Perils of exposing illegal sandmining

BY MALINI SUBRAMANIAM| IN Regional Media | 22/07/2018
Andhra Pradesh’s districts teem with stringers hunting in packs for stories to feed to their TV channels. Police cases against them, and abrupt termination are all part of the game.
MALINI SUBRAMANIAM reports on this universe

 Reporters in Koyyalagudem Mandal sending reports via WhatsApp

 

Twelve stringers were on an assignment on 31st May to expose illegal sandmining in Pothavaram village of Koyyalagudem Mandal in the coastal West Godavari district of Andra Pradesh. Nine of them were booked in a complaint by the village revenue officer allegedly filed on 30th, a day before they went to report, and the first information report was filed on 1st June.

Perhaps for the first time so many  part time journalists, primarily representing electronic media outlets have been booked in a single district and in a single FIR in the line of reporting. The most commonly used IPC sections--extortion and criminal intimidation of a government official--was slapped against all of them.   (Stringers are attached to staff reporters in this region.)

The Hoot met five of those accused in the FIR and spoke with two more to know what turned them into news.

It all started on the morning of 31st May when Alim Shaikh and a few others came to hear of illegal sand mining in a nearby Pothavaram village, about 10 kms from the Koyyalagudem town. Nearly twelve stringers representing various electronic media – NTV, iNews, News Herald, CVR News, TV9, Manam News, Jai Andhra, Vartha Print, Jilla News, Crime News, HM TV, 10TV – decided to head out on their mobikes to Pothavaram to cover the news for their respective agencies.  

Most media outlets in Andhra Pradesh retain stringers at the assembly constituency level.  West Godavari district has 15 constituencies with close to 100  such reporters covering each constituency that has about four Mandals.  The information and public relations department, West Godavari district has issued 1072  cards in 2016-17 to 154 news outlets, including print and electronic media in the district.    Gopalapuram constituency, under which the Koyyalagudem Mandal falls, has 80 print and 20 electronic media reporters, according to Alim Shaikh, one of the reporters working with NTV, and an accused in the FIR. 

Late morning of 31st May, Shaikh and his fellow stringers reached the home of  Gadde Vasu in Pothavaram village and took video shots of the sand dump in front of his house.

sand dump

The sand dump in Pothavaram village. Pix: author.

 

The reporters claimed that they had gathered from reliable sources that the sand was illegally mined from the Yerrakalva canal.  “There is a blanket ban on any kind of sand excavation from canal area as per a government order (GO) issued by the Mines Department”, informed Shaikh.  The ban was imposed to curtail erosion of farmland and to safeguard pillars that support the bridge constructed over the canal. However, explained Shaikh further, the water in the Yerrakalva canal that runs up to 45 kms through the district before emptying into the Bay of Bengal after another 40 kms, leaves behind soil most suitable for construction activities including brickmaking.  Brickiln owners, such as Vasu, find it convenient and cheaper to make a deal with the local officials to enable illegal mining rather than purchase from approved sand reaches”, he added.

" West Godavari district has 15 constituencies with close to 100 such reporters covering each constituency that has about four Mandals. "

 

An argument ensued between the reporters and the men who were overseeing the dumping of the sand.  Unsuccessful with their attempt to speak to the Village Revenue officer (VRO), all the twelve journalists went to the Tehsil office to meet with the Mandal Revenue Officer, P Padmavathi,  who did give an audience after everyone’s press card was checked but refused to give any official bite or statement as ‘she was not authorised to release any official statement to the media’ she explained to them.  Denying the MRO’s role in monitoring illegal sandmining, she instead recommended they approach the mining or irrigation department or file a complaint with the local thana.  Her job begins when the police does not take action, she told them. A heated exchange of words followed between the officer and the journalists.   With no official response from the MRO, the reporters tried unsuccessfully to speak with her senior officer, the Revenue Division Officer (RDO) in Eluru and subsequently visited the Ananthapally Police Station Incharge.  After waiting for half an hour at the thana, all the twelve journalists headed back to their respective base.

