Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy, the chief minister elect of Andhra Pradesh, swept the elections with promises of a corruption-free and environmentally-friendly government.
This was in stark contrast to his predecessor, former chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, who during the last few months of his tenure saw the National Green Tribunal slap a Rs 100 crore fine for the unchecked and brazen sand mining taking place in the vicinity of his residence in Undavalli, Guntur district, on the floodplains of the Krishna river.
While campaigning for the elections, Reddy had promised that he would introduce a law to check illegal sand mining if he came to power.
This is a task he must undertake the earliest if he wants to save the rivers, in contrast to Naidu who was known to flout environmental laws with impunity. Nothing signifies such a state of affairs than Naidu’s frequent flip-flops on the entire issue of sand mining.
Naidu’s ability to overlook the nefarious activities of the sand mafia in his state has affected the stability and flow of the main rivers in the state – the Krishna, the Godavari, the Tungabhadra and the Penna. The acute water shortage being faced in the state, made worse by the prevailing heat wave conditions, could have been somewhat mitigated if the public had easy recourse to water.
When Naidu came to power in 2014, one of his government’s first directives was to provide a Rs 5 lakh loan from banks to women self-help groups (SHG) in villages who would overlook the excavation and sale of sand mine. The SHGs were called Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas (DWCRA) and were set up to provide ‘Pedarikam Pai Gelupu’ (victory over poverty).
Some months later, in a sudden move, Naidu changed the policy and introduced a tendering system for the sale of sand. This saw several farmers and villagers file litigation cases against it in the Hyderabad high Court. Advocate Sravan Lay filed a case in 2015 in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) demanding that the revenue earned from the tendering process should be used by the state government to create a green fund that would be used to conserve the rivers.
The legal heat saw the Naidu government do another flip flop and he declared his government would sell sand free of cost to consumers. This was in March 2016. Once again, this was showcased as a policy to assist the poor in the construction of houses, as they did not have access to sand and were required to go through special people known to have close links with the party in power.
As was to be expected, this new policy began to be grossly exploited by the sand mafia, who began cornering the sand and selling it at exorbitant rates.
Water activist Satyanarayana Bolisetty said that despite the government claiming they were giving sand ‘free’ of cost, each truck of sand was being sold at black market rates that varied between Rs 6,000 and Rs 10,000. While the state suffered a loss of Rs 700 crore, individual politicians and contractors were known to have made a killing.
“Removal of large quantities of sand saw the velocity of rivers rise and this also resulted in their capacity to store water resulting in plunging ground water levels,” said Bolisetty.
“A strong nexus developed between contractors, bureaucrats and politicians in the sale of sand and we were witness to a ridiculous situation where large companies like L&T, Shapoorji Pallonji and NAC were being allowed to get sand practically free of cost,” said Sravan Lay.
An open letter written to the NGT and the ministry of environment and forests by waterman Rajendra Singh, farmer and social worker from Amaravati region Anumolu Gandhi, Prof Vikram Soni and Bolisetty Satyanarayana had highlighted how sand mining was being carried out illegally near Naidu’s residence and also important government offices in Amravati.
Their letter emphasised how 2,500 truckloads of sand were being transported from the river every day as also how mechanical sand mining was being carried out without permission.
Reddy admitted to being shocked at these developments and is reported to have informed his party workers that he is determined to stop illegal sand mining.
In one of his election speeches, Satyanarayana said, Reddy said he would not hesitate to destroy the extravagant Rs 40 crore chief minister bungalow built on the Krishna flood plain as it controverted the existing law that says flood plains are sacrosanct and must be left in their pristine state.
Whether he takes such extreme measure is yet to be seen, but activists believe he must act fast against illegal sand mining. And soon.
Rashme Sehgal is an author and a freelance journalist based in Delhi.