For the poor and landless, NREGS is clearly the lifeline. But many shop owners and rain-fed farmers in Anantapur, Kurnool and Mahbubnagar have also sought work under it.

“You’re looking at a people whose next income — if they’re lucky — will materialise in January or February 2011,” says Y.V. Malla Reddy in Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh. He is a 35-year veteran of NGO activism in this district, which till last week had seen perhaps the worst rainfall of the season anywhere in the country. The “next income” is always a fragile process in this single-crop district heavily focussed on groundnut, but 16 months away?

“The kharif is gone,” say farmers in village after village. He adds: “The late rains will help us with some fodder and maybe we can sow a few short-duration crops. But the groundnut [the main crop] is gone.”

Had the kharif been all right, says Mr. Malla Reddy, “they would have harvested it in November and December. It would have been sold in January-February 2010, five months from now. With that gone, the next sowing will be in July 2010. If that crop succeeds — it is always an ‘if’ over here — they will harvest it four months later and earn from it only when they sell in January-February 2011.”

Mr. Reddy, who heads the Ecology Centre, Anantapur, also points out: “It’s not 16 months without an income, it’s 34. Last year, excess rains wrecked the groundnut crop; so many [farmers] drew a blank in January-February 2009. Which means their last income came in 2008 February. The next is due in January 2011.”

How, then, are people surviving at all right now? “Of the 175 families here,” says P. Challaiah, a farmer in Palavai village, “all but half a dozen are sending members to NREGS sites. In fact, 200 people go from this village for that. Take that away and we’re dead.” Migration has plummeted in this village which once saw a hundred people moving out in search of work each year. “But,” says farmer and activist Maruti, “we wish they’d run the programme for at least 200 days a year. If there’re three of us in a family, those ‘100 days’ are gone in 30.”

These feelings are echoed in Palacherla village of the same Rapthadu mandal. It has 350 families — and 400 people reporting for work at the NREGS sites. Here, too, migrations have fallen sharply in the past two years. “Even [rain-fed] farmers owning 20-25 acres are seeking NREGS work,” laughs Prakash Reddy, a farmer here. “We need it. Not only because of the higher wage. The landowners might pay the same as they have to compete with it. But how many days will they give — five or ten, at this time?”

It is the same picture across the Rayalaseema and Telangana regions. The poor in Andhra Pradesh have three things going for them: The NREGS, rice at Rs.2 a kg and pensions for the aged and women. At this point, the dependence on nooru rojula panni (hundred days’ work), as the NREGS is known here, is total.

In Anantapur, where it has performed robustly, Collector B. Janardhan Reddy and Project Director P. Murali confirm the explosion in demand. There were roughly 97,000 wage-seekers in July 2008. This July that number was over 2,20,000, an increase of over 126 per cent. In August last year, wage-seekers totalled 57,000 for that month. This year, in just the first 15 days of August, they numbered 1,46,000. That is an increase of over 156 per cent — with just half the month counted.

For the poor and landless it is clearly the lifeline. But many little (and sometimes not so little) shop owners in Anantapur, Kurnool and Mahbubnagar have also sought work in the NREGS. In the arid zones, rain-fed farmers with up to 30 acres have reported for work. In Nalgonda district, skilled stone-cutters, facing the collapse of their trade, are eager to come use it. The drought comes atop a crippling price rise and the “economic slowdown.” A time when many have suffered great loss of income.

So much so that Ganesh pandals across these districts look forlorn. “There’s no chanda [contributions] this year,” say people in Pothireddypally in Mahbubnagar. In Nalgonda, the political parties have stepped in — competitively — to put up the pandals as ordinary folk are broke. “We have a Congress Ganesh, a TDP one, a PRP rival, a TRS contender and even a Communist Ganesh,” laughs a local activist.

Why does Anantapur have this prolonged no-income cycle? Isn’t any other crop possible? Why think of short-duration crops only when groundnut sinks? “There has never really been a rabi crop in Anantapur where over two-thirds of the cultivable area is under shallow, gravel-like red soil.” says Mr. Malla Reddy. “Just 10 per cent of the cultivated area is black cotton soil. And a second crop on this has been rare to non-existent.”

This is also a district where irrigation actually declined from a peak of 17 per cent in the late 1980s to just about 11 per cent by the middle of this decade. “Besides,” says Mr. Malla Reddy, “the rainy season is between June and October. To attempt another crop you must sow by September. But the groundnut crop cycle lasts 110-115 days, all the way into October. Harvesting begins in November if you’ve sown in July. So the best you can do is to have a contingency crop when groundnut cannot be sown. The question of a regular second crop does not arise on 90 per cent of the land.”

There is a brief lull in Anantapur’s NREGS activity as late rains have arrived and farmers are scrambling to sow something. “You said the late rains will give a very limited yield, if any at all,” I ask. “Then why are you sowing now, especially groundnut, which will not succeed at this point?”

There are sheepish grins all around. Last year’s groundnut crop in Anantapur, destroyed by excess rain, was covered by nearly Rs.600-crore worth of insurance. The varying amounts they get from this will be their only, if limited, cushion for now.

For a people with no income from crops to speak of for 34 months (and with a limited number of days in the NREGS) this is a straw to clutch at. In effect, they are sowing a crop called Insurance 2009. In a terrible period, it just might give them some respite. At least until — and if — the kharif of 2010 brings them an income in January 2011.

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