRS came to power in 2014 when the new state was formed, it was redesigned, extended and rechristened.

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