Rajampeta (Andhra Pradesh): Almost one year has passed since the Andhra Pradesh government promised to build houses for the victims of the floods caused by a breach of the Annamayya project’s earthen bund over Cheyyeru river on November 19, 2021. However, till date, all that G. Siva Reddy, one of the victims of the floods, has to call a home is a makeshift tarpaulin tent erected where his home once stood.
“The government’s promise of a house within three months has, as of now, not even crossed the foundation level. [We] wonder when they will complete it,” said Siva Reddy, a resident of Ramachandrapuram village in Andhra Pradesh’s Annamayya district.
A major part of the Annamayya district – formed during the recent bifurcation exercise which saw the number of districts in the state doubled from 13 to 26 – happens to be formed from Kadapa, the home district of Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy.
The government has allocated a residential plot to the family but work on constructing houses is progressing at a snail’s pace.
Of the 200 mango and 100 coconut trees that existed on Siva Reddy’s three-acre farm, just nine mango and 15 coconut trees survived the floods. This, the farmer says, has cost him Rs 1.5 lakhs in mango and Rs 30,000-40,000 coconut sales in the summer.
“My wife passed away when my kids were young and I have raised my daughter and son all alone. I have problems with my vision,” the 52-year-old farmer said.
What’s more, with the floods leaving sand deposits on his land, Siva Reddy is desperately trying to raise funds to rebuild his life. He has tried to get help from his local officials, even sitting on dharna with his daughter outside the collector’s office in Kadapa. But he was asked to go to Rayachoti, where the new district headquarters lie.
Having lost all hope for help from his local elected representatives and officials, he is trying to grab the attention of chief minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy by any means necessary.
“I have visited the chief minister’s camp office; I went to Tirupati when he visited; I went to Idupulapaya where his father, former chief minister Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy, lies buried, when he visited. I was holding a banner but was prevented by the police from going anywhere near him,” Siva Reddy recalled.
“I have even been suggested that I would pour petrol on myself and enact self-immolation during the chief minister’s meetings to draw his attention,” he added. The farmer said that one bid to take his own life was already foiled by his son, who found him on an electric pole and dragged him down from it.
“We have collectively thought of giving up by taking poison, with neither of my children being able to afford proper food and clothes for college,” Siva Reddy said. “My daughter cannot stop ruminating on how the police prevented us from meeting the chief minister as he came out of his home in Tadepalli (where his camp office in the state’s central region lies).”
“When we face such a situation, the dejection gets to my head and I am not sure what I will do until I come back home,” a visibly distraught Siva Reddy told this reporter.
“My relatives refused to entertain any pleas for help as I don’t have my home or the mango garden now. If I had not given the garden on lease and sold the 18 tonnes of table variety fruit on my own, I would have gained a lot,” he added.
Siva Reddy said that the trader who took his garden on lease for three years paid him Rs 5 lakh, but earned more than that amount in the last year alone.
“Despite gaining due to the higher yield compared to the usual five or six tonnes of crop, he [the trader] had the gall to seek money from my son for his loss in income for the next two years, even after seeing the destruction wrought on the garden and home,” Siva Reddy added.
The higher mango prices were a result of the fall in yield due to climatic and man-made mistakes.
Having given up studies before the floods, Siva Reddy’s son currently works in a tomato market yard in Madanapalli town. Siva Reddy’s daughter, meanwhile, is trying to continue her education despite having lived in a tent for almost a year now.
“I am not able to afford her stay in the hostel in town,” the farmer said.
Siva Reddy faces another predicament in his currently sand-laden fields.
His land had been given to his family 50 years ago with limited rights for a period of 99 years. “As I don’t have full rights on the land, I fear losing it,” he said. “Nothing stops the officials from assigning the land to others. The land was given in the name of my mother.”
However, Siva Reddy also claims to have rumours that the government intends to confer title deeds for land to farmers like him. For this, he said he was forced to spend Rs 2 lakh on cement blocks to secure the boundary of his land.
“Of the Rs 5 lakh I got for leasing the garden, I carried Rs 1 lakh with me to another village when floods struck. I also had to spend the entire Rs 1 lakh given by the government as relief on this work,” he said.
“If the lands were secure, I would have used the money to raise at least an iron sheet structure for ourselves.”
“The land here is fertile and can yield three crops per year. We have lost three seasons so far. Most lands in the village are fallow as those who own more land are reluctant to spend on them as they have other means of livelihood, like working in the Gulf. It is those who don’t own land or have small parcels that are bearing the brunt,” he added.
