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Why the Rushikonda Hill project is steeped in controversy

INDWhy the Rushikonda Hill project is steeped in controversy

In August 2021, workers blasted through massive rocks and earthmovers churned relentlessly to demolish the government-owned understated Haritha Resorts atop Rushikonda Hill in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, transforming the serene landscape into a dust-choked construction zone. This move by the former government led by the YSR Congress Party (YSRCP) came much to the dismay of both locals and tourists, who had always cherished Rushikonda’s ‘blue-flag’ beach, a globally recognised eco-label accorded by the Denmark-based Foundation for Environmental Education.

The State government announced that a five-star hotel, aimed at boosting tourism in the City of Destiny, would be built on the hilltop. However, this justification did little to quell the mounting scepticism. Questions were raised over the logic behind damaging an ecologically sensitive zone to tap tourism potential.

Environmentalist and former IAS officer E.A.S. Sarma was among many who objected to the construction on the hill and wrote to the Municipal Administration & Urban Development (MA&UD) authorities urging them to halt the activity. He pointed out that as per the G.O. no. 3454 of the MA&UD dated June 30, 2006, the natural features, especially the hilly terrain, need to be conserved.

The then ruling YSRCP had planned to make Visakhapatnam the executive capital of A.P., and some members of the party claimed that the new structure would serve as the Chief Minister’s camp office. The issue created an uproar, drawing sharp criticism from the Opposition parties then — Telugu Desam Party (TDP), Jana Sena Party (JSP), and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Visakhapatnam East MLA Velagapudi Ramakrishna Babu who called for a protest at Rushikonda at that time was put under house arrest while his supporters were detained at various places while proceeding to the hill. “People have the right to know what is being constructed on the Rushikonda Hill. When there are so many places in the city, what was the need to destroy a government property which was generating good revenue,” he had asked.

The construction site atop the hill was heavily fortified with 25-foot-high iron barricades, transforming the area into a prohibited zone for the public, political representatives, and even the media. Responding on the TDP allegations, the then Tourism Minister M. Srinivasa Rao had said that the existing old resort would be re-developed, as the potential of Rushikonda has gone up manifold after being certified as a ‘Blue Flag’ beach. “It is a legal project and all permissions and clearances have been obtained. Primarily, it is for the development of tourism that will have a holistic positive impact, including employment generation.”

The demolition of this historically revered site, once believed to be the meditation spot of the ‘Sapta Rishi’ (seven holy sages), drew fierce criticism from locals. “Many believe that the hill was named after Sapta Rishis, who had performed penance on it. There is no proof to substantiate it though. But, at the foot of the hill, there is a Lord Siva temple, which is believed to be 150 years old. The hill falls under the Thotlakonda, Bavikonda and Pavuralakonda Buddhist heritage circuit, and we cannot rule out a 2nd century Buddhist connection, as no exploration, excavation or investigation has been taken up. The name of the hill might have also come from this connection,” K. Suryanarayana, former head of History department, Andhra University, points out.

Attempts by TDP national president (now A.P. Chief Minister) N. Chandrababu Naidu, JSP chief (now Deputy Chief Minister) Pawan Kalyan, and other political leaders to visit the site, were thwarted. Rushikonda was made a restricted area; only some of the YSRCP senior leaders, especially Rajya Sabha MPs, party regional coordinators had access to the site.

Hidden agenda and outrage

In October last year, a government-appointed committee recommended that the newly-constructed tourism resort on Rushikonda hill be used to accommodate the then Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy and other senior officials in Visakhapatnam. This announcement sparked further outrage, with Opposition parties accusing the government of misleading the public and destroying a historical site for personal use.

Following a recent change in government, the situation took a dramatic turn. Almost three years after the construction began, on June 16, the newly-elected Bheemunipatnam MLA and former Education Minister Ganta Srinivasa Rao, along with TDP and JSP supporters, stormed the site (Rushikonda comes under Bheemunipatnam limits). They found that the buildings bore no resemblance to a hotel or resort but were instead tailored for a CM residence-cum-camp office.

TDP and JSP activists have now dubbed the site ‘Rajamahal’. Pictures and videos allegedly of the opulent construction have quickly gone viral on social media, fuelling further public outrage.

The project, built at a cost of ₹500 crore according to the TDP leaders, was developed on 61 acres, with construction concentrated on about 9.9 acres. Seven buildings were constructed: Vijayanagara A, B, C; Kalinga; Chola; Venga; and Pallava. From the sea-facing side, three building blocks were accessible through a huge gate, purportedly built for the Chief Minister and his family, as per the TDP leaders.

The alleged CM residence boasts banquet amenities, a stylish kitchen, four luxurious bedrooms, exquisite bathrooms, an elevator, dazzling lighting, premium furniture, stylish marble flooring, and numerous automated installations. The best of material such as Italian marbles, export quality granite, high-end equipment and furniture, were sourced, claimed a group of NDA leaders who had barged into the facility after the Lok Sabha election results were declared.

