The plight of the peasant

The glitter of growth has added little sparkle to the lives of many peasants and rural workers. Deprivation, discrimination, and disadvantage dominate the everyday lives of large sections in rural Andhra Pradesh, an important new study* finds.

May 19, 2010 12:19 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:45 pm IST

In this file photo a farmer is seen sitting on a dried-up tank bed in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district. Rural families continue to experience severe forms of injustice in the State, a new study has found.

In this file photo a farmer is seen sitting on a dried-up tank bed in Andhra Pradesh’s Chittoor district. Rural families continue to experience severe forms of injustice in the State, a new study has found.

Village studies highlight features of society that are often overlooked and overshadowed by macro-studies of the economy. A recent study presents extraordinarily rich, unusually detailed and intensely disturbing data on agrarian relations, livelihoods, economic distress, discrimination and disadvantage faced by families living in three villages of Andhra Pradesh. A careful reading leaves one with a deep sense of fear and shock. That so many rural families continue to experience severe forms of injustice in one of India's more prosperous states is a matter of serious concern for the development and security of the country.

The study

This volume, the first in a series of village studies launched by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies, reports the survey findings of three villages in Andhra Pradesh: Anathavaram in Kollur mandal, Guntur District (with a population of 3,100 persons in 2001); Bukkacherla in Raptadu mandal, Anantapur district (population: 1,383 persons); and Kothapalle in Thimmapur L.M.D. mandal, Karimnagar district (population: 1,534 persons). The villages fall in three distinct agro-ecological zones: Anathavaram in South Coastal Andhra – a paddy dominated area irrigated by the waters of the Krishna river; Bukkacherla in Rayalaseema, which is drought-prone; and Kothapalle North Telengana where irrigation is from borewells and the cropping pattern is a combination of food grain and other crops. The inclusion of Ananthavaram, a village surveyed by P. Sundarayya and others in 1974, allows for tracking trends over the decades.

The surveys were conducted in two rounds: the first in December 2005 and the second during May-June 2006. Caste and the extent of land ownership were used to select a sample of 153 households in Anathavaram, 99 in Bukkacherla and 102 in Kothapalle. Data have been presented separately for socio-economic classes, and for Dalit, Adivasis, Backward Class and Minority households on land, assets, and property inequality; tenancy relations; household incomes; employment of manual workers; rural indebtedness; literacy and schooling; and selected household amenities.

Of the many important features of agrarian relations that the study draws attention to, five are particularly noteworthy.

One, household and per capita rural incomes are shockingly low. The median annual per capita income ranges from Rs.5,895 in Kothapalle to Rs. 6,308 in Bukkacherla and Rs. 8,537 in Ananthavaram. This works out to a paltry daily per capita median income of around Rs.16 in Kothapalle, Rs.17 in Bukkacherla and Rs.23 in Ananthavaram. At the same time, inequalities in the distribution of household incomes are extremely high. In most countries, Gini coefficients of income distribution vary between 0.3 and 0.6. As against this, the Gini coefficients for the distribution of household incomes are estimated to be 0.641 for all villages. The top 10 per cent of households account for 52 per cent of the total income of households in Ananthavaram, and 43 per cent of the total income of households in the other two villages. On the other hand, the lowest 40 per cent of household account for only 7-9 per cent of household incomes in the three villages.

Two, income from crop production is extremely low for a large majority of cultivating households. In fact, 29-36 per cent of households in the three villages incurred losses in crop production. Meticulous calculations reveal that paddy cultivation yields very low incomes, much lower than what government agencies estimate for farmers in Andhra Pradesh. Net incomes from paddy cultivation, which vary, on average, from Rs. 2,441 per hectare in Ananthavaram to Rs. 6,332 in Bukkacherla and Rs. 8,555 in Kothapalle, are significantly lower than the average for Andhra Pradesh reported by the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), Rs. 15,788 per hectare.

Three, costs of cultivation vary systematically across socio-economic groups. The poor and lower-middle peasants, who are mostly tenant-cultivators, incur much higher costs than landlords and big capitalist farmers. The exorbitant rents paid by those who have to lease in land greatly impoverishes poor landless peasants. Rents paid out in Ananthavaram account for 31 per cent of total costs of production and 17 per cent in Bukkacherla. As a result, a poor peasant leasing in land for paddy cultivation in Ananthavaram incurs a loss of Rs.6,733 per hectare on paddy cultivation. Offsetting these losses somewhat is income that tenants earn from animal resources that accrues from access to land (and therefore straw). Lower- and upper-middle land owning peasants earn a net income of around Rs.10,000 per hectare from paddy cultivation, while rich peasants and landlords earn Rs. 11,000-12,000 per hectare.

