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With drought in the driver's seat

Anantapur is one of Andhra Pradesh's poorest districts and, along with Mahbubnagar, is its most crisis-ridden one too. Yet, the worse it gets, the larger is the number of luxury vehicles that show up on Anantapur's roads. Where does the money come from? Drought is the great provider, says P. SAINATH.

The district headquarters may have a lot of expensive vehicles, but fodder is a luxury. People spend nearly 12 hours in cattle camps like this one waiting for it.

Anantapur town (ANDHRA PRADESH)

ANANTAPUR has 610 `Tata Sumos'. It has 130 `Tata Spacios' (air-conditioned) too. And, it's not doing too badly on the `Toyota Qualis' front either — 85 of those are registered here. Nor does it lag behind on the latest. Barely 48 hours after the national launch of the `Mahindra Scorpio', there were six on these roads. There are now 30. Much of the swank stuff has shown up in the last two years. The local road transport authority's records are a gold mine.

There is a modest fleet of `Tata Safaris'. Plus perhaps of `Tata Indicas', `Hyundai Santros' and `Maruti Zens'. And more Mahindra jeeps than you can count. Anantapur town, where these are registered, has a population of just around three lakh people. This startling research from Eenadu (the largest Telugu daily) also shows that many more of these vehicles actually run here, but are registered in Hyderabad and Bangalore. Even counting only those listed locally, this town might have more sports utility vehicles (SUVs) and fancy cars per capita than either of those metros.

All in all, amazing signs of progress and prosperity.

Except that Anantapur is one of the poorest districts in Andhra Pradesh. It is also the most crisis-ridden one in the State, along with Mahbubnagar. Agriculture has collapsed since the mid-1990s. More farmers have committed suicide here than in any other part of the country. Large numbers of people have left the district. Thousands of students have dropped out of school and college in the past three years. Including many who were on scholarships.

Add to all this, a drought that is biting deep. A genuine one. Against a normal rainfall of 544 mm, the district got 270 mm last year. This year, it has had no rains at all thus far. So where did all those fancy cars — placing Anantapur in the fast lane — come from?

Drought is the great provider.

Anantapur's crisis has many causes. But is always reduced to a generic "drought". The actual variation in rainfall over the last 125 years is far from dramatic. And the average of 522 mm during 1991-2000 was better than during the previous decade. For 1981-90, the average was just 463 mm. So rainfall in the 1990s was in fact just above the normal of 520 mm. There have been a couple of bad years since then. Including 2001, in which the rains came aplenty — but too late. Overall, the data does not support the notion of drought as being the eternal villain. Drought just makes an unbearable situation worse.

The district's poverty and structural inequalities are huge. But drought is still offered as the cause of all that goes wrong. Hundreds of crores of rupees have poured into Anantapur in the past five or six years in the name of fighting "drought". And now there's a real one, it helps bring in even more funds. This money has rarely translated into jobs for people. Or improved living standards. Or enhanced nutrition and health. It has largely gone into contractor-led "projects.' And, most recently, into a food-for-work programme that private contractors have got.

The worse things have become in Anantapur district, the more cars have shown up in Anantapur town.

Drought, as the organised plunderer of the poor.

Contractors, sub-contractors, traders and local politicians own these cars. (Often, that's the same bunch of people). So do bureaucrats and even, oh yes, the non government organisations.

As in all things Indian, there is a caste hierarchy in the cars. The research on the whole issue by Eenadu ace reporter Narasimha Reddy bears this out. He has done more stories on rural distress, farmers' suicides and the misuse of development funds than most journalists in the country. "The flashy and latest ones are owned by the top contractors," he says. "The `Zens', `Santros' and `Indicas' are mostly the preserve of the bureaucrats." The NGOs understandably do best among the jeeps.

While the cars colour the town and highway, the villagers move down another road. Tens of thousands visit gruel centres every day to pick up what will be their main, if not only, meal. A helping of gruel made from ragi, water, a little salt and jaggery. Thousands more battle to save their tiny farms from money lenders.

And thousands more stand in desperate queues at the cattle camps. Waiting for those five kilograms of straw for their animals. The district administration runs five such camps now. Each with about 10,000 head of cattle that their owners can no longer feed. Despair has driven new records in the distress sales of farm animals. Over 1.6 lakh head of livestock were sold off by May. That's 60,000 more than were sold in the whole of last year. And at absurd prices.

