In north Andhra, the sea is a bracing presence to some and a daunting element to others. Just like development is a double-edged sword.
As soon as I landed in Visakhapatnam, I made for Ramakrishna beach. It’s the likeliest place in the port city for young people to gather, for the sea can be trusted to lift the spirit. I found a group of young girls and boys sitting on the wall that separates the beach from Beach Road and walked over to discover that it was a school reunion. They had all gone to Satya Sai Vidya Vihar in MVP Colony and were now home for the holidays and decided to meet up.
I asked to join them and they welcomed me. I asked them what their hopes for 2017 were, and the wishes were small and warm. Swati confessed her expectations were small. “Spending happy hours like this with friends is something I want. These reunions recharge us for the year and keep us going,” she said. Swati wasn’t expecting a hike this year. She got one in 2016 and was happy enough.
Her friend Ayesha took up the refrain. She’s a homemaker. Her husband is a commandant in the Coast Guard. “I want my friends to do well. That’s all I want. I am happy as I am. I have a comfortable life,” she said.
There was an inevitable software engineer in the group and he was the practical guy. “The New Year is just a change in number,” he informed us. “It will be just like any other year. I have ambitions in my personal and professional life but I cannot share them,” he said. He said he expected a hike this year and needed one because it was a motivation to do better.
I walked over to the fishing harbour following the smell of fish. I found an old fisherman sitting pensive on a parapet wall. Ch Tata Rao was 65 and still went to sea for a living. Fishing is the only livelihood for him and his wife. “I have sons but they have families,” Tata Rao explained.
Recent months and years have been difficult and the year ahead promises nothing better. Tata Rao operates a skiff with an outboard motor. A whole day’s labour on a craft like that might net a catch worth Rs 4000 split among a crew of five.
Vizag fishermen like Tata Rao feel hemmed in by restrictions from a number of agencies such as the port authorities who won’t allow them in their waters. “They promised us more than Rs 1.5 lakh per head as compensation but they gave us just Rs 25,000,” said the fisherman, looking very miserable. At least the government could help out by building them houses?
Leaving Vizag’s happy beaches and sad harbours, I drove to Ranasthalam in Srikakulam district where a proposed nuclear power plant at Kovvada village has set things on the boil. There too fishermen wouldn’t be allowed to fish near the plant if it ever got built.
In Kovvada, I called on sarpanch Mylapalli Polisu who has been leading his villagers in an agitation against the plant. But he said he’s a tired man now. The government has been bringing pressure on the villagers to abandon the agitation. It offers to rehabilitate people who would lose land to the project. Legally speaking, the lands are owned by the government but have been under use by villagers for decades. “The people are ready to leave the place after taking whatever compensation the government is offering us,” said Polisu. “We have fought for a long time. We are tired and the government is determined.”
At Kosta Junction, a few kilometres from Ranasthalam, I meet a fertiliser trader, Srinivasa Rao. No one knows whether the nuclear plant will bring prosperity or ruin. “I hear two arguments,” said the trader. “Some say the plant would be of no use to us. Others say it will bring development. As a businessman, I want development.”
Almost all questions agitating Ranasthalam have something to do with the same development dilemma. There’s an irrigation project being built too, called the Thotapalli lift irrigation scheme. It will irrigate some parts and not others. Who gains, who loses? I met a farmer who gained. Krimeja Ramana raised Sona Masuri paddy on his four acres and the crop came out very good because of water from the Thotapally canal. He was of course optimistic about 2017.
Another farmer I met, Seetavalasa B Ramana, was dealt a bad card. He said he raised maize on five acres and spent Rs 10,000. His farm has no irrigation and he lost the crop. “I got Rs 2,000 on my investment,” he told me. “We do not even have water to drink.”