Jan. 20, 1975. Place: Paloncha
A busload of reporters from Hyderabad arrived at the APSEB guest house for the commissioning of a unit of the Kothagudem Thermal Power Station (KTPS) by the Chief Minister Jalagam Vengal Rao.
A handful of us representing mainstream newspapers rushed to the telegraph office to file our despatches, while the rest, honourable non-working journalists, kept the wires busy enquiring if their better halves had lunch etc.
After filing the reports, we returned to the guest house to find only left-overs on the table, the less busy friends having done a clean job of it.
The week before, the Minister for Power, G. Rajaram, suggested that a few of us reporters visit the Lower Sileru project which was under construction in East Godavari district for a better understanding of the energy sector.
The ‘chosen ones’ were shrewdly held back while the rest took the Hyderabad-bound bus. I, K. Parthasarathi or KP (UNI), P. A. Rama Rao (DC), Afzal (ANS), K.V. Laxmi Prasad (Indian Herald) and a few others boarded APSEB’s Willys Station Wagon headed for Upper Sileru in Visakhapatnam district because Lower Sileru had no guest house facility. APSEB’s PR man and staff followed in another vehicle. Having missed lunch, we hoped to have dinner at Bhadrachalam. That did not happen. Instead, the PR man asked us to proceed, promising to catch up soon. That did not happen either.
An hour or so into the un-escorted drive, we realised we had lost our way. We found ourselves in the dense forest, with no soul in sight and no way to turn back. We negotiated a few streams and one or two bamboo bridges. Government built bamboo bridges as the Naxalites, active at the time, blew up conventional bridges. The bridge creaked painfully as our vehicle passed over it.
Another big challenge was climbing a steep ghat section girdling a hillock. It was pitch darkness. The van refused to move uphill despite driver Tulsi Singh applying the load gear to activate all the four wheels. We got down enabling it to climb the gradient easily. As it rounded a sharp turn, it was darkness again. Adding to our miseries was the fear of creepy poisonous creatures.
An hour later, we found the first sign of civilisation – a cluster of huts and a huge bonfire in the centre. As we drew up, we saw the inhabitants awake at that odd midnight hour. They explained that a tiger had just then taken away their cattle.The bonfire was put up to prevent the tiger coming again. Famished and fatigued, we badly needed rest. The forest- dwellers informed us that the nearest place was Rampachodavaram which we reached in the small hours. Time and distance lost any meaning to us.
We looked around for the police station in the hope they alone could help us in this odd hour. In the process, we drove past the police station three times, mistaking the red light in front for a clinic.
As we entered the driveway, we were greeted with an ear-piercing scream ‘STOP’. Gun-wielding policemen closed in. Parthasarathy got down, took off his white shirt and waved it and shouted ‘We are friends, journalists, not foes’.
We stood in a hands up position while the cops frisked us, checked our cards, traditionally empty wallets and noticed the ‘Government vehicle’ sign on the number plate. They became instantly friendly and even managed to get us tea and biscuits! Some of us were put up in a small room while others slept inside the van.
Having noticed us driving past the police station twice, they suspected us to be Naxalites and were ready to open fire. It was our luck that none of the cops was trigger-happy. We were thrilled to know that Rampachodavaram PS was raided by the great revolutionary Alluri Seetaramaraju during the 1920s.
Our driver informed us that there was just enough fuel to reach Rajahmundry. We drove to the Superintending Engineer’s office. With his help, we filled the tank and decided to return to Hyderabad. We halted at KP’s brother-in-law’s house. We looked more like rag-pickers than journalists – tired, hungry, dishevelled, unshaven and ill-clad. The hospitable bro-in-law provided us with a shaving razor, hot water bath, delicious lunch plus snacks and ‘sacred water for the road.’
Post script: We contacted the PR man, courtesy the SE’s hotline. PR man: Hello boss, what happened? Where are you? I made all the arrangements for you.
KP’s face turned red with anger. Having left us in the lurch, this fellow had the audacity to talk. Forgetting that he was in a Government office, he got down to the job straightway. Starting with ‘nee……..ma’, KP gave the PR man a thorough dressing down, freely employing ‘mother-sister’ and related cuss words.
Back in Hyderabad, I filed a story with a vivid account of our travails which was carried on page one of The Indian Express and Andhra Prabha.
This was the story which had caused flutter in the Assembly and led to the unprecedented press boycott. (Concluded) (The author is former Resident Editor of The Hindu, Hyderabad)