"Animals that we bought for Rs.10,000 last year, we are now selling at Rs. 3,000 this year," says Seenu. He's talking to us in Daniyancheruvu village of Nallamada mandal. Seenu is one of many who have brought their starving cattle to the camp here, hoping to feed them.

The crowds at the camp are so large that tea and food stalls have sprung up to cater to the thousands of farmers who have not only deposited their cattle here, but have also stayed on. "There is no work to go back to," says Seenu's friend Raghu. "We might as well hang on here and make sure the cows are fed and treated for disease. These cattle are our lives. They must have that fodder."

Luxury cars may be common in the town. Here, fodder is a luxury. Any of the 2,000 farmers standing in the queue for up to 12 hours for it would confirm that. There is a link, though, between fodder and luxury cars. Last year, the animal husbandry department claimed a loss of Rs. 385 crores due to the "drought". They had to save so many animals. Which mystifies anyone looking at the condition of the cattle they're supposed to have rescued. But in the block headquarters are parked shiny new vehicles.

Drought is fodder for the fortunate. The last straw for the poor, but a big meal for the luxury class.

Yet, the current administration of the district is a sensitive one. It is more responsive to people's distress than those previously. And it has shown the courage to take on sensitive issues like caste and communal violence.

The administration here also showed restraint when faced with a State-wide protest in May.

The Left parties were picketing the collectorates on the issue of hunger. But the authorities did not, for once, resort to standard strong-arm methods to disperse the 1,000 protestors.

Also, on hearing of the crush at the cattle camps, the Collector, B. Rajashekar, moved to stagger the fodder hours. Each village the camps serviced was given a different time. The idea being to shorten queues and reduce the chaos.

But Anantapur's crisis is far older than the present set up. And rooted in larger factors both within and outside the district. In State and national policies which have wrecked its fragile equilibrium. In a path of development hostile to the poor.

In April, Adappa gave up. Creditors were making things difficult for the small farmer from Oddicheruvu mandal. He'd sunk borewells to a depth of 500 feet at great cost on his land in Dabruvaripalli village. They didn't work. Spurious pesticides and bad seed cost more. The crop failed yet again and Adappa took his life in despair.

Self-declared lenders soon showed up. "They claimed he owed them Rs. 60,000," says his son Jaichander. "But they would not show me the promissory note. Yet, they hoped to change the name on the note from his to mine. And wanted me to sign to that effect. I declined." Many families just cave in and sign. And end up as bonded workers of such creditors.

"Every household here is deep in debt," he says. "Even selling land won't help pay up. Land worth Rs. 25,000 an acre eight years ago won't fetch Rs. 6,000 now."

Ramachandra Reddy of Choukuntapalli village in Nallamada mandal was another person in debt. By March, Reddy could no longer support his young son who was studying for a computer science degree in Hindupur. Nor afford to get his youngest daughter married. He consumed pesticide. The four days it took him to die cost his family Rs. 40,000, which they had to borrow. Medical costs are at an all time high.

Now, his widow, Lillavatiamma, could lose their four acres to creditors. She is hit in other ways, too.

Three years ago, she would have got Rs. 10,000 under the "Family Benefit Scheme" to help her after her loss. But with suicides mounting in Anantapur, the government changed the rules. The sum was reduced to Rs. 5,000. As the deaths rose still further, the scheme was scrapped altogether for suicides.

"So I cannot get the Rs. 10,000 that would help my son complete his education," she says. Adappa and Reddy are just two among the 2,500 cases of suicides in Anantapur over the past six years.

Zero investment and a collapse of credit have ravaged agriculture. The landless poor have seen working days dwindle as a result. Crippling rises in the costs of seed, fertilizer, power, pesticide and water have crushed small farms. The deeper the policies bite, the greater the casualties.

There is a savage drought of compulsion afflicting policy makers.

Back in the town, more luxury cars roll out of what is known as the "Goodwill Colony". This is an island of expensive apartment buildings. "Goodwill" is the term used to describe the 10 per cent kickbacks paid on all contracts in the district. Money from such kickbacks financed most of the buildings here. So Eenadu calls it the `Goodwill Colony". Another name for it is the Food-For-No-Work Programme. The same people with homes here own so many of those cars.

The "Automobile Revolution" — that beloved cliché of countless magazine covers — has arrived in Anantapur. But it's a very different kind of revolution than that which people here had hoped for.

While the Scorpios zip around the streets of the town, the wheels of economic and social justice turn a lot more slowly in Anantapur. Here, drought is in the driver's seat.

P. Sainath is an award-winning writer on development issues.

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