Between drought and despair in Andhra

Last year, Andhra Pradesh’s Rayalaseema region witnessed the most severe drought in the past decade-and-a-half. The ramifications were particularly severe in the erstwhile composite Anantapur district, where almost 90% of the agricultural fields faced the brunt with 49 out of the 63 mandals officially declared as drought-affected. This not only triggered economic hardship but also led to a surge in mass migrations and suicides among farmers, writes K. Umashanker

February 02, 2024 08:17 am | Updated March 05, 2024 03:03 pm IST

S. Ramireddy has been a farmer all his life. Until four years ago, the 63-year-old would steadfastly nurture his 2.7-acre piece of land despite various hardships that came with cultivation in the drought-prone Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh. His deep-rooted connection to the soil and agricultural traditions notwithstanding, he decided to abandon farming after incurring heavy losses during the kharif season of 2020. His crops — groundnut and maize — failed following a weak monsoon that year. With his wife and two daughters, he migrated from his village in Gorantla mandal of Sri Sathya Sai district to Bellary in Karnataka in search of employment. He eventually found work at a garment factory, as a night watchman. Over time, his daughters joined the packing section of the same factory as workers.

He revisited his village some time in 2022, after the COVID-19 pandemic had eased, and made desperate attempts to sell his land, but each time his hopes were dashed. Local political leaders would quote the “meanest low” price, leaving him unsure about parting with his land. “With the land unsold, I wanted to resume farming last year, but I did not dare due to forecast of a below-normal monsoon. If God wills it, things might improve this year. I am very attached to my land. But at the same time, my penury is making it tough to continue farming. As a last resort, I am considering mortgaging my wife’s gold ornaments to get by,” says Ramireddy.

In various literary, historical, and cultural expressions, as well as in movie dialogue and political discourse, the region of Rayalaseema in A.P. proudly bears the title of ‘Rathanala Seema’, meaning the land of gems. However, amid this pride, the agricultural community laments the bygone era when the region flourished. Over the years, slow but steady intensification of drought conditions have eroded the prosperity of Rayalaseema’s farmers. Adding to their woes is the increasing migration of small-scale farmers and agricultural labourers to neighbouring states in search of livelihood.

The year 2023 marked a devastating year for farmers, who experienced the worst drought in the region in the past decade-and-a-half. Among the seven districts of Rayalaseema, the composite Anantapur district (now divided into Anantapur and Sri Sathya Sai districts) was the worst affected, with nearly 90% of its agricultural fields affected by drought. Of the 63 mandals in the twin districts, 49 were officially declared as drought-affected, though farmer forums and Opposition parties insist on including all mandals in the distress list.

While Anantapur and Sri Sathya Sai districts are considered the epicentre of the drought in the State, the neighbouring districts of Kurnool and Annamayya also reported a significant impact, with 24 and 18 mandals affected, respectively. In Chittoor district, only four out of 31 mandals were declared drought-hit, leaving farmers there dissatisfied.

“I belong to a traditional farming family and used to grow crops on my 1.5-acre land, but drought conditions compelled me to look for an alternative job,” says a 32-year-old woman farmer of Penukonda mandal in Sri Sathya Sai, requesting anonymity, who is now working as a labourer for a road construction project near Bellary. “Before the pandemic hit, my land was priced at ₹8 lakh. Now, it is valued at a mere ₹3 lakh, thanks to last year’s drought,” she adds.

Thousands of farmers hailing from Somindepalle, Penukonda, Gorantla, Kadiri, and OD Cheruvu, the worst-hit mandals in Sri Sathya Sai, share similar tales of hardship. In Anantapur district too, hundreds of villages across Tadipatri, Guntakal, Singanamala, and Uravakonda assembly constituencies present the same grim scenario.

Drought-prone land

The erstwhile undivided Anantapur district, considered the driest region in south India, has experienced five of its most rain-deficient years in the last six decades, say officials. Typically, the district receives 512 mm of rainfall in a water year (June 1 to May 31), with 80% occurring during the south-west monsoon. The highest deficit rainfall was recorded in 1994-95, and a similar phenomenon returned to haunt the district in 2023.

The agrarian crisis necessitated a Central team’s visit to the two districts towards the end of 2023. Vigorous protests by farmers in the region, supported by Left parties, urging the release of additional water from the Tungabhadra high-level canal (HLC), proved futile. The Tungabhadra dam in Karnataka approached the dead storage level, exacerbating the water scarcity. The prominent rivers, Penna and Chitravathi that wind their way through the Anantapur and Puttaparthi regions from the Chenna Kesava hills of Karnataka ran dry last year. Farmers under the ayacut of the major tanks like Bukkapatnam, Darmavaram, and Singanamala found some relief compared to their counterparts relying on rain-fed crops in the upland areas.

Drought conditions in the region came as a death blow to the traditional cultivation of groundnut crops, which used to cover over 20 lakh hectares annually, making it one-of-its-kind in the entire country.

The prolonged dry spells compelled farmers to abandon their fields in 2023, resulting in a reduction of over 40% in acreage. Other crops, including paddy, sunflower, and maize also suffered a decline in cultivation. “Despite yielding bumper maize crop, we continue to make losses due to a lack of processing units and marketing facilities, leaving us dependent on middlemen,” laments Budugu Jayaram, a farmer in his late 20s belonging to Kalyanadurgam mandal in Anantapur district.

