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Nearly 20,000 residents across seven villages in Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh, find themselves trapped by a complex web of security restrictions and ecological concerns, with the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on one side and the Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary on the other. A.D. Rangarajan finds that they carry the burden of a sacrifice by their ancestors, who surrendered their land on Sriharikota island to give wing to the nation’s space ambitions 

September 29, 2023 08:29 am | Updated 08:29 am IST - TIRUPATI

The boat used to cross the 200-metre-wide creek to reach Pudirayadoruvu village, located between Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary and the backwaters of the sea.

The boat used to cross the 200-metre-wide creek to reach Pudirayadoruvu village, located between Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary and the backwaters of the sea. | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Carrying a big bag on his shoulders and armed with a battery-operated torch, K. Sadasivam, 63, boards a State-run bus on the less travelled route between Sullurpeta and Rayadoruvu in Tirupati district of Andhra Pradesh. The bus winds its way through a desolate 40-minute stretch to reach the Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary even as the towering 3-metre-high compound wall of Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota (SDSC-SHAR) appears on one side. Barbed wire fencing stands sentinel to prevent unauthorised entry into the area, casting an eerie atmosphere along the 14-km stretch. This closely guarded road, primarily used by SHAR’s surveillance vehicles, rarely sees another soul.

Upon reaching Rayadoruvu, also known as Pudirayadoruvu, Sadasivam gets off the bus and presents his identity card, an indispensable document for the residents of villages abutting India’s famous rocket launch station. The security personnel scrutinise it and grant him passage through a rickety gate. His journey continues as he boards a boat to traverse a 200-metre-wide creek, the only route leading to home.

This is not an isolated experience but a recurring ordeal for nearly 20,000 residents of seven villages in Vakadu mandal surrounded by the Pulicat Lake Bird Sanctuary, ISRO’s space centre, the Buckingham canal, and the Bay of Bengal and its backwaters on all four sides, every time they step in or out.

D. Madhusudhan Reddy, former president of Mandal Praja Parishad in Vakadu, recounts the time when their families led a life of quiet comfort on Sriharikota island. However, that existence was disrupted when they were relocated. “The 32 villages on the island lived life king size, but when we were rehabilitated to Nemilimitta Agraharam, Talamanchi and other places, our ancestors could not survive the change and lost their livelihood sources. Once landlords, they were reduced to the ignominy of daily wage earners,” recalls Reddy, who is now serving as the general secretary for the ruling YSR Congress Party in Tirupati district.

From landowners to outcast

Even as India celebrates its space achievements, such as the recent Chandrayaan-3 and Aditya L-1 missions, the plight of these ‘unsung heroes’ whose ancestors sacrificed their land for the establishment of the space station often goes unnoticed. After being relocated to the neighbouring villages in the 1970s in phases, the residents are now outcasts in what was once their homeland.

Given the high-security national establishment on one side and an ecologically sensitive sanctuary on the other, the problem faced by people in the Gudur and Sullurpeta constituencies of Tirupati district is two-fold. In Gudur, 28 hamlets in Raviguntapalem, Nidugurthi, Moolapadava, and Pudirayadoruvu panchayats (in Vakadu mandal) and 18 in BGK Palem and Ellur panchayats (in Chittamur mandal) bear the brunt of several restrictions. In Sullurpeta constituency, Doravari Satram and Sullurpeta mandals also face challenges, albeit to a lesser extent.

Ramsubba Reddy, another resident of Pudirayadoruvu, who is expecting 100 guests for a family wedding, has to apply for 100 passes at the SHAR security office. Once the passes are ready, guests will need to present their identity cards at security checkpoints to enter the village. Even one extra person will be turned away without mercy. This is precisely why Tavva Ravi, an electrician and plumber based in Sullurpeta, declines service requests from the cluster of seven villages, as a simple repair job can take an entire day.

Residents of these villages are also grappling with dire economic prospects and have no source of livelihood. While industries are prohibited, agriculture and pisciculture lack infrastructural support, and access to basic healthcare and education remains a distant dream.

Eco-sensitive zone

Within this designated ‘eco-sensitive zone’ (ESZ), the absence of pucca roads leaves villagers navigating gravel pathways that take no time to transform into quagmires during the monsoon. While Pudirayadoruvu panchayat has a primary and elementary school, those pursuing intermediate education (Class XI and XII) are forced to travel to Chinnathota, 15 km away, on a bicycle or scooter, and then take a bus to Vakadu town, which easily takes an hour.

This apart, the shadow of unemployment looms large, leaving many wandering aimlessly, thanks to mobility-related restrictions. Y. Sekhar, a resident of Pudirayadoruvu, notes the irony of Sullurpeta, which is 30 km away. “It is teeming with job opportunities, but we have only three buses plying this route. Travelling via Vakadu makes it a 100-km ride one way, rendering daily travel impractical,” says Sekhar, whose grandfather was a migrant from Sriharikota island. The farmer-turned-mason has now taken to plying a fishing boat in the backwaters.

Although two-wheelers were allowed on their road until early 2020, SHAR authorities banned the movement of private vehicles near the facility owing to security concerns. However, following pleas of the villagers, the number of daily buses passing through their compound was increased to three earlier this year from two.

Even land-owning farmers are finding the going tough, given the absence of permission to use earthmovers, deep borewell excavation, or the construction of larger sheds. “We are denied three-phase power connections, and the sole mobile tower installed here gives a feeble signal,” laments Pudirayadoruvu vice-sarpanch B. Venkataratnam. “Our peculiar problem owes its roots to the declaration of a bird sanctuary in the area already inhabited by villages with private properties,” he says, terming it an infringement on their basic right to livelihood.

