VIJAYAWADA: As it flows past the villages of Didugu and Eturu, the Krishna is a serene river. It flows mile wide, and seems no deeper than your knee. The river is inviting, and picnickers often fall for it and try to wade from the Krishna side of the river to the Guntur side. Should you dare to do that and if you catch the eye of the fishermen, you are likely to receive a glare and a stern talking to.
For that stretch of placid water hides numerous invisible abysses underneath. The sand pits gouged out by the contractors' earth movers range in depth from 10 m to 40 m.
How deep is that? Non-riversiders do not know what it is like to encounter an unexpected pit hidden by the placid Krishna. The five students from Nandigama who drowned in the Krishna at this spot on Tuesday did not know what it is to swim in the river here.
"Some pits are deep enough to hide two palm trees one on top of the other," said a fisherman at the reach to this reporter from the New Indian Express who went over to get a sounding on the treacherous sand pits in the Krishna downstream of the Prakasam barrage.
To reach the river bank at Didugu, one travels 2.5 km via a lanka (river island) from Eturu. This stretch is a minefield of pits excavated by sand contractors. Local villagers take this path often but even they take care to do so when there is water in the river. To do so when the river is flowing in the monsoon is foolhardy, they say.
"We know that there are deep pits on the river bed. So when there's water there, we don't even dare to swim in the river," said a cow herd, K. Srinu. Close to the deeper pits, the current of the slowly flowing river can be strong and irresistible. Should an unwary swimmer be sucking into the one of the deeper pits, there is almost no possibility of getting any kind of help.
After the tragedy of Tuesday, one of the four survivors in the ill-fated group of nine, G Vamsi, lamented that they stricken boys did shout out for help as they were swept into one of the pits. The nearest people were 200 m away. Not even expert swimmers would volunteer to go near the whirlpool to save a drowning person. The sand mining workers in the vicinity would hardly dare.
The river bank at Eturu village is clearly identified by the district administration as a dangerous place to flirt with the Krishna. That's why no bathing ghat has been built here for the ongoing Krishna Pushkarams. A whole stretch of the river bank, encompassing the villages of Eturu, Ramannapeta, Kasarabada, Malladi and Munagodu is a danger zone.
"Heavy mining has been happening all along the river bed here. Excavation surged after the state government's decision to supply free sand. And the pits have got deeper and deeper, some going down to 40 m," said an employee of the District Rural Development Agency, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Most of the mining happens on the Guntur side of the river. So local political leaders in Nandigama find it easy to wash their hands of any responsibility for the deaths such as those that occurred on Tuesday.
"The spot where the unfortunate incident took place does not come under my constituency. The people of Eturu are going over to the other bank for a bath despite the government's cautions about sand pits. Dangerous mining happened mostly under the previous governments, not under TDP rule," said the MLA of Nandigama, Tangirala Sowmya.
Villagers New Indian Express spoke to took issue with the MLA's statement. Why on earth would they go over to the other side to take a dip when they have their own river bank, the villagers ask. The politicians are only trying to divert attention from the uncontrolled illegal sand mining going on along the Krishna, they say.
G Srujana, the sub-collector of Vijayawada, who was pillored by the people after the tragedy on Tuesday, said villagers are often not too cooperative when told not to venture near the dangerous pits. "We have indeed curbed sand mining. There is strict policing and there have been many seizures of sand-loaded heavy vehicles. The administration is implementing all controls on dangerous mining but the Guntur administration needs to take more care. Such activity is going on mostly under Guntur limits," she added.