From the field: Andhra Pradesh

Defacing a rural economy

Print edition : April 17, 2015

Women packing dried chillies into bags at Pedaparimi village in Thullur mandal in Guntur district. Photo: Kunal Shankar

NARA CHANDRABABU NAIDU has less than two months to complete one year as the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, but he already seems to be on the course of what got him out of power in 2004—neglecting agriculture. To be fair, his preoccupation with a new “world–class” modern capital for what remains of Andhra Pradesh is understandable. He may have ample time, 10 years, going by the 2014 Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, but the friction of sharing the capital with a hostile and emboldened counterpart has not been easy.

While the administrative challenges ahead do seem insurmountable, they cannot be an excuse for neglecting agriculture, the State’s core sector, which employs over 60 per cent of the population. The share of agriculture in the Gross State Domestic Product has been declining over the years: according to the State’s Directorate of Economics and Statistics, it was 23 per cent in 2013-14. It reflects the nationwide phenomenon of a steady decline of agriculture’s contribution to the GDP, which was a mere 12 per cent in 2013-14.

Experts attribute this to the neglect of the sector by successive State and Central governments. “Chandrababu Naidu corporatised agriculture. His policies were against small and marginal farmers. He stopped farm and seed loans from banks. It was during his tenure that the wave of suicides began in the Telangana region in 1997,” says Sarampally Malla Reddy of the All India Kisan Sabha. However, Satya Prakash Tucker, known for his work in developing undivided Andhra’s irrigation system, defends Chandrababu Naidu’s tenure, saying, “Over 65 per cent of the watershed development in the entire country took place when he was Chief Minister.” Tucker is now heading Andhra Pradesh’s Planning Department and is the State’s Special Chief Secretary.

Chandrababu Naidu served as Chief Minister for two consecutive terms between September 1995 and May 2004. He was lauded for encouraging sunrise industries such as information technology but was criticised for neglecting agriculture. He was credited with ensuring the visit of Bill Clinton to Hyderabad in 2000 when he was United States President, a move that indicated a tilt towards the city as the favoured destination for doing business. But all this was against the backdrop of the worst droughts experienced by the Telangana and Rayalaseema regions of undivided Andhra Pradesh in 2002 and 2004.

If one goes by government statistics, Andhra Pradesh’s agricultural sector looks good—an annual marginal increase in the overall output and more lands under cultivation and irrigation in 2013-14 compared with data available for the previous year. Chetan Yarlagadda of the Planning Department said that the impact of Cyclone Hudhud in October 2014 on agriculture was muted as Vishakapatnam town bore the brunt of the damage. He said sugarcane and maize crops were mainly affected in north coastal Andhra. Yarlagadda has estimated an average overall growth of 7 per cent in the output in the current fiscal year over the previous year.

Agriculturists do not accept this estimation. Sai Bhaskar Reddy, who has worked extensively with government agencies in the agricultural sector, said, “Standing crops were damaged as the cyclone hit coastal Andhra just before the harvest season.”

Drive six hours to the south-east from Hyderabad, to where Chandrababu Naidu proposes to build the State’s capital, and the sense of uncertainty is palpable. Lush plains as far as the eye can see characterise the region in Guntur district. It has some of India’s most fertile lands, where farming takes place all through the year. Chandrababu Naidu’s plans for the capital city might destroy its robust rural economy The government says it requires only 125 square kilometres in Thullur and Tadikonda mandals on the banks of the Krishna. The capital would be called Amaravathi, deriving its name from the major Buddhist pilgrimage site located close to Thullur. But the authorities are unable to explain why the Capital Region Development Authority (CRDA) created under the provisions of the CRDA Act, 2014, comprises a whopping 7,086 sq. km spread over 43 mandals of Krishna and Guntur districts.

Almost all residents of Thullur have given their land to a “pooling” system. Land acquisition will be spread over 10 years and a combination of compensation packages is planned. Undertaken essentially to overcome the hurdles before acquiring land under the impending Central Land Acquisition Act, the government proposes to pay land owners Rs.30,000 or Rs.50,000 an acre, with an annual increment of 10 per cent for the next 10 years on the basis of the fertility, groundwater availability and quality of their land. The owners will get a further compensation of 9,000 square feet of developed residential space (in a planned layout, with electricity, sewage, water and road infrastructure in place) and 1,800 or 4,050 sq. ft of commercial space for every acre (0.4 hectare) of farmland forgone. Big land owners are ecstatic. Small farmers, tenant cultivators and the vast majority of agricultural workers are worried.

