Despair and Determination in Anantapur
Oct 15th 2004, Jayati Ghosh
We had thought it would be a depressing, even emotionally draining visit. After all, Anantapur is one of the poorest and most backward districts not just in Andhra Pradesh but in all of South India. It has also been one of the areas experiencing the highest number of farmers' suicides in recent years. And we were visiting as part of the Commission on Farmers' Welfare, specifically to investigate the causes of agrarian distress and consider possible measures to change the situation for the better.

The extensive crisis in rural Andhra Pradesh is now well known, and has also been documented by some sensitive journalists and local activists in the state. The new state government also recognises the seriousness and urgency of the problem, which is why it is actively considering policies that will not only reverse the damage done in the previous period, but would actually put agriculture on a sustainable footing in the medium term. But the problems are not only immense but complex and varied, given the diversity of the state itself.

There is no doubt that the situation is especially dire in this particular district. Anantapur is the largest district in Andhra Pradesh, but has relatively sparse population and falls among the lowest per capita incomes of all districts. The average rainfall of 521 mm per year is the lowest in the state, and compares with the state average of 925 mm. The shallow red soils that cover most of the area in the district have low moisture retention capacity in any case. Despite these adverse conditions, Anantapur is dominated by rain-fed agriculture, with only 18 per cent of the cultivated area covered by any sort of irrigation.

In the last few years the rainfall has been even more sparse and erratic, creating a context of continuous drought. The duration of the monsoon has become shorter and it tends to occur later and behave more erratically in distribution. So rainfed crops have been failing continuously for many years now, driving farmers to search desperately for groundwater, by digging bore wells whose failure rate has also increased dramatically as the water table falls.

But nature has been responsible for only a few of the problems facing Anantapur farmers. As in other parts of the state, the deterioration and even destruction of public institutions, and the strategy of pushing farmers to face the vagaries of market forces, were very much part of state government policy over the previous decade. These have been critical in increasing material insecurity and allowing for not just the persistence of poverty but the actual worsening of some basic economic conditions.

Governmental negligence - which is evident - is only one cause. The policy of shifting to cash crops with increasingly uncertain markets has clearly been another cause. Until fairly recently, the district was certainly poor, but experienced less starvation and fewer individual economic catastrophes, because the ragi and barley that could be cultivated in these tough conditions allowed for at least minimum survival among the farming community.

But the shift to groundnut over the past decade - actively abetted by state incentives - has forced farmers to much greater market dependence. They have to buy more inputs (many of which are spurious because of the inadequate regulation of private suppliers and traders) and then have to sell the crop even to ensure their own food consumption. Even when harvest failures have reduced the volumes of output drastically, output prices have not been remunerative.

Not surprisingly, more and more farmers, even those who were earlier relatively well-to-do, have fallen into debt. And more of that debt has been from private sources, as public institutional credit for cultivation has been reduced as a consequence of financial liberalisation measures.

Among the people we spoke to, health expenses were probably just as significant in pushing families into the debt trap. The deterioration of public health services and the promotion of private medical care have dramatically increased the financial costs of sheer physical survival and well-being, even among the relatively poor.

Migration has been one traditional response to the lack of local income opportunities, but the possibilities even for this have been shrinking, as the entire region around the district has been economically battered. Meanwhile, unemployment and the sheer difficulty of daily life have spawned patterns of frustration and violence among the youth. Suicide deaths in Anantapur, even as they continue, are now outnumbered by deaths resulting from gang wars and factional killings, adding yet another harsh element to the complex tribulations of the area.

Given all this, it was probably only normal for us to expect to be further depressed by the reality that we would face in Anantapur. And yet, our interactions there also convinced us of the remarkable resilience and tenacity of the human spirit. This is now one of the most difficult geographical terrains in the world for viable cultivation, and the people here face economic difficulties and uncertainties that are unmatched even in other parts of rural India. Those who survive here have to be tough and necessarily resistant to disaster, and it is an indication of just how bad things have become that even some such people have been driven to the ultimate despair of suicide.

But still, there was a lot of determination and continued hope writ large in the faces around us. Huge expectations have been generated by the new state government - expectations that will be difficult to meet, but which still indicate the capacity of people to commit themselves to trying for a better future in the face of all obstacles.

In the villages as well as in one of the mandal headquarters, ordinary people were remarkably vocal and articulate, even the poorest people, and especially the women. They could very clearly identify the problems, and trace the links with official policy, much better than any of us; they did not hesitate to assign blame even when the accused was a local authority who was present; they had many suggestions to improve matters, which were plausible and often imaginative. The old type of feudalism which expressed itself even in social relations and in the lack of voice of the poor in public spaces, seems to have been much weakened, and there is also greater recognition of the need for a positive role played by government.

Certainly, some of the initial measures give indications that the new government will try to alleviate at least some of these problems. The relief package for families of farmers who have committed suicide has been sensitively worked out and appears to be implemented with some sincerity at least in this district (although, surprisingly, there is no provision for compensation for the family of a woman farmer who commits suicide). The district administration appears to be energetic and positively oriented. The state government has also declared its intention to bring more canal irrigation to this district, although that it is a far more complex issue.

In any case, addressing the problems of agricultural development in an area like Anantapur is a hugely challenging task, since it is necessary to consider the issues of sustainability and continued viability of farming and also the related question of developing non-agricultural income opportunities. The good news is that the people of Anantapur appear to be determined not only to survive, but to seize any opportunities for positive change that may come their way.


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