"Our drought is more than a drought of rain. The latter only made things worse."
Thikkaswamy’s business is missing out on the recovery. It never gained from any stimulus package either. “I’m sunk,” he told us. Thikkaswamy is a pasukapari — a professional cowherd or caretaker, who looks after livestock entrusted to him by the villagers of Harekal in Andhra’s Kurnool district. “I was tending about 250 head of cattle,” he says. “People paid me, on average about Rs. 60 a month per cow to look after their animals.” On this Rs. 2 a day per animal, Thikkaswamy grazed, cleaned up and cared for the cows and buffaloes. “That brought in Rs. 15,000 a month, roughly.” With so many animals, he hired four men whom he paid Rs. 100 a day each. Leaving him, too, with about Rs. 3,000 a month plus a few fringe benefits by way of a little milk, manure, and the like.
Then came the price rise. People began withdrawing their cattle from the herd to save on the Rs. 60. With prices of almost everything rising, including fodder, Thikkaswamy’s earnings eroded. Monsoon failure struck next, sharpening fodder scarcity. A tractor load now costs around Rs. 11-12,000, ten times what it was some months ago. Then as both water and fodder disappeared, people began selling their cattle in distress. The pasukapari’s herd shrank to around 150. He could no longer pay his workers. “I am losing money every day,” he complains.
So Thikkaswamy sacked his four assistants and replaced them with young boys who could be paid half, or just Rs. 50 a day. “But fodder prices keep rising and where’s the water? I cannot sustain this much longer.” His is a tiny enterprise. But there are countless thousands of Thikkaswamys (and their assistants) in India’s villages, which are also home to some 600 million farm animals. Across Andhra Pradesh, in this water-starved period, myriad other little businesses too, have gone bust. If the state has averted great disaster, it is because a strong NREGs and rice at Rs. 2 a kilo have worked well to provide lifejackets.
The little businesses, though, have suffered anyway. In Palacherla village in Anantapur district’s Rapthadu mandal, Narayanamma fears her “Chicken Centre” won’t survive. “Chicken has gone up from Rs. 60 to over Rs. 100 a kilo,” she says glumly. So her weekly sales have fallen from 70 to less than 30 kg. “Besides, all items were getting costlier even before the drought. We eat less of everything at home. What to do if kandi pappu (tur dal) costs Rs. 100 a kilo?”
That price rise has hit the mid-day meals at schools and squeezed the SHGs that provide them at Rs. 3 per schoolchild each day. At the High School in A. Gokulapadu village of Kurnool, the SHG women say “We were getting 5-6 quintals of rice a month. Now just 2 or 3.” Which means servings are smaller. And the high cost of kandi pappu means the sambhar has become more watery. Any margin this SHG made on its service has vanished.
The diminutive shops that dot the villages all the way from Anantapur and Kurnool districts in Rayalaseema to Mahbubnagar and Nalgonda in Telangana, report huge falls in turnover. “Whatever people earn goes on food and even that they buy much less,” says Sujathamma. At her little store, a rickety cabin in Bundipally village of Mahbubnagar district, daily turnover “has fallen from Rs. 1000 to around Rs. 200.” B. Anjaneyulu, a borewell repairer, has “not been called in to repair a single one in three months.” His neighbour Jangalamma’s “hotel,” (a very small dhaba really), “used to have a turnover of Rs. 1,200 a day. Now down to Rs. 300.” Along the road, we run into a travelling peddler and his wife selling metal utensils by weight. “We used to sell around seven or eight kilos at Rs. 20 a kilo. We’re down to about four kilos a day.”
In Marlabeedu, Sreenivasalu Rao, a milk buyer collects “less than 100 litres a day in this village where it should be 300. Many of my clients have sold their cattle in distress.” One of those is M. Ramanna. “He used to sell me several litres a day. Now he buys milk from me.” Ramanna smiles: “I had to sell all my cows, that’s why.” He buys half a litre and walks off.
The rural towns show a similar pattern. In Kadiri town of Anantapur, those running the biggest “cotton cut-piece store,” say “we should have seen a daily turnover of more than Rs. 20,000 in this season. Now it’s under Rs.7,000 a day. Last year this time, we would not have had the time to talk to you.” (Families traditionally buy new clothes at the time of the Ganesh festival.) But now “I fear a day when we won’t open the cash box even once.” Nearby, the Satya Sai General Store owner P.S. Vishnu says: “price rise hit people before the drought did. They just stopped buying. ‘fancy items’ like costumes, soaps, powder, shampoo — they’re not selling at all. Our turnover has fallen by half. My seven employees were on their toes last year. Look at them now, no work to do.” And even the wine store — Sri Lakshmi Venkateswara Wines — says its turnover has collapsed “from between Rs. 80,000 to Rs. 1 lakh a day to around Rs. 40,000 a day.”
One sector, though, is doing well. Salesmen at what is perhaps Kadiri’s biggest pharmacy say “last month, we were selling goods worth Rs. 14,000 a day. Now that’s Rs. 19,000.” And the highest selling items: “Cardiac and BP related medicines.” Other pharmacies are not losing any money, either. “Maybe,” says one activist, “health is wealth after all.”
In Kodumuru town in Kurnool, M. Krishnamurthy speaking for the devastated community of weavers says: “Drought? Our drought came before your drought. Weavers have been suffering for years with no sales, no bank loans, captured by dalals. Our drought is more than a drought of rain. The latter only made things worse.”