The same evening close to 6 pm, Shaikh received a call from the station incharge(SI) of Ananthapalli police station, Chandra Sekhar V, stating that a complaint against him and eight other reporters has been filed by  Chebrolu Rambabu, village revenue officer of Pothavaram village.   The FIR claimed that the complainant, Rambabu, the VRO of Potharam village accused journalists, Aleem Shaikh of NTV, Chitikina Krishna of News Herald, Murthy of TV9, Babu Rao Manam News, K Purnachandra Rao  Jilla Channel,  Atchuta Ramayya of iNews, Channti of Jai Andhra, Mahesh of CVR Channel and Sekhar of  Vartha Print,  had called him on 30th May questioning him on non-seizure of illegal sand dumped at a particular place.  The FIR further claims that “all the accused had extorted an amount of Rs. 1500 from the farmer from Pothavaram village”  and called up the complainant again on 31st to threaten him.

“This came as a complete surprise, as we were unable to speak with the concerned VRO , ”, said Channti.  “Further, we reached the place on the 31st and our interaction with government officials primarily the MRO happened the same day, whereas the FIR claims we spoke  to the VRO on the 30th, added Shaikh.  Most of them were on different assignments or personal work in other places on the 30th which can be easily proved, added Shaikh. The reporters felt claims of extortion by the farmer of Pothavaram village, whose name is not disclosed in the FIR, were unfounded and that the case was filed to malign them and safeguard their own deals.

The Hoot met P Padmavati, the mandal revenue officer in her office in Nallajarla, about 51 Kms  from the district head quarter, Eluru and 11 kms from Koyyalagudem Mandal.  The MRO had a completely different story to narrate: the reporters had come demanding action against the SHO for ignoring the illegal sand mining indulged by the private farmer, she said.  She even went on to add that the reporters had acknowledged to having accepted a bribe of Rs. 1500 rupees from the farmer who indulged in illegal sand mining.  “Yes, the journalists themselves acknowledged this to me,” she insisted.

Her junior colleague, the VRO had approached her a day earlier, on the 30th, with the complaint of extortion and threats by the journalists as well as threatening his family; the complaint was thus filed by him at the police station, she concluded as a matter of fact.    With regards the case of the farmer who has allegedly excavated sand illegally from the canal, she said there was no proof that it was excavated from the canal and went on to explain that although sand mining from the canal is prohibited, there is no restriction for ryots (farmers) to use sand from their farmland that is adjacent to the canal area. .  While the district has about 23 sand reaches as declared by the mining department, Koyyalagudem mandal does not have a single sand reach, informed the MRO.  She did  acknowledge that given the long Yerrakalva canal, people tend to mine sand from the canal, which is a complete no-no.

 But what upset her most was the attitude of the journalists.  She felt the entire “bunch” of journalists “gheroaed her – a woman officer - almost threatening her to give a bite”.  She respects journalists and their work, she said, but such an attitude was unacceptable, and therefore even suspected if they are reporters, she added.  She seemed visibly upset when she shared that one of the journalists had uploaded a video of the heated exchange they had in the office on you-tube.   Why did she not file a complaint against the journalists for their behaviour then?  “It wasn’t so important and I did not wish to make an issue of that”, she shrugged unconvincingly. 

The Hoot then met with the Chandra Sekhar Varre, SI, Ananthapalli police station and  Chebrolu Rambabu, the complainant and the village revenue officer.  The SI said the investigation is on and will be readied in a fortnight (until this report was filed the investigation had not been completed).  He smiled and spread his arms displaying his helplessness when I asked if he felt convinced of the case against the journalists.  In a similar vein, the VRO said the case has put him in an “awkward spot” as he had to abide by his superior.  When asked if he has ever met or spoken to the journalists, he shook his head. The charges of extortion and threats to a government official thus came across as completely trumped up.