Four, the study confirms the concern expressed by the Government of Andhra Pradesh that, post-1991-92, the State's agrarian economy has entered “an advanced state of crisis.” The degree of landlessness and inequality in the distribution of land ownership are striking. The study finds that 65 per cent of households in Anathavaram, 47 per cent in Kothapalle, and 15 per cent in Bukkacherla do not own any land. The highly unequal distribution of land ownership is captured by the Gini coefficients — 0.86 for Ananthavaram, 0.76 for Kothapalle, and 0.55 for Bukkacherla.

Landlessness and inequality appear to have worsened over the years. In Ananthavaram, for instance, 50 per cent of the households did not own any land in 1974; the proportion rose to 60 per cent in 2005-06. The proportion of households that cultivated land on lease went up from 18 per cent in 1974 to 37 per cent in 2006; and the proportion of land cultivated under tenancy contracts increased from 22 per cent to 67 per cent. Rural indebtedness among peasants is also much higher than what is normally believed to be the situation. The failure of land reforms of any kind is apparent.

Equally obvious is the decline in public investments and in the share of formal sources of credit as well as the overall neglect of the agricultural sector by the State. It is not surprising that the aggregate value of crop output, which grew by 2.7 per cent annually between 1980-81 and 1991-92 fell to 0.4 per cent per annum between 1991-92 and 2004-05. Offering strong evidence of the agricultural stagnation and distress is the large number of farmers' suicides — 4,403 between 1998-2006, according to the Andhra Pradesh Rythu Sangam.

Five, it appears that Adivasi and Muslim households are by far the most deprived socio-economic groups in the three villages. In most instances, it is the Adivasis who are really at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid. In Anathavaram, for instance, the average income per capita among Muslim households is Rs. 4,407 and Rs. 4,831 among Adivasis — both much lower than the average per capita income of Rs. 8,840 among Dalit households and Rs. 35,224 among Other Caste households. Not a single Adivasi household was found to be in the ‘adequate housing category' and 16 households live in homes that are in the ‘severely deficient' category. Only 5 per cent of Adivasi households have toilets in their homestead and 4 per cent have sources of water for domestic use within their households. More than a third of the households (35 per cent) do not have electricity. In Ananthavaram, the researchers point out, that the Adivasi settlement is in the worst-off area of the village; it is low-lying and prone to flooding. It has only kathca roads and no street lighting.

Adivasis are also most deprived of education. In the two villages with a tribal population, 76 per cent of Adivasi women in Ananthavaram and 78 per cent in Bukkacherla are illiterate. The median years of schooling completed among Dalit women and men in both the villages are zero. The researchers however find that differences in basic living conditions do not correspond solely to differences in incomes and certainly not to the simple criterion of crossing the ‘poverty line'. Small increases in income are neither necessary nor sufficient to ensure adequate amenities.

An important contribution

The volume makes a singularly important contribution towards the estimation of household incomes for the three villages. As is well known, there are no official sources of serial data on household incomes in rural India. While the National Sample Survey Organisation publishes data on monthly per capita household expenditure, the Comprehensive Scheme for the Study of Cost of Cultivation of Principal Crops in India provides data only on farm business incomes for selected crops. In contrast, this study provides estimates from all sources of tangible household income — from crop production, animal resources, agricultural and non-agricultural wage labour, salaries, business and trade, rent, interest earnings, pensions, remittances, scholarships and all other sources. The estimates account for all receipts in cash and kind other than from borrowing and sale of assets. Given the problems with concealment and misreporting, information on incomes from money lending and financial assets (that is, stocks and shares, small savings, fixed deposits, and so on) have not been included. Detailed estimates have been provided for each of the sources of income and disaggregated by socio-economic groups and other categories of households.

Experts and policy makers ought to take note of the findings of this study as they think of positive responses to reverse the plight of poor farmers and peasants across the country.

* Socio-economic Surveys of Three Villages in Andhra Pradesh: A Study of Agrarian Relations , edited by V.K. Ramachandran, Vikas Rawal, Madhura Swaminathan, and published by Tulika Books in association with Foundation for Agrarian Studies; first published 2010; 230 pages.

( Dr. A.K. Shiva Kumar, a development economist, is Advisor to UNICEF, India .)

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