J. Veerlankaiah is in his late fifties. He owns about 1.6 ha in Thullur, and has agreed to pool it. “What are we to do when everyone around us is doing the same thing? A capital city is required, but is it legal for the government to take thousands of acres [12,800 ha so far] for this purpose?” asks Veerlankaiah. His son Naveen, a full-time organiser of building and construction workers, says, “We are demanding that the government take only what is required for building the capital, and not for Japanese or Singaporean corporations.”

In Rayapudi village, a 10-minute drive from Thullur, farmers are happy to part with their lands. Most of them own not less than 4 ha, which means 90,000 sq. ft of residential space and 9,000 sq. ft of commercial space. They see it as a real estate trade-off. Alluri Srinivasa Rao could not have been happier. One of three siblings, his family collectively owns 12 ha and employs close to 500 men and women. But Srinivasa Rao is happy to give up farming. He says, “The city [Vijayawada] is only 17 km away; my two children are college graduates. They don’t intend to return to agriculture.” It helps that he is from the Kamma-Naidu caste and a Telugu Desam Party sympathiser, much like the rest of the residents of Rayapudi.

It is the vast majority of agricultural workers who will be affected the most as they would not only be displaced but be pushed further into poverty. Rajamma from Thullur is 60. She has tilled the fields for as long as she can remember. She earns about Rs.150 a day for packing dried chillies into gunny bags. She is worried: “Come April, I won’t make any money. The government has asked all those who have pooled their lands to stop cultivation.”

The authorities estimate that 75 per cent of the region’s population is agricultural workers, which means nearly 37,000 people in Thullur alone, which has a population of over 54,000 as per the 2011 Census. The government has proposed a monthly compensation of Rs.2,500 for every nuclear family, far short of what Rajamma makes every month now. Young workers are usually employed as construction labour. No one is able to answer what will happen to older workers.

Not all the residents have parted with their land willingly. Residents of Undavalli on the southern side of the Prakasham Barrage have been witnessing a real estate boom for a while now. Across the barrage to the north is Vijayawada city. Groundwater is available at 20 feet and the Krishna canals criss-cross the area, which raises robust crops of flowers, vegetables, fruits and paddy. As one villager put it, “except for grapes and apples we cultivate everything here”. So Rs.50,000 a year is a paltry sum compared with what they make. Gangireddy Nagaraju, a second-generation farmer, says, “Forget 10 years, we don’t know what will happen to us once we give up these lands.” He runs a small department store and owns about 0.8 ha and earns not less than Rs.2 lakh a year.

Mangalagiri is another area affected by the pooling system. The YSR Congress MLA Rama Krishna Reddy alleged sustained coercion by the government to make farmers give up their lands. “Urban Development Minister P. Narayana stays for weeks in the region personally visiting people’s homes and sending government officials even at night to get their consent. Is this the way to take people’s lands? This is intimidation,” he said.

An officer working with the CRDA, wishing to be anonymous, says, “As an urban planner we are taught to zoom out of the problem in order to find a solution. And yet, when I do that, I only see an even bigger problem here.” He means the potential urban sprawl may be detrimental to agriculture in the long run. “The area that will be developed to house the government may not exceed even 10 sq. km. The rest is to develop what will sustain the capital there.” Guntur and Vijayawada will depopulate and the people will move into the new capital, forming a densely populated triangular region that will put pressure on the natural resources.

Yarlagadda says the government has planned a strategy to offset this loss by developing the Polavaram Irrigation Project. Critics say this is a tall order, citing the delays the contentious dam on the Godavari in the West Godavari district has faced. The AP Reorganisation Act recognises the dam as a project of “national importance” by placing it directly under the Centre’s purview. Chandrababu Naidu is pushing for budgetary allocations and performance targets in various agro-based sectors, Yarlagadda says. Groundnut cultivation in Anantapur is a major focus area. But he acknowledges that making good the loss of farming in the State’s two largest districts in terms of output will not be easy. Yarlagadda, however, estimates that it is vegetable farming that will be hit the hardest, as few places in the State are as fertile and well cultivated as this region.

Kunal Shankar

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