Mass migrations

The two districts are known for mass migrations among the families of small farmers and farm workers from Anantapur, Singanamala, Uravakonda, Penukonda, Kalyanadurg, Tadipatri, Darmavaram, and Kadiri assembly constituencies. The majority of the drought-ravaged people earn their livelihood as security guards and by doing menial jobs in Bengaluru, Bellary, Chennai, Mumbai, and Hyderabad.

The absence of industries, except for Kia Motors company, in the twin districts compels young farmers and educated individuals to migrate to major cities across India in search of opportunities.

In 2015, Anantapur district witnessed a distressing situation where impoverished farmers, reeling under the effects of drought, sought employment in Kerala to clean drainage lines. Hundreds of farmers migrated to the coastal areas of that State in an attempt to escape the financial challenges they faced back home.

When the local media in Kerala highlighted their plight, the A.P. government responded by sending then ministers Paritala Sunitha and Palle Raghunatha Reddy to address the crisis and facilitate the return of the farmers to Anantapur.

Debt and death

Previously undivided Anantapur district remains largely prone to the distressing trend of farmer suicides. In 2022-23, Kuderu mandal in Anantapur district witnessed 12 farmer suicides. Although officials acknowledged this unusual surge in deaths within a small area, they did not attribute the distress of farmers as the primary cause for the tragedies. Instead, it was labelled “suicides in a drought-affected mandal”.

Unofficial versions of intellectuals and leaders of farmers’ forums put the suicidal deaths among farmers at more than 100 due to severe drought conditions in the undivided Anantapur in 2023. “We know that a majority of farmer suicides is due to crop failure or their inability to raise crops in the absence of rains. One of the main causes is the failure of borewells. In Sri Sathya Sai district, each farmer on an average has two or more borewells. Due to the depleting water table level, a farmer spends ₹6-10 lakh for digging two or three bores. When they fail, suicidal thoughts grip their minds,” says a field official in the Agriculture department, adding, “But we can’t straightaway declare those as suicides due to drought. We just call it suicide in drought-affected areas.”

A 57-year-old farmer in Guntakal mandal says he lost his elder brother to accumulating debt that ran into several lakhs. The latter had taken huge loans to perform the wedding of his daughter, an IT professional, in Bengaluru in 2019. “He spent close to ₹80 lakh on the wedding and related expenses. He expected to overcome the financial stress, pinning hopes on his groundnut crop. But then the pandemic hit, followed by severe drought in the following years. Pressure from moneylenders eventually drove him over the edge and he ended his life. Now, I have taken the responsibility of clearing his loans. Farmers are helpless. They mortgage their lands to private entities when they require bulk amounts, as banks offer them insufficient loans,” he explains.

Farmers say that in case of a suicide, officials lose no time before attributing it to “personal reasons”, such as debt, ill-health, or family issues. “No official or the police will ever say that it was due to the farmer’s inability to overcome drought-related losses,” says a woman farmer of Anantapur mandal, unwilling to be named.

Mylaram Narayanaswamy, popularly known as MyNaSwamy, a historian who lives in Gorantla of Sri Sathya Sai district and was the guide to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to the Lepakshi temple in Anantapur district, expresses dismay at the agricultural woes caused by drought in the twin districts.

“There is no scientific planning on the part of the government for effectively harnessing rainwater. No serious efforts are seen in constructing water projects. There is a lot of negligence in the maintenance of the Handri Neeva project and Tungabadra canal. As far as Food Security Act goes, farmers of the drought-affected region are in dire need of a legislation to protect their interests. Measures such as ensuring minimum support price is one such. We also need legislation to bring about a rapid increase in agricultural production. The middlemen system needs to be done away with,” he says.

The historian penned a book titled Yennallu Ee Kanneellu (For How Many Days These Tears) in 2001, highlighting the drought conditions in the Rayalaseema region, along with some tangible solutions after consultation with subject experts, including the agricultural scientist the late M.S. Swaminathan.

The then Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu unveiled the book in Hyderabad. Naidu has publicly acknowledged that the publication was crucial in educating him on agrarian and irrigation subjects. Key officials of the Agriculture and Irrigation departments were also given copies of the book for a better understanding of the region.

“I have serious plans to submit a report to the Prime Minister on the unending menace of drought in Anantapur. We have Met records that the region remains drought-prone since 1882 while facing the threat of desertification and vulnerability to mass migrations,” the historian says.

Leaders of Left parties in the region, actively involved in agrarian movements, express disappointment over Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s pre-poll promise to create a corpus fund of ₹3,000 crore for the ‘stabilisation of prices’ of agricultural produce, and labelled it “mere eye-wash”.

Uma Maheswaramma, joint director of Agriculture in Anantapur district, says the severity of the drought in 2023 was thanks to a rainfall deficit during the southwest monsoon. As a result, the acreage dedicated to prominent crops like groundnut and Bengal gram drastically came down. “As an immediate step, we sent proposals for ₹251.21 crore towards input subsidy to farmers, but it is yet to be released,” the official shares.

Meanwhile, authorities in Anantapur and Sri Sathya Sai districts maintain that they are formulating an action plan to provide fodder for cattle, ensure access to drinking water for thousands of villages affected by drought, and prevent migration of the rural poor by increasing the number of workdays under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme (MGNREGS).

(If you are in distress, please reach out to KIRAN, a 24x7 helpline, on 1800-599-0019 or Dial 100 for help)

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