The young state will hold its first ever Assembly elections on 7 December.
LAND WOES IN -VEMULAGHAT
Around 90 km from Hyderabad, in the Assembly constituency of Dubbaka is located the village of Vemulaghat, with grains strewn on the village square for drying in the pre-winter sun. With around 4,900 residents, out of which 2,600 are voters, Vemulaghat would have been just another village of cotton, maize and paddy farmers, but for an unhappy reason. For almost three years—898 days to be precise when this correspondent visited the village last week—the farmers of Vemulaghat have been sitting on a “relay fast”, refusing to give their land to the Telangana government for the Mallanna Sagar reservoir project. The reservoir, with a storage capacity of 50 TMC of water (1 TMC is 1,000 million cubic feet), is part of the K. Chandrashekar Rao government’s mammoth Kaleshwaram irrigation project, worth around Rs 80,000 cr. Once completed, Kaleshwaram will supply Godavari water through a network of canals and pipes to almost the entire state. For this purpose, reservoirs are being built and land acquisition is going on in full swing in different parts of the state. Over 17,000 acres of land are needed just for Mallanna Sagar, out of which, news reports suggest, only around 1,500 acres of land are left to be acquired. But of this, Vemulaghat alone owns over 1,000 acres and is proving to be a stumbling block to the completion of the resrvoir.
The farmers, many of whom own 5-6 acres of land each, are not averse to giving up their ownership, but they want at least Rs 12-13 lakh per acre. This is the price that the government is giving to farmers in the Chief Minister’s constituency, Gajwel, in the immediate neighbourhood, for another reservoir, Konda Pochamma. However, for Vemulaghat and some other neighbouring villages, the government has fixed a price of Rs 6 lakh per acre, villagers complain. Vemulaghat’s villagers also seek resettlement, but the government has not made any such provisions, they allege. Unlike other areas, Vemulaghat also owns several water tanks, all the more reason they are not keen to sell their land for that “low” a price and have gone to court in an attempt to stall the project. But the confrontation between the government and farmers has already taken a violent turn. Last year, to disperse the farmers who were blocking the highway, the police used force and arrested eight people. The village square is full of posters and photographs of the agitation. Amid this, under a temporary canopy, the farmers take turns to sit on a hunger-strike from 10 am to 5 pm every day, bringing out their plastic garlands to pose for the camera of the rare journalist visiting them. Media attention may be waning, the imposing Mallanna Sagar reservoir may be coming up amid parched land at a short distance from the village, but Vemulaghat is in no mood to give up.
“It’s all about politics. Vemulaghat is being instigated by Opposition political parties,” retorts Panyala Bhoopathi Reddy, sitting at a Telangana State Tourism Development Corporation (TSTDC) eatery next to the highway just outside Gajwel. Chairman of TSTDC, Bhoopathi Reddy is essentially a political man. Not only is he in charge of Dubbakka and the CM’s constituency, Gajwel, but he also looks after Siddipet, which is the constituency of the CM’s nephew, Harish Rao, the rising star of Telangana politics. It is a fact that the Congress is supporting the villagers of Vemulaghat, and the villagers, in turn, have made up their mind to vote for the “hand” in the 7 December Assembly elections. But it is also a fact that the villagers being displaced from the CM’s constituency because of the Konda Pochamma reservoir, are getting Rs 12 lakh per acre, double the price of what Vemulaghat is getting. But that is because they come under the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority, this newspaper is told.
Hyderabad may be located over 60 km from Gajwel, but HMDA’s jurisdiction runs over seven districts and all the land coming under this is priced much higher for their “proximity” to the state capital.
URBAN BOOM IN GAJWEL
The talk in Gajwel is that the CM has poured thousands of crores into his constituency. And it shows. Gajwel may be a tiny town, but its lampposts are the same as found around Delhi’s international airport. Its district hospital looks like a private hospital. Its market building has “neoclassical” architecture. It has a ring road. It has built an education hub comprising new residential schools and a degree college. It has a 2,000-seat auditorium, whose design can compete with any new age architecture in the metros. Its roads are wide and pothole free. Most importantly, Gajwel is all set to deliver the much anticipated double-bedroom houses to the poor for free, one of those rare constituencies which is about to fulfil the CM’s promise.
KCR’s opponent in Gajwel is Congress’ Pratap Reddy, who had lost the last Assembly elections by over 17,000 votes. This time, Pratap Reddy says over phone that he would have won easily, “if the CM had not spent money to buy votes”. Bhoopathi Reddy’s men, who take this correspondent on a guided tour of Gajwel, laugh when asked about this. “Didn’t you see the work done by him? The CM’s victory margin will be over 1 lakh. Pratap Reddy will be lucky to save his deposit,” they say confidently.
MULUGU’S TRIBAL TALES
Far off from Gajwel, in the Scheduled Tribes constituency of Mulugu, located over 200 km from Hyderabad, the state’s Tourism and Tribal Affairs Minister, Azmeera Chandulal is surrounded by his voters, asking about their missing “double bedrooms”. The minister, campaigning at a roadside hamlet in Pasara, around 20 km from Mulugu town, assures them that their houses will be delivered once the elections get over. He later tells this correspondent that over 1,000 houses have been constructed in his constituency, out of the 1,400 allotted and will be distributed as soon as their government returns to power. Those demanding the double bedroom houses are anyway happy that the minister has already constructed a “CC road” to their hamlet from the state highway, apart from a water tank and residential school. “Neither Congress, nor TDP gave us a road in the long years of their rule,” they say in a chorus.
