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AP's future hinges on Bayyaram steel plant

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When there is mistrust, every word and every action is prone to be misunderstood. 'Rama' becomes a four-letter word. A statement always has a...

When there is mistrust, every word and every action is prone to be misunderstood. "Rama" becomes a four-letter word. A statement always has a counter statement. The cacophony we have been hearing for several days in political as well as non-political circles on the question of establishing a steel factory at Bayyaram in Khammam district reflects the divisive mood prevailing in the State for some time. When emotions are high, reason takes long leave.

Angry and uncompromising statements with grave finality are made by even ordinary souls who have no knowledge of the terrain, the quality of iron ore or the history of movements based on mineral and other natural resources. The argument does not depend on facts or rationale. It depends on your opinion on whether Andhra Pradesh should remain one or be split into two. If you are an integrationist, you tend to say those who are demanding steel plant at Bayyaram are parochial and narrow-minded. You go on saying that minerals are national assets and the States, leave alone sub-regions, have no right on them. You think you are broadminded and nationalist.

If you are a votary of Telangana State, you would most probably get offended with that argument. You would question the integrationists about the movement for Vizag steel plant and the slogan, "Visakha Vukku - Andhrula Hakku" (In those days "Andhrula" meant people of Andhra Pradesh, not people of just Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema as understood now).

When minerals and steel plants are national properties, you ask, why should there be any demand to locate a factory at one place or the other? If Visakha Vukku Andhrula Hakku was all right, why is it that Bayyaram Vukku Telangana Hakku is not palatable? If one says seashore is the best place for location of a steel plant which involves a lot of exports and imports, one would be confronted with a query: "What about Bhilai which has steel plant but no sea?" The slugfest is endless. You can go on as long as you like.

The issue is being used by politicians to address their constituencies and others to satisfy their ego. The irregularity of sanctioning 1.4 lakh acres of land to a private company, Rakshana Steel, by the YSR government through GO No. 64 was rectified by the UPA government when it asked the AP government to cancel the GO.

There were three options before the government of Rosaiah: One, call for tenders and give the land to another private company; two, give it to a public sector company; and three, let the AP Mineral Development Corporation take up mining and let it also sell the ore in the open market to make huge profits (something like Rs 3000 on a ton of ore). Rosaiah's tenure as CM came to a sudden end when he was replaced by Kiran Kumar Reddy more than two years ago. Kiran Reddy has decided, in his wisdom, to go for the second option.

For any of these options, the basic approval should be obtained from the local tribal Grama Sabhas, as so unambiguously stated by former IAS officer and rights activist EAS Sarma. Any land notified as tribal tract under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution can be used for any activity only after taking the approval of the local tribals. It is mandatory for initiating any economic activity, including mining. All the activities so far, either by the YSR government or successive governments, have been in violation of law of the land.

The purpose of including the provision in the Constitution was that the local tribals should be benefited and made stakeholders in any developmental activity undertaken in their area. 1/70 that came into being in 1970 and the Land Transfer Act that came into effect in AP later have further lent clarity to the provision. Medha Patkar has been waging relentless battles only to achieve this objective. It is the main reason for the existence and relevance of Maoists.

The Land Acquisition Bill which UPA-II is intending to introduce in Parliament insists on making the locals, or the owners whose land is being acquired, partners in progress, whether in Scheduled Areas or plains. When a government proposes to use the mineral wealth in areas notified under the Fifth Schedule, it has to first approach the Tribal Advisory Council and then hold Grama Sabhas to obtain approval of the local tribals. The State government has not been very keen on implementing the law of the land. Even the laws that were made at the behest of their leaders like Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, a la 73rd and 74th amendments and Right to Information (RTI) Act, are followed only in their breach.

There is no mechanism with the Union government or the Congress high command to monitor implementation of laws by various State governments. No wonder, therefore, that the State government did not bother to organize Grama Sabhas to take the approval of the local tribals before taking steps to allocate land to Rakshana Steel then or Vizag Steel Plant now. The government did not consult the Opposition or leaders of the ruling party either before taking the decision to grant rights to Vizag Steel Plant on Bayyaram and Guduru lands.