The Hoot visited Yerrakalva canal from where the sand is alleged to have been illegally mined as well as the site where the sand continued to remain piled.  The canal and the sand dump were a stark reality to the illegal sand mining waiting to be uncovered, instead the episode took an ugly turn against the messengers. “Our information was that the sand was excavated in the night,” shared Shaikh who had clips of the sand dump but not of excavation.

canal

  Mindless excavation from Yerrakavla canal. Pix: Malini Subramaniam

 

The reaction of the management of the respective news outlets to which the nine reporters were attached as stringers, was at variance and diverse.

While NTV and iNews immediately took away the logo and their identity card from their stringers, others like TV9 froze their reporting for ten days as a warning, some others like Jai Andhra and CNR News were fully supportive shared the reporters.  iNews’ Staff Reporter,  Bhargav decided to remove Achut Rammayya, the stringer who reported to him, as ‘he did not respond to a month’s notice to explain the matter to the head office’.  Since Ramayya failed to file the news of illegal sandmining on 31st evening, iNews did not even cover the news..    NTV staff reporter, Syed Mastaan, too had similar complaint against his stringer, Aleem Shaikh, who he said sent confusing report of initially asking him to hold the news as the case against him could be withdrawn if he apologises to the MRO and withholds news from appearing in news. .  Shaikh’s failure to respond to the matter in writing to his respective office  and negotiating the matter at his level, such as holding dharna against the MRO, filing a memorandum with the superintendent of police and the chief minister, lost him the agency’s support in the matter, explained Mastaan.    Jai Andhra staff reporter, Kiran Kumar, to who his stringer Chanti Ganti reports, had his full support as “reporting on corruption and illegal activities is bound to attract a rebound from the officials accused” said Kiran Kumar.  Since the news was not so big, Jai Andhra had run it as news ticker, he added. With regards to varied reaction by different news outlets towards their stringers, Kumar felt that this has a lot to do with the relation the stringer shares with their corresponding staff reporter.  CNR News staff reporter Ravi Kumar had withdrawn the logo and the id card for ten days before reinstating his stringer Murthy back.   “I was warned against reporting such matters and further have been instructed in keeping him posted of his whereabout when he goes reporting”,  said Murthy. Ravi Kumar has not responded to repeated requests for his comments.

 Purna Chand Rao, who uploaded the MRO’s video onto youtube which incensed the MRO, runs his own channel called Jilla News.  However, as the pressure was mounted on the reporters by the SI, it was pulled it down within an hour, said Rao. 

As stringers we are often left to fend for ourselves, explained Shaikh when asked why he withheld filing report on the illegal sandmining.  Since the SI promised not to file a case if the sand mining report is not out, many stringers succumbed and withheld filing the report for a day   however, ‘keeping their respective seniors informed of the situation’, added Shaikh   The FIR was subsequently filed,  the investigation continues to  drag its feet and many had to face their management’s kneejerk reponse of suspension. 

Stringers are unpaid newsgatherers at ground zero, hired by news outlets. A set target of advertisement helps them earn a commission fixed by the management. There is no official written contract between the management and the stringer.  Equipped with a logo, a press card and an official phone number they are expected to send news that they consider newsworthy. “There is no restriction on the nature of news they gather, which then gets filtered for further transmission at the district level where the staff reporters sit, explained Mastaan of NTV.    

Enroute the site we encountered a site of weeping village women who were moaning the accidental death of two male construction labourers from their village as the 10 feet deep pit they were working inside suddenly caved in. Despite their termination and warning, all the journalists halted and began shooting with their phones and talking to the villagers and other officials visiting the site to whatsapp the news to their respective news agencies.  Unable to conduct full-on interviews as their agency logos were withdrawn, the reporters fell no short of sending news from their reporting areas. But aren’t you off your channel?  “Yes, but who will cover this news”, said Murthy.   “We are confident the case will be in our favour, and we will be back on our work”, said a more confident Shaikh “Our staff reporter has promised to reinstate us once the fir against us is dismissed….. we do not want the staff reporters to forget us”, he chuckled.

With election time closing in, news from each constituency has to flow irrespective of what stringers have to endure in the course of gathering reports from the ground.

 

Malini Subramaniam is an award-winning freelance journalist based in Hyderabad.

 

 

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