Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy is on a demolition spree, both literally and politically.
When he made a sudden announcement, while addressing a conference of district collectors on June 24 (Monday), that his government would start demolishing all the illegal constructions on the banks of river Krishna in Vijayawada, it was loaded with a political message. The intended target was his bete noire and predecessor N Chandrababu Naidu.
While the demolition drive is ostensibly aimed at removing ‘illegal structures’ that have come up on the riverbed in violation of the environmental laws, the real target is the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) president who lives in a palatial riverside rented house at Vundavalli on the city outskirts.
The first building to be pulled down is ‘Praja Vedika’, a sprawling conference hall next to Naidu’s residence which was being used for both the government and his party activities when Naidu was the Chief Minister. After losing power in the April 11 assembly elections, his party petitioned to the new government, seeking permission to retain the premises.
Streak of vengeance
Jagan took the gathering of senior officials by surprise when he announced that all unauthorised structures on the river bank would be removed soon.
Ironically, the venue of his meeting, ‘Praja Vedika’, has been marked as an unauthorised structure. The swanky building was constructed at a cost of ₹8 crore. “This in itself was a scam. The original estimation of ₹5 crore was arbitrarily increased to ₹8 crore,” the Chief Minister said.
The demolition drive will be launched on June 26 (Wednesday), starting with ‘Praja Vedika’ hall. “We have gathered in this building which is an unauthorised construction by the previous government. This will be the last meeting at this venue. It will be removed on Wednesday,” he announced.
Waving a copy of an official report on unauthorised structures on the Krishna river front, the Chief Minister reminded the gathering that the law was clear that no construction should be allowed in the river water regulatory zone.
“What can we say, if a person who ruled the state for five years indulges in corruption and violates law?” he asked.
Though the Chief Minister did not specifically mention about Naidu’s residence, located adjacent to the ‘Praja Vedika’, the message was loud and clear. “Starting with ‘Praja Vedika’ on Wednesday, all the illegal buildings will be razed,” he said.
“I have deliberately called for the meeting here in the same building to show all of you how almost all the laws pertaining to construction of a building near a river have been violated by the erstwhile government. An upright officer had refused to give permission clearly saying that the building level is less than the flood level. But, the then government bulldozed the objections,” Jagan said.
It was on Saturday (June 22) that the state government took the possession of Praja Vedika. Soon after coming to power, the YSR Congress Party had stepped up its campaign targeting Naidu’s riverside residence alleging that it was an illegal construction.
The TDP cried foul over the demolition drive. “Praja Vedika was built for the sake of people and not for any individual’s benefit. Similarly, several buildings came up on the banks of Krishna river over many years. Will the government demolish all of them? There are no instances of flooding of the area in the last 50 years,” senior TDP leader and MLA G Buchaiah Chowdary said.
Naidu has been staying at his present residence leased from Lingamaneni Ramesh, a leading industrialist, in 2015.
In 2017, the TDP government constructed Praja Vedika adjacent to his house to enable Naidu to meet people and take representations from them, besides addressing official and also party meetings.
The YSRCP legislator from Mangalagiri A Ramakrishna Reddy, who defeated Naidu’s son Nara Lokesh in the recent election, filed a public interest petition in the high court stating that Naidu’s house and many others in the area were illegal constructions as they came up on the river banks. The case is still pending in the court.
The alleged illegal constructions in the area include guest houses belonging to NRIs and other prominent people like former BJP MP Gokaraju Ganga Raju, besides a sprawling nature cure hospital and an orphanage.
In 2009, Ganga Raju sold his land to M Satyanarayana Raju, a well-known nature cure physician, for construction of an ashram. It is frequented by celebrities from all across the country.
What the Act says
According to the River Conservancy Act of 1884, no permanent structure is allowed either on the river banks or the river bed. The Flood Plain Lands Act also prohibits construction activity on the river banks and river beds.
A GO issued by the Municipal Administration and Urban Development Department in the past had prohibited construction of residential colonies, industries and hotels.
“The decision to pull down these structures must be welcomed. The previous government had made a mockery of the regulations and environmental laws,” said social activist Anumolu Gandhi who had approached the Green Tribunal, seeking demolition of all illegal structures.
In 2015, the officials of the irrigation department had identified 26 illegal constructions on the river bank. In 2017, the Green Tribunal ordered that no constructions should be allowed within the 500 meter radius of the river bank.
The environmentalists pointed out that the farm houses and private guest houses started coming up on the river bank in 2006 and violation continued with impunity. And, the area soon became a concrete jungle.
Ironically, the TDP, which was in the opposition in the combined Andhra Pradesh, had joined an agitation in 2013 by local organisations against the illegal encroachments in the region. However, a year later, Naidu, whose party won the 2014 elections, started using one of the private guest houses, overlooking the river, as his official residence. Later, the government went ahead and constructed ‘Praja Vedika’. It ignored the 2017 order of the Green Tribunal on removal of all constructions on the river bank.