“If I had not lost my garden, I would have married off my daughter or son this year,” Siva Reddy rued.
In response to his request for new lease papers for his land, Siva Reddy was told that his name does not feature in the records. However, he is holding out hope that he will be able to get the papers citing his mother’s name in documents given to farmers like him.
A familiar tale
Siva Reddy’s fellow villager, B. Vijaya Bhaskar Reddy, says he spent Rs 4.5 lakhs, borrowed from private lenders, to clear the sand on his own.
Another villager, M. Venkataramaiah, said, “The government did nothing to clear our fields of sand. I lost 130 bags of paddy to floods with not a morsel to eat at home. I had stored them hoping for better prices.”
”If it wasn’t for the generous donations given by people from outside, we would have had to resort to begging,” he added.
Farmers in nearby Thogurupeta village, like P. Kesava Rao, say that they can only begin cultivation after roadside farmlands are fenced off, to prevent stray cattle from grazing the fields. “We have not been permitted to clear the sand on our own. We were told by the district collector that the mining department would clear the sand. We have been asking this repeatedly. We can at least gain some money, having lost our standing crops to floods,” Rao said.
“Officials told us that contractors aren’t coming forward to take up work on houses due to lack of funds,” Rao continued. “Those who opted to construct houses on their own on lands are awaiting the provision of essentials such as water, roads and electricity to start the work.”
“We have been allocated plots on elevated lands and have sought relaxation for the release of funds for construction of houses. The floods are an abnormality which happen once in a century. We hear a proper concrete dam in place of the earthen bund which breached is being planned and we won’t face any danger in our old places. But our request to even sanction Rs 3 lakhs, instead of Rs 5 lakhs, has not been accepted.”
Not far away in the K. Rachapalli village in the same district, S. Venkateshwar Raju and his wife, S. Sunitha, are worried after having lost 125 of their 150 mango trees. The 30-year-old trees were being grown on a 3.74 acre mango garden on their land. The family has only received Rs 50,000 in compensation so far.
The floods did not do much damage to houses in this village.
“The water came and receded afterwards. The damage was to our well with borewell, water pipelines and drip irrigation pipelines,” Sunitha said. “The survival and fruit-bearing capacity of the remaining trees will depend on how quickly the water facility for them is restored.”
The family is distraught as their fields either have sand deposits or have had the fertile layer of topsoil washed away, throwing up rocks underneath. “We are clueless on the road ahead. We need Rs 5-6 lakh to get them back into shape again,” Sunitha said.
“We are not educated. My husband has only completed his tenth standard and we have no other means of income. We have proper title deeds for our lands and can avail loans on them, but shudder at the thought as we had just cleared our debts after struggling for years.” she added.
The family was hoping to see better days with the Rs 3 lakh expected income per annum from the mango trees. The family pegs the value of the land and trees at around Rs 50 lakh.
“We now survive by doing manual labour in the surrounding villages. We had great hopes from chief minister Reddy and rooted for him, but have been thoroughly let down. Of the 30 families in our village, four have been severely affected. The others have suffered partial damage to their land and trees,” Raju said.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, the family had shifted their children – six and eight years old – from a nearby private school in Nadalur to a government school in the village. “Our financial position leaves us with no choice but to keep them in the government school, despite our wish for them to join a private school,” Raju said.
The oft-repeated allegation of people across villages in the region is that the calamity was man-made and that the dam gates were not opened to release flood waters in order to save the tippers, JCBs and tractors of the sand mafia, which they further allege are connected to ruling party leaders.
All affected villagers say, irrespective of the extent of damage to their houses, they received Rs 1.15 lakh as immediate relief from the government. “Compensation has been given based on the number of acres we have. They should have factored in the age of the trees that existed on our land,” Raju said.
Travails of landless Dalits
The plight of landless Dalit families in the region is no better than that of the farmers. In addition to their homes, the floods washed away their entire life savings.
Eight months pregnant and left homeless by the floods, K. Subhashini from the Pulaputtur village in the Cuddapah village has had to bear the searing heat and rain since the floods took place.
“Animals come and occupy our tents when it rains. Kids and elderly are always falling over in this undulating rocky terrain. Power is irregular. We are just surviving on ration from the government and have no means of livelihood,” she said.
Amenities did once exist on the land but the floods washed them all without leaving a trace.