But it is a different picture altogether in Mulugu’s main market, where the support for Congress is very visible, with one tribal lady proclaiming that her vote is for the “hand” because Indira Gandhi “gave” her a house, aeons ago.
Mulugu is likely to develop into a keen contest. Congress’ candidate for this seat is Danasari Anasuya, alias Seethakka. A former Maoist squad commander, Seethakka joined the Telugu Desam Party after giving up arms and later became MLA from this place. She lost the 2014 elections and this time is fighting as a Congress candidate, apparently on Naidu’s advice. An element of tribal conflict exists in these areas and is likely to find a reflection in the contest—of Koyas vs Lambadas. Koyas, that is the Adivasis, want the Lambadas removed from Scheduled Tribes list. They complain that the Lambadas are cornering the benefits of reservation, leaving nothing for the Koyas. A “Go back Lambada” movement had started in these parts. Seethakka is a Koya, while Chandulal is a Lambada. There is also talk that Koyas pelted Chandulal’s son with stones because Lambadas were deployed as security officials at the Sammakka Saralamma festival, considered as the tribal Kumbh mela, where lakhs of tribals congregate from different parts of the country. But then the TRS government has redrawn the constituencies in such a manner that Mulugu is left with only 18,000 Koya/Adivasi voters, of the total around 2 lakh voters.
The constituency also has a substantial number of “settler” voters, that is “Chandrababu Naidu’s people”, as the Mahakutami—the grand alliance between Congress, TDP, TJAS and CPI—would like to believe. At Parsa, however, the “settlers” or the Seemandhra people this newspaper meets, firmly say that they are with TRS.
This area, punctuated with hillocks, forests and lakes, used to be a hotbed of Maoist activities even around a decade ago, until the then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy of the Congress, successfully eliminated the ultras. At present, reports are that a few armed Maoists have been spotted in the nearby forests and Chandulal has been advised not to venture too much into the interiors.
As for Seethakka, she has transitioned beautifully from a Maoist revolutionary to the perfect politician. Her short phone chat with this correspondent is peppered with sky-high praise for the Congress high command, of Sonia Gandhi in particular.
SURE-SHOT IN WARANGAL WEST
In these elections, TRS is confident of reaping the dividends of its government’s populist schemes numbering over 400. While there is anti incumbency, it is also not difficult to find people who have benefited from these schemes. In the Muslim neighbourhood of Machhlibazar in Warangal West, an urban constituency, a young girl, Shamreen talks about her grandfather availing the government’s pension scheme and her sister getting the one-time dole of Rs 100,116 for getting married after 18 years of age, courtesy the Shaadi Mubarak scheme, which is named Kalyana Lakshmi for Hindus. A young woman, Sobiya, who was part of the team campaigning with the sitting TRS MLA, Dasyam Vinay Bhaskar, tells this newspaper about how she became corporator of division (ward) 31 “because of Muslim reservation”, defeating the sitting Congress corporator. An MTech, Sobiya was earlier based in Hyderabad, where she used to work in TCS. But then her husband was transferred to Warangal and she decided to join politics. She talks about how 700 double-bedroom houses are nearing completion in the Hanamkonda neighbourhood of Warangal, about how the pension scheme and Anganwadi schemes for mother and child development are finding resonance on the ground. “There is no water scarcity now. There is electricity. Roads have been constructed. Why won’t people vote for us?” she asks. The buzz is that Warangal West is a sure-shot seat for the TRS. It is not known how many of Telangana’s 119 seats can be described thus.
HIGH HOPES IN MALKAJGIRI
Meanwhile, in the semi-urban Malkajgiri constituency in Secunderabad, the Bharatiya Janata Party candidate, N. Ramachandra Rao, is busy doing the rounds of Turkapalli village. A statue of Mahatma Gandhi and the busts of B.R. Ambedkar and Jagjivan Ram dominate the village square and Rao begins his campaign by garlanding them. A couple of villagers whiling away their time in the morning sun do not appear hugely impressed, but acknowledge that “he is the first politician to come here”. But appearances can be deceptive. BJP has a vote in these areas. Ramachandra Rao is an MLC and says that he had lost the last Assembly elections from here by a margin of only 2,000 votes. The BJP cadre accompanying him belong to the ABVP and are Osmania University students. They are divided on with whom their fight is: some say TRS, while others say Mahakutami. Rao jokes that the sitting MLA, C. Kanaka Reddy of the TRS “has the record of changing three parties in a single day. In the morning he was in TDP, afternoon he was in Congress and evening he was in TRS.” Among others, Rao is banking on the presence of “educated middle class voters” in Malkajgiri. “You have 4,000 Bengali families here and 4,000 Uttar Pradesh and Bihar families. You have 15,000 to 20,000 Tamil votes, 10,000 to 15,000 Malayali votes and 10,000 Kannadiga votes. This is mini India.” Malkajgiri has a total of around 4 lakh voters. Rao also believes that “BJP will be the key factor in the formation of government. We don’t know what formation will come, but definitely I can say that without BJP no government can be formed.”