Among the four other buildings, three appeared to serve residential purposes, as the size of the rooms were massive and does not suit the standard of any high-end hotel or resort, while a major block resembled a camp office, complete with over a dozen banquet halls, meeting rooms, office spaces, and server rooms.

Having had a glimpse of the construction, MLA-elect Ganta Srinivasa Rao likens the opulent buildings to the lavish houses of former Iraq President Saddam Hussein and Karnataka politician Gali Janardhana Reddy. “A Chief Minister has the right to have a camp office anywhere in the State he wants. But when it comes to the Rushikonda construction, they have destroyed a hill with historical significance. Besides, they did not even announce the details of the construction and cheated the people. Perhaps, this is the most controversial building in the history of A.P.,” he says.

JSP corporator P.L.V.N. Murthy says the former government had sought permission for constructing beach-facing luxury suites; private villas with gardens, pools, indoor and outdoor dining spaces, a cafeteria, banquet halls, conference rooms, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a party deck, indoor and outdoor auditoriums, a restaurant, kitchen, toilet facilities, staff quarters, and security cabins. “However, what was actually constructed was a luxurious residence for the former CM (Jagan Mohan Reddy) with public money. Action should be taken against those who blatantly violated the norms,” he adds.

TDP and JSP leaders allege that after the release of videos and pictures of the constructions, the YSRCP is trying to divert public attention by raising allegations about the functioning of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and attacks on their cadre.

Environmental cost

Complaining that Rushikonda was being illegally excavated under the guise of tourism resorts and that the constructions exceeded permissible limits, Visakhapatnam East MLA of the TDP, Velagapudi Ramakrishna; JSP corporator Murthy; and rebel YSRCP leader and current Undi MLA Kanumuru Raghu Rama Krishna Raju filed petitions in the High Court in 2021. Several environmentalists, former IAS officers, and former government officials also expressed concern over the construction activities following partial demolition of the hill.

In May 2022, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) issued an order halting further construction atop Rushikonda hill. However, two months later, the apex court set aside this order, stating that while development is necessary, protecting the environment is equally important. In December that year, a division bench of the A.P. High Court directed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to constitute a five-member expert committee to investigate alleged violations of environmental protection laws in the construction work on the hill.

The committee visited the site on December 14, 2022, and in its report submitted to the court, it stated that the constructions were in violation of the permissions granted.

In August 2023, after reviewing the report submitted by the joint committee, a Division Bench of the A.P. High Court announced that it would direct the MoEFCC to take necessary action based on the findings, as the ministry had originally granted construction permission for Rushikonda.

JSP Bheemunipatnam constituency in-charge Panchakarla Sandeep criticises the government for maintaining secrecy over the project for the past four years. He claims that false cases were deliberately foisted against numerous TDP and JSP activists for protesting the environmental violations. Many party supporters/workers are still entangled in legal battles over these cases.

A senior official from the A.P. Tourism Development Corporation notes that the former Haritha Resorts, along with its restaurant, offered stunning sea views, attracting scores of domestic and international tourists. “The resort generated around ₹8 crore profit annually. By demolishing it, the YSRCP government impacted revenue,” he says.

Dissent and debate

Former IT Minister and YSRCP leader Gudivada Amarnath dismisses allegations by TDP and JSP leaders that the constructions were intended for the former CM’s residence-cum-camp office. He clarifies that those were government constructions designed as guest houses for visits by the President, Prime Minister, Chief Minister, and other VVIPs.

Now, the current government led by the TDP has not finalised plans for the use of these constructions. There is an ongoing debate among environmentalists, politicians, and the public on the matter.

Bolisetti Satyanarayana of the JSP labels it “a blatant violation of environmental laws and Coastal Regulatory Zone laws. Most importantly, public money was utilised for this, without any approval. The public did not even know what was being constructed on the hilltop. There should be a debate to figure out what to do with the constructions,” he adds.

“The rooms seem to be very spacious. So, unless some amendments are made, the buildings cannot be used as tourism resorts,” says Visakhapatnam MP-elect M. Sribharat.

A final decision will be taken after Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu visits Visakhapatnam in a few days. TDP State president Palla Srinivasa Rao says, “We are receiving opinions to use it as a State guest house. But I don’t think we can maintain it that way; it would involve huge money. It is up to the high command to decide what to do with it.”

Former vice-chancellor of Andhra University, G.S.N. Raju suggests that the government should explore ways to utilise the new construction wisely. “It could be used as the Governor’s summer bungalow,” he says, in a throwback to the Raj.

D.S. Varma of AP Air Travellers Association says some of the buildings could be used for consulates of different countries.

Floor leader of Jana Sena Party, Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation B. Vasantha Lakshmi says the constructions may be used for tourism purposes, since they are located at a scenic place.

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