All political parties, except the ruling Congress in AP, are in favour of a steel plant at Bayyaram. Even the Union Minister in charge of Steel Beni Prasad Varma has said the Centre is ready to establish a plant at Bayyaram if the State government is prepared to give 5000 acres of land. Balaram Naik, Union Minister and MP representing the constituency of which Bayyaram is a part, has promised to see that the required land is allocated.

However, the Congress ministers in the State and other leaders have been talking in many voices as is their wont. In the game of one-upmanship it becomes necessary to blame others. We see the TDP blaming the TRS for keeping quiet when YSR allegedly gave away vast tracts of land to a company supported by his son-in-law.

It is true that the TDP and the CPI made some noises. Chandrababu Naidu, TDP chief, toured the area and demanded that a steel plant should come up there. The CPI stalled the proceedings in the Assembly for a while. Vinod of the TRS also made some rounds on two-wheeler to protest. But all these were too mild to stop YSR in his tracks. Even when Chukka Ramaiah went to Bayyaram, met the tribals, collected photographs and presented the case in the Council two years ago, he did not get support either from the CPI or the TRS. He was almost a loner.

The fact of the matter is that nobody realized the political and economic potential of Bayyaram iron ore until recently. Now that the elections are fast approaching and the State government has issued a controversial GO, the opportunity was grabbed by the Opposition parties leaving the Congress a divided house as usual. Why did the Chief Minister give a stick to the Opposition to beat him with?

Kiran Reddy can claim that he preferred to give iron ore to an established public sector company, one of the navaratnas, instead of a private company. He should be aware of the scope his decision would give to Telangana protagonists to fortify their argument that the Congress government is bent upon denying Telangana what is its due. It would add to the sentiment.

The iron ore at Bayyaram was a topic of discussion even during the Telangana armed struggle. Sarvadevabhatla Ramanatham and Manchikanti Kishan Rao were two of the tallest Communist leaders from Khammam district (then part of Warangal district) who sacrificed hundreds of acres of land and lived a truly simple life. Ramanatham was a labour leader. He organized the workers at Azam Jahi Mills at Warangal.

The Communist guerilla fighters used to camp at Bayyaram and sleep on the rocks. It was a convenient place to hide their weapons and live underground. Ramanatham and other Communist leaders used to hold heavy stones in their hands and talk about the iron content in them. They even discussed the possibility of having a steel plant there at a future date.

Vizag Steel was a distant dream then. Anyone who is familiar with the history of Telangana armed struggle would vouch for this. It was not just a political struggle. It was economic as well. Do you know why the area has so many old trees making it look like a jungle? Pratap Reddy, the biggest pattedar in Nizam's State and a feared zamindar of Manukota or Mahbubabad, used to tie the persons to the trees which they dared to touch, and get them whipped till they bled profusely.

If you walk 15 km from Mahbubabad, you will enter the tribal area. Most of the stones were taken away illegally by unscrupulous businessmen and the tracts were covered by soil. The locals, mostly Koyas, have been witness to the activity which was going on without their consent or knowledge. This would have inculcated a feeling of being deprived and exploited.A The exploitation during Nizam's rule by the local zamindars is seen to be continued by the new politicians and businessmen even after Independence. The seething anger may remain dormant and unventilated. But it would surely strengthen the sentiment whether one would like it or not.

And what is in the deal anyway to oppose or support? It is agreed that the minerals are a national asset. It is also known that Vizag plant is viable without depending on iron ore from Bayyaram. Bayyaram ore would not make any difference to the status of the plant in terms of employment or profitability. It is the practice the world over to establish either thermal plants or steel plants near pit-heads. A Ours is perhaps one of the few States which transport coal for hundreds of kilometers to be used by thermal plants which are situated in various parts, basing on the fancy of the politician and also the need to satisfy the people of the regions by showing employment to the locals.

Be that as it may, why should there be any opposition from any quarters for a plant at Bayyaram if it is technically and economically feasible? It gives employment to some hundreds of locals besides many others from all over the country. Most importantly, it gives confidence to the local people that they have been made stakeholders in development. The rhetoric of Telangana protagonists would find fewer takers.

If, on the other hand, the idea of a plant is opposed by the politicians and others from Coastal Andhra or Rayalaseema, even those who have not been impressed so far with the argument for a demerger of AP would perhaps tilt towards the argument in favour of a separate State. Any genuine integrationist should, therefore, support the idea of a steel plant at Bayyaram.

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