Subhashini’s mother-in-law, K. Lakshmi Devi said, “I was in Kuwait for 10 years. I put up with the ill treatment of my employers to tide over our poverty. My elder son, K. Nagendra, also worked there. The Rs 1.15 lakh we got from the government (as part of the immediate relief efforts) was spent on basic needs. We are back to square one after all these years.”
It is normal practice for people in the Rajampeta region to migrate to the Gulf and Kuwait for better livelihoods.
“My younger son, K. Eswaraiah, studied polytechnic and did work for companies for a few years,” she continued. “He had left the job after he was asked to go to a far-off place in North India before the floods. He is now stuck in the village, unable to afford travel charges and money to live until he gets a job again.”
An educated, unemployed youth from the village, P. Venkataramana, said, “No political leader has cared to visit us after the attention from the media subsided. We used to take land on tenancy or work for wages in the village. The money we got from the government was spent treating the diseases we contracted drinking unclean water and when many fell ill during the omicron wave (of the coronavirus pandemic).”
“We request the chief minister to at least provide us with job cards and give us National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) work,” he continued. “If the government clears the sand on the fields, we can get wage work at least. Our fellow land-owning villagers helped us survive.”
The ‘official’ version
Responding to queries from The Wire, revenue divisional officer (RDO), Rajampeta, D. Kodanda Rami Reddy said, “Me and the district collector took charge on April 4 this year after the new district was carved out. The incident happened on November 19, 2021. We don’t know what happened before us. We paid the compensation of Rs 5 lakhs for the 33 people who died or went missing. Loans to women under the Development of Women And Children In Rural Areas (DWACRA) crop loans have been waived.”
“The delay in starting house construction was also a result of demands from the villagers to sanction sites according to caste and kinship relations,” Rami Reddy added. “Even within the family, they sought vasthu compliance. Is it possible to accommodate all such extraneous considerations and start the work? But we have been sympathetic to them as victims.”
“We have, so far, given housing sites to 416 of the 446 sanctioned villagers. 200 houses have been raised until the basement level so far. Because of rains, sand removal could not be done for two months. The machinery could not move. We will do that now. The government has been generous to the people here and gave five cents land for housing instead of the one-and-a-half cents given to beneficiaries under the Jagan Anna Housing scheme of the state government. The amount given for house construction has also been enhanced from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 5 lakhs,” he added.
On sand removal in hill stream lands, he said, “We will remove sand in lands with title deeds of private persons or DKT (darakastu land; given to those below poverty line). The other lands are government-owned and sand will not be removed.”
“We issue one-year title deed for hill stream lands to raise watermelons or grass when water recedes. If someone has been given 90 years lease on such land, they should show it to us,” he added.
“We have replaced damaged transformers and provided power.”
On the reconstruction of the Pincha and Annamayya dams, Rajampeta MLA M. Mallikarjuna Reddy said, “The designs have been approved and cleared by the chief minister recently for construction of concrete structures at Pincha and Annamayya projects, spending Rs 79 crores and Rs 800 crores respectively. All that the chief minister had promised has been done.”
The claims on loan waivers, however, were rebuffed by G. Uma Maheshwar Raju, vice-sarpanch, Pulaputturu. “Only DWACRA loans have been waived. They haven’t waived crop loans or gold loans of farmers. The banks are harassing us to reschedule them. Dalit families who spent Rs 1.2 lakhs so far on house construction haven’t been reimbursed yet and construction has halted midway. As promised by the chief minister, people should have got houses in three months. It will be a year shortly but things are moving at a snail’s pace.”
“We haven’t received any insurance for the damaged crops as they say the land has not been e-cropped (a process by which the crop and the actual cultivator of the land is recorded). Only 20% of those who lost cattle have received compensation,” he continued.
This is seconded by a former watchman of the Annamayya dam, P. Ramayya (who was in the news for alerting people in time). He said he lost everything he earned working there for 30 years, in one day. “I lost 60 of my 120 cows but haven’t received any compensation,” Ramayya said.
A farmer from the same village, B. Chandra Pratap Reddy, said farming can begin in the affected areas only if lands are readied by laying connecting roads, fixing land boundaries, fencing them off to prevent grazing from stray cattle and building flood banks to prevent further flooding.
“I need Rs 30 lakhs to prepare my 20-acre land suitable for cultivation,” he said. “The lands will not give proper yield for some years and we have to bear losses even after spending so much on them. People with less land and no other means of income will just migrate if the government doesn’t act immediately,” he said.