• The Wages of Reporting Corruption in Polavaram

    Malini Subramaniam

    June 18, 2018

    T Srinivas Rao, Sakshi

    Increasingly, reporting on corruption is becoming a high risk job for reporters, particualrly regional reporters. If you work in a small town the consequences can be immediate and far reaching, as even a small news item can open the floodgate to the larger scheme of things,  and bigger sharks have to be safeguarded.

    T Srinivas Rao, a part-time reporter working with Sakshi newspaper for the last three years covering Kukunuru Mandal in West Godavari district, could not have learnt this better.

    On April 11 this year, Rao reported in Sakshi News (West Godavari edition) on the ongoing corruption in the mega Polavaram Multipurpose Project, where he found that surveyors, revenue officials, local politicians and middlemen were siphoning huge amount of cash by deliberately manipulating prescribed rules and regulations, and withholding information  thereby leaving ample scope for  manipulating gullible villagers.  

    The Polavaram (Indira Sagar) Multipurpose project built on the Godavari river with the purpose of providing irrigation benefits,  generation of hydroelectric power , domestic water supply, etc  is expected to submerge 299 villages affecting lives and livelihood of about two lakh persons in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Odisha.  Of the total affected villages, about 276 villages are in the East and West Godavari districts of Andhra Pradesh alone.

    Rao’s report exposed the deals played out in Kukunuru Mandal of West Godavari district.  Land acquisition surveyors, revenue officials and middlemen are involved in a massive scam where innocent villagers are being made to part with money, claimed the report.  Once the Relief and Rehabilitation (R&R) survey was concluded in July 2016, the village list was put up in the panchayat bhavan.  However names of eleven villages of Kukunuru Mandal were missing.   The villagers were informed that the eleven villages do not come in the submergence area. 

    "Rao’s report exposed the deals played out in Kukunuru Mandal of West Godavari district"

    Upset over this exclusion despite 70 percent submergence of the villages and thereby their technical  eligibility for R&R, the villagers took their grievance to the Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, of  the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) during one of his visits to Polavaram in late 2017, who promised to address it.   The matter was handed over to the Integrated Tribal Development agency ITDA), the key agency responsible for land acquisition as well as relief and rehabilitation.   This was enough to open the backdoor for spurious deals, where local leaders from the ruling party made deals with the public over the confusion, explained Rao when this correspondent met him on 17th April along with a fact-finding team that was assessing the extent and nature of corruption in the ongoing Polavaram Project.

    Rao’s report uncovered one such deal in one of the villages, Rajivnagaram in Amravaram panchayat of Kukunuru Mandal that has over 700 households.  A local leader–the report chose not to mention his name–promised villagers of Rajivnagaram that he would have their names included in the R&R list against payment of Rs 1000 per family and an additional 1000 rupees for children above 18 years of age as they would be eligible for the compensation.  

    Under the government’s R&R policy a landed project affected person (PAP) will be compensated with land, however families who are landless but whose livelihood is affected would be paid a consolidated amount of Rs 6.5 lakhs or 6.8 lakhs if the family belongs to tribal community.

    Soon after this report was published on 11th April, the same afternoon, 200 odd persons gathered outside his house shouting slogans ‘Sakshi reporter donga-donga’ (Sakshi reporter  thief-thief).  Rao was lucky to be tipped off by one of the villagers that a local leader, active in Amravaram panchayat, Golamudi Srinivas, was planning to attack him. “I came to know of this around 11 am, when I had gone to Velapadu to cover news” said Srinivas Rao. “I’m glad I managed to get my wife and daughter out of that place in the nick of time, for soon by four  in the evening a mob of some 200 odd persons in tractors were brought in , gathered outside my house shouting slogans, burning Sakshi newspaper and conducted a rally  led by Srinivas in the main market’, narrated Rao. ‘Srinivas is the same person who was involved in the scandal.  I did not mention his name in the Sakshi report to safeguard the whistleblower, explained Rao.  (The Hoot has reviewed a video showing Srinivas’s involvement.)

    Saakshi’s Bureau-in-Charge for West Godavari district, D Ramesh Babu, who was intimated immediately, got in touch with the superintendent of police (SP) in Eluru to apprise him of the matter.  Rao filed a complaint against the TDP leader, Gollumudi Srinivas and 10 others in Kukunur thana the same evening of attack. No action has been taken until now. In fact, Rao along with G. Raghuram, state secretary Andhra Pradesh Union of Working Journalists and others, gave a petition to the SP on 12th, the next day . ‘However, the SP instead of taking action against the perpetrators pressurised the Station In-charge (SI) in Kukunuru thana to accept a false complaint made to the police by locals at the behest of the local leader’, said Babu.  Rao was thus in for a shock when he saw the tables turned against him.  On April 14, that is two days later, the SI informed that a complaint has been filed by two villagers of Rajivnagaram village against Rao, who allegedly promised to get them a better R&R package if they were to pay him Rs. 50,000.  The reporter, claimed the complaint letter, had already taken Rs. 10,000 advance and was demanding the balance Rs.50, 000 from them.   A case under IPC 420 filed against Rao. 

    Protesters burn copies of Sakshi outside Srinivas Rao's house.

    The multipurpose Polavaram project has been under scanner for quite some years on various matters pertaining to poor R&R,faulty surveyunfinished compensationcorruption and, in fact, the very futility of the project.

    A writ petition (Sakti Vs State of Andhra Pradesh) is pending in the High Court for paying compensation for ineligible non-tribal families by excluding the names of genuine tribal families through issuance of fake land tenure rights (LTR).  In fact, as recent as January  2018 responding to an RTI application, the Centre had asked the government of Andhra Pradesh to examine instances of ‘large scale corruption and illegalities in the execution of Polavaram project’.

