‘Will fight against mining all my life’, says Araku’s first-time MP

Hindustan Times | TR Vivek | June 17, 2019

Almost all of Andhra’s estimated 600-million-tonne bauxite reserves — about a fifth of India’s – are concentrated in the Eastern Ghats. Governments and businesses have been eyeing them for the past two decades.

On the electoral map of Andhra Pradesh, Araku sticks out like a sore, neglected thumb. A reserved parliamentary constituency for Scheduled Tribes (ST), Araku can be unwieldy for its representatives. It comprises assembly segments from four districts — Vizianagaram, Srikakulam, Visakhapatnam and East Godavari. The farthest ends from the north to south are about 400km apart, mostly covered with the dense forests of the Eastern Ghats. With a predominantly tribal population, this is among the most underdeveloped regions, not just in the state, but in all of India. With its remoteness, ethnic diversity, and multiplicity of tribal languages, the political rhythm of Araku can be quite distinct from the mainstream.

Araku’s first-time Member of Parliament Goddeti Madhavi, 27, of the YS Jaganmohan Reddy-led YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) will be the 17th Lok Sabha’s second youngest member after 25-year-old Chandrani Murmu from the Keonjhar in Odisha.

Madhavi won the seat by a handsome margin of over 225,000 votes. She defeated Kishore Chandra Deo, a former Cabinet minister, six-time MP and long-time Congressman who, last year, switched over to N Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP). The feat earned Madhavi the sobriquet of giant-slayer, but she’s nervous about Monday, when the Budget session begins in the Lok Sabha and she will take oath.

Daughter’s dividend

Wearing an olive-green cotton sari and earrings that drop down almost to her shoulders, Madhavi was amused and surprised last week that this reporter, from an English-language national daily, had come to meet her. “Do you really think I’m that important?” she asked.

He father Goddeti Demudu, a two-time Communist Party of India legislator, is revered by the tribes of this region, including Valmiki, Kondu, Bagata, and Konda Dora (to which Madhavi belongs) even four years after his death. Demudu was a lifelong champion of tribal rights and led an austere life untouched by the accoutrements of public office. In 2015, when he succumbed to malaria. So impressed was Jagan Reddy by Demudu’s personal cachet among the locals — he witnessed it first-hand in 2014 during a mass movement against the then chief minister Naidu’s decision to pursue a multibillion-dollar bauxite mining project — that he offered Madhavi a ticket without hesitation. Araku, in any case, is a YSRCP stronghold because of the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy’s scheme allowing tribals to gain full ownership of the lands they cultivated.

In the 2014 state elections, the party won six out of the seven seats that make up the Araku parliamentary constituency. That, along with Demudu’s popularity, helped Madhavi’s landslide win.

“The people of Araku missed my father’s voice. They felt I could take his fights forward,” said Madhavi. Before taking the political plunge, Madhavi was a teacher like her mother Chellamma. An athlete who represented the state in volleyball and handball, it was her love for sport that led to her decision to study physical education. She graduated from the Srinivasa BP Ed College, Cuddapah district, in 2013; she also has a Computer Science degree.

“Most of the family earnings went to people’s causes. We have no land. My bank balance is ₹25,000. I can already feel the pinch as an MP,” she said, sitting in a government guest house in Visakhapatnam. As per her Election Commission affidavit filed in March, Madhavi had ₹141,179 of movable assets including cash in hand.

Madhavi says her priorities for Araku are two-fold: water and healthcare. Many in the scheduled areas — commonly know as “agency”, where non-tribals and outsiders are prohibited from property ownership — still manually fetch water from streams and small wells. She wishes to develop an integrated drinking water scheme

The issue of water, locals say, is linked to the anti-mining movement that Demudu spearheaded. “We get our water only from the hills. With poor rains, there is little water as it is. If they start mining the hills, the very source of our water will be destroyed. Madhavi’s father fought not just against mining but would be there standing with us on every issue we faced. He helped many of us get houses through the Indira Awas Yojana [a rural housing programme now renamed Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awaas Yojana],” says Vasudev Burudi, who has a small coffee plantation in Padmapuram village some 15km from the town of Araku.

The mining conundrum

Almost all of Andhra’s estimated 600-million-tonne bauxite reserves — about a fifth of India’s – are concentrated in the Eastern Ghats. Governments and businesses have been eyeing them for the past two decades.

In 2007, the Congress government headed by the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy was the first to firm up plans for its extraction through a deal with the investment arm of Ras al-Khaimah, a confederate of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In Opposition then, TDP’s Naidu levelled allegations of cronyism. When Naidu himself decided to pursue the projects once in power, the YSRCP turned into the champion of tribal rights and opposed the extraction deal.

Will Jagan Reddy change his tack again? “No, no. We [YSRCP] are definitely opposed [to mining]. I will fight against mining all my life,” said Madhavi.

Araku is also the mosquito-borne-diseases hotbed of Andhra Pradesh.

In 2018, the Visakhapatnam district accounted for nearly 70% of the state’s dengue cases. “Many patients in tribal agencies die even before they can reach a hospital. In some cases, even if there is hospital infrastructure, there are no doctors and trained nurses because they aren’t willing to come here,” Madhavi said.

According to Dalapati Labakusha, a division manager at the Integrated Tribal Development Agency in Paderu, doctors avoid postings here for the fear of losing income from private practice, poor schools and residential facilities for their families, and the threat of Maoists in a region part of the “red-corridor”. Chintapalli, the assembly constituency Madhavi’s father represented, was a hub for Maoist groups until police action forced them to retreat into parts of neighbouring Odisha and Chhattisgarh. A lot of Maoist violence in the region was directed at Bauxite mining operations.

Madhavi says, in the short-term, her priority is to increase the existing 50 or so telemedicine centres. Each centre treats up to six-eight patients a day currently.

A technology innovation introduced in 2017, these centres allow patients from remote constituencies like Araku, to be treated by doctors in cities like Vishakhapatanam, through video.

Madhavi also talks about adding new tarred roads to ease access to schools and hospitals, promoting tourism, and better marketing support for tribal agro-forestry produce such as Araku coffee, turmeric and honey.

“I have only got elected now. I’m still studying what all needs to be done. I will very soon have a full plan. Please give me some more time,” she said.