“See my hands,” says Pulemalla Janaiah, holding out heavily calloused palms and twisted fingers. The others around him smile. Their hands look the same as his. “Our children should not have such hands,” says Janaiah. He and his group of friends are landless labourers, bent with years of hard physical work. In their hearts, they believe the to-be State of Telangana will give their children a better deal. “Their hands will look different.”
They sum up their hopes simply: “Better jobs, more opportunities — and water, that’s what it will bring,” says this group of Dalit labourers in Nalgonda district, which will be part of the new State. “Right now, as you can see, we buy water,” laughs another member of the group pointing to a van loaded with 25-litre plastic cans. But their concern goes beyond drinking water. Irrigation is a major issue. The less there is, the less work in the fields for them. In their eyes, the coming of a new State they see as their own, changes their lives. Their happiness does not find exuberant display — but it is there.
There are some signs of exuberance too, as you cross ‘the border’ within a single State that could soon be two. The boards of the panchayat and other offices have ‘Andhra Pradesh’ struck out and replaced with ‘Telangana.’ We are in the rural regions, away from the big cities and talking to those amongst the least privileged in society.
“Yes, the ‘coolie rate’ has gone up in the past few years,” says G. Nagaraju, the youngest member of this group. “You can get up to Rs. 200 a day, even a little higher, sometimes. But you won’t get work at that rate for more than 10 days in the month.” At best, says Janaiah, “workers like us can make Rs. 5,000 in a very good month.” They all agree that the MGNREGS, “when it is there, works well.” And that it has had an impact on wages in general. “But where is the work much of the time?”
Work and water
Janaiah and Nagaraju see better opportunities coming in with the demographic change they believe statehood will bring. It could mean the involuntary departure of large numbers of people from Hyderabad who might return to Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra. And so mean a greater demand for their labour. A higher wage. A better life. There are, without question, major issues of culture, development and backwardness involved in their empathy with a State of Telangana. Large numbers, too, feel a sense of being “freed from the yoke” of Coastal Andhra. There are real memories of oppression, ridicule and resource-grabbing. But the main benefits this clutch of Madiga labourers identify for us as linked to statehood are around work and water. Most in the region complain about the terrible deal they’ve had in water sharing within Andhra Pradesh. And loathe the domination of all levels of the administration by people from outside Telangana.
In one sense, “the children” Janaiah worries about are already very different from their parents. None of these poor labourers ever made it past Class 4. A couple of them are illiterate. G. Lingaiah “made it to Class 2.” But his son will soon complete a post-graduate degree in the sciences from Osmania University. The daughter of another in the group is “in second year Inter.” The youngest member of this group itself is also its most educated member. “I completed my 10th,” says G. Nagaraju with some pride. But the next generation is way ahead.
They know the entry of their children into higher education owes in some part to the government of the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, a foe of statehood for Telangana. ‘YSR’ brought in full reimbursement of tuition fee at the college level for the underprivileged. They recognise this. And here in Nalgonda — where the Telangana Rashtra Samithi is not a major force — they see statehood as happening because of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. Not because of the local Congress leadership.
They know statehood is not the only issue, but feel it enlarges those opportunities. And they do see their larger future as linked to it. Their expectations from statehood are very, very high. And always, Janaiah and his friends return to their central points: work and water.
“Their focus on work and water captures the life concerns of the labouring classes,” says Prof. G. Hargopal, ICCSR National Fellow at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. Like Janaiah, Nagaraju and Lingaiah, Prof. Hargopal is a supporter of statehood for Telangana. And he shares their concerns. But “whether these are the concerns of those leading the charge to statehood is another question altogether and a worrying one.” It’s a question that affects Janaiah’s children. One which could decide if, indeed, “their hands will look different.”