In the pancha gramalu or quintet of villages in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam district, residents, women and men, many retired, go about their daily lives, sending grandchildren off to school, doing the daily chores and even celebrating festivals. But, they say, there’s a shadow hanging over them, with justice being denied to them for 23 years.
On August 19, 2000, Government Order no. 578—they are particular about the number because many have been under Central and State government employment—upturned their lives. Residents from Adavivaram, Venkatapuram, Vepagunta, Purushothapuram, and Cheemalapalli villages could no longer buy, sell, transfer, modify, or repair immovable assets, homes, small businesses, and the land is either left empty or used for cultivation. This impacted about 25,000 families residing in the villages, a green area surrounded by low hills, within 17 Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation (GVMC) revenue wards.
The G.O. declared that the ‘true’ owner of a 9,069-acre area was the Sri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy temple in Simhachalam. Most of the land bought for the construction of houses or small businesses, like lodges and shops, was from other individuals in the 80s and 90s.
The temple is an important pilgrimage centre in the district and one of the 32 Narasimha pilgrimage spots in the State. The people affected are worshippers of the Vishnu avatar themselves and were required to apply for regularisation by paying 70-125% of the market value of their respective properties. Payments were to be made in favour of Sri Varaha Lakshmi Narasimha Swamy Vari Devasthanam, the principal deity of Simhachalam. This amount would legitimise their property ownership, now deemed illegal.
Behind the G.O. was the government of N. Chandrababu Naidu, the current national president of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP).
A day after the G.O. was issued and the residents in the five villages sensed a threat from both the government and temple authorities, they lost no time in forming an association named Samaikhya Praja & Rythu Samkshema Sangham (SP&RSS). They officially registered the society and elected an executive committee to challenge the G.O. in a court of law.
But, 2,700 families which did not join the society accepted the G.O. and regularised their properties by paying the amount. By November 2003, they had collectively paid about ₹70 crore. Later, another 750 families decided to accept the G.O. and shelled out about ₹2 crore. However, they could not get their properties regularised due to the delay in payment.
Bayapalli Shankara Rao, 75, retired as a senior design engineer from Hindustan Shipyard Limited, a public sector undertaking under the Ministry of Defence. His home, nestled in Purushottapuram of Simhachalam area, within GVMC limits, is a picture of the pain etched into the lives of the pancha gramalu.
The buildings that date back about 30 to 40 years have patches of concrete falling away from the ceiling, revealing skeletal iron rods beneath. Crumbling walls and leaking roofs bear the weight of despair of the ‘homeowners’ who, post-retirement, find themselves trapped in misery, unable to repair their dilapidated homes or sell them to raise money for their children’s education or their own health crises.
“The roof of my house is completely damaged, but I am unable to repair it due to the restrictions. I live with my children and grandchildren. If there is any unforeseen incident, like the building collapse, who will be responsible?” says Rao.
The situation is similar for another senior citizen, Ch. S.S. Gopala Krishnudu, 72, who lives in the neighbouring Srinivasanagar area. He has three daughters, one in Australia and two in Hyderabad. He says he yearns for peace of mind that will come only when he is able to transfer his property to them. But here, he cannot even carry out minor repairs to a house he hopes to live in until the property transfer to his legal heirs is complete.
Krishnudu says he bought his house in 1995, for which he took a bank loan. “My house was officially registered by the Stamps and Registration Department. The grant of the bank loan indicates that my property documents are genuine and there are no legal issues. This also proves that I had not illegally encroached on the Simhachalam temple lands,” he says, adding that it has been a harrowing experience.
Explaining the background of the G.O., SP&RSS secretary T.V. Krishnamraju says, “The then government took a decision to officially notify 9,069 acres in the five villages as the sole property of Simhachalam Devasthanam. The government issued Ryotwari Pattas or shifting of ownership of the lands from farmers.” The Ryotwari Patta is a document issued by the State government to convert certain types of land (such as inam lands that were given as a gift pre-independence by rulers) into free-holds, so they can be further sold.
“Here, the Simhachalam temple authorities got the land rights from farmers,” says Krishnamraju. Nearly 419 acres of this notified land belong to house owners who are members of SP&RSS.
“Though this happened in 1996 and 1997, we did not know about it until G.O. 578 was issued in 2000. We found out when we went to the court for a hearing. Even the temple administrators did not tell us that they had gotten Ryotwari Pattas. Both the temple authorities and the government remained silent until 2000,” he says, adding that they felt cheated.
