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Of reptiles and reforms

The odd encounter with a snake is an occupational hazard for farmers. But in parts of Andhra Pradesh, especially Mahbubnagar and Anantapur districts, such incidents are happening too often; far beyond what would be considered to be `normal'. The reasons are bound to arouse curiosity and are linked to the State's power reforms, says noted journalist P. SAINATH.

Pagaku Hanumanthappa, perhaps, the best traditional healer — or vaid — in Anantapur district says there has been a dramatic increase in the number of snakebites during the past year.

KAWALA RAMULU does not think much of Andhra Pradesh's power reforms. It has led, among other things, to his being bitten by a snake and several times by scorpions. ``I do not know who the great people who make things this way are,'' he says in Ankilla village. ``But clearly they know nothing about farming. No one with any knowledge of agriculture and villages can run things in this fashion.'' Many in this village in Koilkonda mandal of Mahbubnagar district grumble in assent. Nawab, Rajanna and Kotharajanna are among the many here who have suffered snakebites. Even sarpanch Chenna Reddy has tasted the serpent's tooth.

Snakes and electricity? Reptiles and reforms? Sounds bizarre? It is a complaint you can hear across the State. (And in Rajasthan, too.) In Anantapur and Mahbubnagar districts of A.P., it is fairly widespread.

The furious debates over power ``reforms'' have raged mostly around the massive hikes in tariffs that squeeze millions of small farmers. However, there were also less visible non-financial costs. A price being paid by many farmers on the ground.

``There has been a huge increase in snake bite cases,'' nods Pagaku Hanumanthappa. Close to 80, he is perhaps the best traditional healer — or vaid — of Anantapur. He takes no money for his services. A couple of coconuts or some rice could make up his fee. Age has slowed him down, but his 30-year record in treating snakebite victims is legendary. ``I had eight cases in early August alone,'' he says sitting in Ammavarapalli village in Pennukonda mandal. ``And then it began climbing. It is far more than it was two years ago. There are scores of cases in just this vicinity.''

That still does not tell us what all this has to do with the power reforms. The links of the current distress to the health reforms are clearer. The Government is abandoning public health and draining it of funds. The primary health centres (PHCs) are turning away poor people going there for treatment. In the C.K. Palli mandal PHC, staffers openly tell us: ``we refer snakebites to the vaids and the rural medical practitioners.''

So as cases of snakebites go up, in-patient lists in this PHC go down. All other medical institutions and practitioners confirm a rapid rise in snakebite cases.

Dr. Geyanand, a highly respected doctor of Anantapur town, is worried by the costs poor farmers are facing. ``Many have spent Rs. 40,000 or more on treatment for snake bites,'' he says. Some of those coming in to his own clinic were first turned away from PHCs or elsewhere. ``Or else, they come in very late and in a bad state. Often, they have already spent some money. There were two cases where I had to send them to Bangalore on artificial ventilatory support. They could not have survived here. In all, it would have cost them a lakh of rupees.''

``There is a big shortage of anti-snake bite serum,'' says Prabhakar Naidu, resident medical practitioner in Kadiri mandal. ``A vial can now fetch Rs. 1,000 in the black market.'' Naidu sees more snake bite cases than any one else. At least two PHCs admit to sending him patients.

``Who are the patients? Without exception, all ryuthulu (farmers). In 30 years,'' he laughs, ``I have never seen a sahucar bitten by a snake, only farmers.'' His tone suggests the region's sahucars are themselves of reptilian origin.

Snakebites do not surprise either the vaid or Naidu. ``That is an occupational hazard for farmers. Especially when the rains come, or during the harvest,'' says Naidu. What alarms both is the sharp rise in attacks in the past 15 months. ``I have had 15-20 cases daily at my clinic this season,'' says Naidu. ``There is no respite.'' One reason for the shortage of the serum, he insists, is that militant groups like the People's War Group (PWG), the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and others operating in jungle terrain buy large quantities of it. But whichever way you cut it, ``the number of cases is climbing rapidly''.

And yes, it has ``tremendously increased'' post-power reforms.

``What do you expect if they release power for farming at 3 a.m.?'' asks Kawala Ramulu, back in Mahbubnagar district. A dozen voices join him. ``No one asks what time suits us. If the current is switched on at 3 a.m., someone has to be there to switch on the pump-set and monitor the flow of water. So at least one member of the family has to sleep in the fields each night.''

