In one of Telugu poet Devarakonda Balagangadhara Tilak’s stories titled Aasakiranam (Ray of hope), the narrative follows a 40-year-old protagonist Venkateswarlu who deals with a simple but seemingly impossible challenge – procuring rice for his family. He is unemployed, he has failed at various jobs, and his family is now so poor that they’re frequently forced to go hungry or ask in other houses for food. The story offers the reader a disturbing take on how hunger affects a human being at a fundamental level, and how this inability to feed your family strikes at the root of your morals.
It has been five months since YS Jagan Mohan Reddy came to power in Andhra Pradesh. One of his government’s most important decisions was to ban sand mining till a new policy was put in place. While the new policy was announced in September, sand mining had been banned for three months and the damage had been done. With this one decision, Jagan ended up putting more than 20 lakh labourers out of their daily jobs and caused deep pain to their families who live a hand-to-mouth existence.
There are deep linkages between sand, construction industry, informal labourers, the economy and GST revenues. The ban brought the construction industry to a standstill for 3 months. Fall in the sale of iron, steel, and cement resulted in the fall of GST revenues. This was owing to a recession in the construction industry, and the sand ban altogether brought the industry to a stop.
There are nearly 20 lakh construction workers registered with the district-level labour boards across AP. There are a few lakh more who aren’t registered. Considering the children and elders dependent on these labourers, one can only imagine how many households suffered due to this short-sighted and hugely irresponsible decision.
Due to lack of employment and wages, if these labourers hope to go to a nearby Anna Canteen to get a healthy meal for Rs 5, they face a deserted canteen. I was reminded of the Tilak story when I realised that it has been more than two months since the much-appreciated Anna Canteens were closed by the new government. These canteens fulfilled a basic obligation that the state had towards its citizens, to ensure nobody went hungry due to poverty, that nobody suffered like Venkateswarlu and his family did.
The Jagan government simultaneously hit their stomachs and their employment.
Every day these canteens remain shut is another day when the common citizen and the hungry go without an affordable and healthy meal. A government that shows its pro-poor credentials by starting a scheme to distribute fine rice doesn’t find it ironic to put millions out of a job and stop the running of canteens that provide affordable meals to its citizens.
Beyond the labourers, the sand ban affected dozens of sectors linked to the construction industry. On an average, 1.5 lakh tonnes of steel is sold in Andhra per month. But during the months of July and August, barely 40,000-50,000 tonnes of steel was sold as construction came to a halt everywhere. Cement sales also showed a similar drop in these months. Other industries were also hit majorly – cement bricks, plywood, wood, pipes, paints, tiles, sanitary hardware, electrical appliances and so on. Painters, plumbers, electricians and others have lost their livelihoods.
As per the Andhra Pradesh Confederation of Real Estate Developers Association (CREDAI), sand allocated online is inadequate for even 10% of buildings under construction. Be it the small home that every common citizen dreams to build for his family or large apartments and commercial buildings under construction, there was no activity anywhere. More than 15,000 migrant workers from UP, Bihar and Odisha were working on Amaravati city. Most of them had to return to their states.
Any change in policy or programme and its effects must be judged based on how it impacts the common citizens. Many middle-class families had to wait in long queues, run around offices and pay exorbitant amounts to get even small quantities of sand.
During the 3 months of sand ban, a huge artificial shortage was created. A tractor of sand cost as much as Rs 8,000. Bags of sand ended up being costlier than bags of cement. Heavy rains and floods in the Krishna and Godavari only made the scarcity worse. There have been massive protests all over Andhra Pradesh by labour unions, workers, and Telugu Desam workers protesting this draconian move. When workers are going hungry on the eve of Dasara, when they can’t even buy their children any new clothes for the festival, we need to assess what kind of a government we have in power.
When a government thinks something is not working, the solution is not to destroy it fully before replacing it with something new after 3 months. There must be an assessment of how disrupting old methods could affect people and how this can be best avoided. Instead of banning sand mining until a new policy was in place, Jagan could have let the old policy remain for those 3 months. When someone wants to clean a fish tank and fill it with fresh water, they do it after getting the new water ready and close by. They do not empty the fish tank of water and then go in search of fresh water, and assume that the fish will somehow live in the meantime.
Like demonetisation, no thought was given about minimising the suffering of workers, the industry, or the economy due to the sand ban. Were experts consulted about the ramifications of such a ban? How did the government expect more than 20 lakh workers to find employment overnight?
When a new government is in place, people expect that they discontinue the bad policies and continue the good ones. Jagan asked people to give him a chance. And people gave him a chance; they wanted to see how Jagan can better TDP’s governance and growth rates. But he has gone about abusing this mandate by rolling back important schemes and hurting the economy.
Instead of building on his predecessor’s foundations, Jagan has gone about wrecking the TDP government’s flagship policies and programmes. He should be held responsible for destroying millions of jobs and small enterprises across all sections of society with the sand ban. When small men occupy big posts, it’s the economy that suffers, it’s the people who suffer, it’s Andhra and India that suffer. When small men cast long shadows, it means the sun is setting for a long night ahead.
Ram Mohan Naidu Kinjarapu is a two-time Member of Parliament from Srikakulam constituency and is a member of Telugu Desam Party. He was among the youngest MPs in India when first elected in 2014.