He claims that the government had issued Ryotwari Pattas to the temple authorities following complaints from a few political leaders, including former MLA Manam Anjaneyulu of the CPI. “The complainants claimed that some people, including politicians, had illegally encroached upon the Simhachalam temple lands. To check the encroachments, the government might have issued the Ryotwari Pattas to the temple authorities in 1996 and subsequently the G.O.,” says Krishnamraju.
Society members who refused to abide by the G.O. continued their fight against the government and the temple authorities. Elections to the Andhra Pradesh Assembly were held in 2004, and Congress leader, the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, was elected Chief Minister. He promised to cancel the G.O. and passed a repeal order in March 2004. He also constituted a committee in 2005 to conduct a study and suggest remedial actions.
When the committee was studying the case and the society was dealing with the court cases, a new petition was filed by some people who were not part of the five villages, in the Andhra Pradesh High Court in 2005. The petitioner said, “Endowment lands across the State are being encroached in Andhra Pradesh.” At this point, the society’s case and the new petition were merged in the High Court.
“Since the case was in court, the committee withdrew its study and did not go ahead. The people who had accepted G.O. 578 in the beginning and got their properties regularised are enjoying full ownership rights, while those who did not accept the G.O. are still facing problems,” Krishnamraju says.
“Whenever we try to carry out repairs, the team, most likely comprising Simhachalam temple authorities, immediately swoops down on our properties and removes the sand, bricks, and other building material kept outside our houses. We don’t know how they spy on us. Their ultimate goal is to ensure that our properties don’t get repaired or transferred. This is how they rob us of our mental peace”B. Ramani, 58 Resident of Vepagunta
B. Ramani, 58, a resident of Vepagunta under the pancha gramalu, alleges that a “ghost team” of the temple authorities has been monitoring their buildings since the G.O. was issued. “Whenever we try to carry out repairs, the team, most likely comprising Simhachalam temple authorities, immediately swoops down on our properties and removes the sand, bricks, and other building material kept outside our houses. We don’t know how they spy on us. Their ultimate goal is to ensure that our properties don’t get repaired or transferred. This is how they rob us of our mental peace,” she says.
Cheemalapalli resident Mahalakshmi (name changed to protect identity), 57, who lost her husband a few years ago, shares, “I took a loan from financiers for my daughter’s wedding. I could not sell my property due to the problems in the pancha gramalu. I am still paying interest for the money borrowed and am desperately waiting for all hurdles to be cleared so that I can sell the property and settle my debts.”
Waiting for a resolution
While 23 years have elapsed since the controversial G.O. was issued, no solution seems to be in sight for the residents of pancha gramalu as they are trapped in a never-ending cycle of despair, hopelessness, and unfulfilled promises.
“Everyone celebrates Independence Day in August; it was in that month that G.O. 578 was issued. It has deprived us of our independence. Our society members have collectively spent several lakhs of rupees to continue our struggle for justice in court,” says SP&RSS secretary Krishnamraju. There have also been rallies and protests in the past.
An official source from the Endowment and Revenue department reveals that there have been at least 1,200 written complaints received from people in the five villages, including owners of homes and vacant lands, and farmers of fertile lands, for a resolution. “Due to court cases and political issues, we have not been able to move forward. We don’t want to comment on the matter as it is an ongoing legal battle with the government and temple authorities involved,” the source adds.
MLA Muttamsetti Srinivasa Rao, representing the Bheemili Assembly segment, said that the YSR Congress Party government is ready to solve the long-pending problem of the pancha gramalu. “We have also proposed a land-to-land agreement to resolve the issue. However, as the cases are in court, we are unable to go ahead, but are confident of protecting the interests of the people. We are on the side of the people and are waiting for the court verdict,” he asserts.
A senior legal expert, weighing in on the contentious issue, suggests the constitution of a special committee by the State government, with retired legal and revenue experts having knowledge of civil issues as members. “The committee should collect evidence from the people to support their allegations and conduct a detailed case study. The solution lies in the mutual understanding of the temple authorities and the government,” he says.
Meanwhile, Aja Sarma, general secretary of Uttarandhra Development Forum, a community working for the development of north Andhra Pradesh, says after the problem arose in August 2000, four Assembly elections were held with several politicians promising a solution, but those turned out to be only empty words. Five Assembly seats —Pendurthi, Bheemili, Visakhapatnam North, Visakhapatnam East, and Visakhapatnam West—and two Parliamentary constituencies—Visakhapatnam and Anakapalli—have jurisdiction in the five villages. “We hope the Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy government will resolve the issue before the 2024 general elections,” Sarma says.