That person gets busy at 3 a.m.. And that is when the snakebites occur. Most cases we encounter in both districts took place at around this hour. And almost all happened near the pump. ``Snakes are quite short sighted,'' says vaid Hanumanthappa. ``And they do not expect to find human beings stepping on them at that hour. They are chasing rats and other prey at the time. It annoys them.''

It annoys Venkatesulu too. Because that is just what happened to him. ``This 3 a.m. electricity is killing,'' he says bitterly in Mushtikovila village in C.K. Palli mandal. ``Yes, I was bitten right near the motor. It was too damn dark to see anything.''

The appearance of water at that hour in the parched fields has other effects too. Effects obvious to all, except — as Kawala Ramulu points out — the ``big people'' planning the power reforms.

``No one counts scorpion bites. There are too many. Snakes, yes, there is a big rise in attacks,'' says Chandramouli in Gollapalli village, Anantapur. ``But please remember that all creatures need water. If water shows up in the field at 3 a.m., so will wild animals.'' They did. And Chandramouli was gored by a wild boar. He still bears the scar and points to it with some disgust. Boars have also attacked four others in the village. This is besides those, like Prasad and Adi Reddy, who were bitten by snakes. A farmer in Chettipalli village in Mudigubba has been bitten thrice. Others have been turned away from government hospitals. The victims of the power reforms swiftly become victims of the health reforms.

Yet even those farmers affected by this fallout are focussed on the tariff hikes. ``It is too much. We cannot afford this. That too, for a third-rate supply that breaks down all the time,'' say Ramulu and his friends.

Andhra Pradesh enforced its ambitious ``power reforms'' over 15 months ago. And few States have followed the World Bank-charted script so diligently. The general impact of this on farmers has been severe. For those in drought-prone areas it has been devastating.

People using just one bulb in their homes — for the few hours that the electricity comes — pay Rs. 125 a month. Nearly twice what they paid earlier. Those using the smallest pump-sets (up to 3 hp) pay more than double now. Their costs went from Rs. 95 to Rs. 195 overnight. In short, the worst-off farmers landed the steepest hikes. This, in drought areas.

The promise of the reforms was nine hours of electricity. That draws ridicule. ``Sure,'' scoffs farmer Adi Reddy. ``It comes on for an hour, and then breaks down. Then it returns in two hours and goes off again after half an hour. Finally, those nine hours are spread across 15. Have you ever tried cooking dal across 15 hours? Would you switch off after three minutes and resume after an hour? They seem to want us to conduct farming in that style.''

This season, Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu announced 12 hours of power. But in the villages, this "gift" is dismissed with scorn as a ploy to charge even more for less. Power supply hours were fixed arbitrarily. From 3 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then again from noon to 6 p.m.. And even that is notional, given the constant breakdowns. This frustrates and thwarts the farmer.

``Just now,'' says Ramulu, ``it is 2.20 p.m.. Going by schedule, power should have been on from noon. Actually, it went off at 9 a.m. and never returned. But we will have to pay for this, mind you.''

For pump-sets between 3 and 5 hp, the costs shot up from Rs. 200 to Rs. 350 a month. The rates brought in were high and complex. The results were stark and direct. Power reform is now one of the most lethal factors disrupting agriculture in A.P.

``The power hardly comes. Only the bills come,'' says Sivaram Reddy. Many farmers in his village of Mallayagaripalli in Anantapur district have had their supply cut — for power they never used. ``Not only have the rates gone up, we do not get the damn power.'' Yet, the Government has lodged cases of ``power theft'' against hundreds of farmers.

``When there is power, there is very low voltage or volatile fluctuations,'' he says. Voltage fluctuations have destroyed thousands of motors across the State. ``Those simply burn up, costing us a fortune. If we get power for five of the nine hours promised, we would be happy.

It does not happen. Spending on repair and replacements of motors has been quite high. Far more than poor farmers can cope with. A lot of them approve of the fierce anti-tariff hike agitation that shook the State between May and August last year.

Meanwhile, they struggle with the crippling costs — and with snake and scorpion bites. For them, it is a case of how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a worthless reform.

P. Sainath is one of the two recipients of the A.H. Boerma Award 2001 granted recently for his contribution in changing the nature of the development debate on food, hunger and rural development in the Indian media.

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