    Although much has been written and reported on the breadth and depth of corruption, there have been very few investigative reports on the nature of manipulation leading to fraud.  Perhaps this is possible only if reporters closer to the ground expose the various shades of fraud.    ‘But this is a difficult proposition, because though ground reporters are well aware of the fraud, all those involved in the corrupt practices manage them suitably’, remarked J Bapjee Rao, State secretary of Andhra Pradesh Vyavasaya Vruthidarula Union (Andhra Pradesh Agricultural Workers’ Union). 

    Rao claimed that there is reliable information with evidence that reporters of almost all the dailies in the district who did not have any piece of land were offered about 5 acres of land in the submergence area.  ”Their pens are thus frozen”, he remarked.  And if reporters do write on them, the consequences are clear as in the case of Srinivas Rao,’ he added. 

    Srinivas Rao has been a part-time correspondent with Sakshi for the past three years and acknowledges reporting on corrupt deals in the past.  How come he is being targeted now and not earlier?    News, however serious, if published in district edition is not a matter of concern as it dies within the district, but the risk is higher once it gets to the main edition, as it probably attracts much greater attention, explained Ramesh Babu, the Sakshi bureau in charge.   

    Sakshi, which is owned by Y S Bharati,  the wife of  YSR Congress leader, Jaganmohan Reddy, had covered corruption in the Polavaram Project for three consecutive days in mid-April this year in its main edition, informed Babu.  Being owned by Chandrababu Naidu’s political opposition it is not as easily silenced as the rest of the local press, however local stringers are made easy targets to choke the news.

    A team was put together and several stories of corruption were covered from Kukunuru and Buttayagudem mandals of the district.  Though the correspondents have been filing reports on corruption from these areas earlier, there has never been threats or attacks. However, as soon as these reports found its way to main edition, they were immediately targeted, said Babu.   While a mob was mobilized against Rao and a false complaint of cheating filed against him in April once his report with details appeared, K Anand, the Sakshi reporter from Buttayagudem Mandal, who also filed stories, had a legal notice slapped against him.  

    On 13th March  Anand had reported on one Kakarla Chandrasekhar,  who manipulated government records with the help of concerned authorities to convert a 11-acre  public lake into his private coconut farming land and pocketed under the R&R  a compensation of  Rs 3.67 crore.   Promptly on 30thMarch, Sakshi News editor, publisher and two reporters including Anand were sent a legal notice demanding unconditional apology from Sakshi News in its West Godavari edition as well as payment of Rs. one crore within seven days, failing which, relevant charges will be pressed against all. 

    Media in Andhra Pradesh has had a dubious reputation where news organisations are backed by political parties. However, stringers hired by the news agencies who cover news in their best ability uncovering malpractices, exposing leakages  and unmasking corrupt politicians and government servants  face the worst brunt in doing their  jobs. 

    ‘Does journalism suffer once it gets enmeshed between politics and truth?’  ‘Yes …..it does..…. to some extent’, said Babu with a discomforted nervous laughter.   He apologised for his inability to stay longer at the phone as he had to rush to cover YSR Congress leader Jaganmohan Reddy’s six-month long  Praja Sankalpa Padal Jatra which was entering West Godavari district that day. Jaganmohan Reddy, son of  the former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, YSR Reddy, is the main opposition in Andhra Pradesh. 

    "Media in Andhra Pradesh has had a dubious reputation of news organisations being backed by political parties . "

    Regional reporters/stringers seldom get the support of their news organisations when attacked/harassed for their reports, however Rao was happy with the way Sakshi stood by him.  But he has other troubles to handle.   He had set up a primary school in Kukunuru town along with his wife, Sabita, to augment the small income he earns as part time Sakshi reporter.     ‘It’s been three years since my wife, Sabita, and I been running Sri Arya, a primary school that caters to about 70 children’.   Though for the last three years no question was raised, 10 days after Rao’s report appeared and the subsequent drama that unfolded before his house, he got a call from the Mandal Education Officer (MEO) to submit all the papers related to the school.    Though he has kept his papers up-to-date and furnished the details to the MEO, he is sure they will nit-pick about the school and make it difficult for them to run it.

    With elections approaching and the swords between political parties drawn in the battleground of print media, digital portals and television studios, regional stringers will have to brace themselves for the high-risk reporting which will ensue in the coming months.  

    Postscript, 17 June 2018

    It was finally possible to speak to Gollumudi Srinivas, the local TDP leader from Amravaram gram panchayat, accused by the Sakshi reporter Srinivas Rao of  having led the agitation in front of his house against his report.  When contacted over the phone, Gollumudi was quick to deny his involvement in the agitation, stating it to be a spontaneous reaction of the villagers to question his reporting against their leader (Gollumudi).  Referring to the reporter as an old time friend, he said despite the fact that Sakshi is backed by the opposition (YSRC) he is a great admirer of the reporter as he was one of the few reporters who wrote on people’s issues.  He attributes the reporter’s allegations against him to issues when things turned sour between them.  In fact he said he disbelieved the people when they filed a complaint against the reporter for demanding money from the villagers for inclusion in the R&R.  He said he told the people that he does not believe that Srinivas Rao could be indulging in such nefarious activity.  He confirmed that because of  the Sakshi reporter's complaint against him, he appeared before the police and sought bail.

    The Station In-charge, Ameen Jaffer, who took charge of Kukunuru thana late April after the incident, when contacted, confirmed there were complaints filed by both parties – the Sakshi reporter against Gollumudi Srinivas and ten others for leading an agitation against his reporting to malign him as well as a complaint by two villagers from Rajivnagaram for demanding money from them to include their names in the R&R package. However, he declined to comment on the matter as it is under investigation.


     

    Malini Subranamiam is an award-winning independent journalist based in Hyderabad.

    First published in The Hoot.

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