With silt piling up at the mouth of the sea, preventing the flow of water into and out of Pulicat, the brackish water lake faces a grave threat. High-quality prawns and crabs from this area are even exported to Dubai. With nearly two-thirds of its area having shrunk, fishermen have lost their livelihood. Approximately 1 lakh people, irrespective of community, depend on pisciculture in villages abutting the backwaters.

NHRC takes note

The issue caught the nation’s attention when V. Govardhan Kumar, a native of Pudirayadoruvu who now resides in Chennai, lodged a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in November 2022, representing his village’s interests. The letter, which highlighted their difficulties “due to the presence of the ISRO station nearby”, stated that their children are not allowed in ISRO school and for medical emergencies, they have to cross the cantonment area, for which they often face refusal by the CRPF personnel for “security reasons”.

In response, the NHRC, on January 20 this year, directed the district collector to take appropriate action within eight weeks, along with submitting a comprehensive report. While recognising the importance of ensuring the security of ISRO, an institution of national importance, and strict adherence to rules governing the bird sanctuary, the commission saw the need for striking a balance in providing basic amenities to families residing within the ESZ. The copy of the direction, which is in possession of The Hindu, was also communicated to the Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh government.

Responding to the NHRC notice, revenue divisional officer for Gudur Kiran Kumar chaired two coordination committee meetings with the affected villagers on one side and officials representing various departments, including Forest, Roads & Buildings, Panchayat Raj, Power, Irrigation, Fisheries, and SDSC-SHAR, on the other. Bhaktavatchala Reddy, chairperson of the Agricultural Society in Vakadu mandal, asked the officials present if the basic right to a dignified livelihood should not be deemed important even in light of the coastal zone’s sanctity.

Politicians helpless

“ISRO promised land, shelter, water, and proper roads to the rehabilitated residents but has not done anything over the past several decades”V. Varaprasada RaoGudur MLA

Despite their earnest efforts, politicians face an uphill battle in fulfilling their assurances to the villagers of a better life. Gudur MLA V. Varaprasada Rao squarely places the blame on “the apathy of ISRO” for failing to uphold commitments made to the villagers when they were relocated from Sriharikota island. “ISRO promised land, shelter, water, and proper roads to the rehabilitated residents but has not done anything over the past several decades,” he says without mincing words.

A retired IAS officer, Varaprasada Rao recalls his stint as district collector of Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu) in the early 90s when he played a key role in transforming the Vedanthangal bird sanctuary in Chengalpattu into a tourist-friendly destination. Chengalpattu, now a separate district, was carved out of Kanchipuram on November 29, 2019.

Comparing Pulicat to Vedanthangal, which hosts anywhere between 3 lakh and 5 lakh migratory birds annually, he says, “The number of such visitors to Pulicat is much smaller. In Vedanthangal, visitors are allowed to roam about, observe birds through telescopes and savour the serene environment responsibly. This is in stark contrast to the all fuss in Pulicat,” he rues.

The MLA, who also served as Member of Parliament (Tirupati) from 2014 to 2019, secured ₹13-crore allocation for a cement road in Tirupati district stretching from Monapalem (lighthouse) to Nawabpet, 11 km away. However, this project remains on paper, reportedly awaiting clearance from the Forest department. “The villages are caught in a vicious cycle. Birds are undoubtedly important, but human lives matter just as much,” he says.

““I have held discussions with officials at every level, but the rules appear to be a big barrier to ensuring the most basic facilities to the villages”M. GurumoorthyMP, Tirupati

Current Member of Parliament M. Gurumoorthy is following up with the Central and State governments to have the villagers’ grievances heard and redressed, but there has been little progress in this regard. “I have held discussions with officials at every level, but the rules appear to be a big barrier to ensuring the most basic facilities to the villages,” he says, his dissatisfaction apparent.

Poor coordination

A disconcerting lack of coordination among government departments is alleged to be the reason for several sanctioned schemes remaining a non-starter. Line departments, tasked with road construction, cellular tower installation, and transformer placement, seldom adhere to the prescribed procedures when approaching forest officials for necessary permissions, leading to issues in project approval.

Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (Andhra Pradesh) Y. Madhusudhana Reddy says the department was ‘in principle’ committed to providing basic facilities to the notified villages situated in the ESZ. An environmental study will have to be conducted first on the proposals received from user agencies such as the Panchayat Raj, Roads & Buildings, or BSNL before according the sanction, he points out. “Apart from the project cost, the agencies should also be ready to foot expenses involved in mitigating the wildlife impact, a clause that is generally absent in their proposals.”

Proposing the implementation of a ‘single-window’ clearance system, Kiran Kumar says procedural hurdles can be eliminated by routing proposals by the individual departments through the RDO. “We will make this point clear at the third coordination meeting scheduled with the line departments next week,” he says.

Amid all the discussions and debate, precious little has changed for the villagers, who find themselves with no avenue for redressal, no representative to voice their grievances, and no employment opportunities. “We have relatives scattered all around the Pulicat lake, from Gudur in Andhra Pradesh to Pazhaverkadu in Tamil Nadu. We cannot leave this place. Our survival is intertwined with this region, with or without facilities,” says Ganesh of Pudirayadoruvu while fuelling his boat as he prepares to venture into the backwaters.

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