Drought and delayed relief

Print edition : May 13, 2000

Almost a third of Andhra Pradesh is in the grip of a drought as a result of the failure of the monsoon and the failure of the State Government to heed the warning signals.

THE tribal hamlet of Gairangadda, home to around 40 Lambada families, in Mahbubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh is a forgotten and cut-off patch of human misery where severe drought conditions have rendered more wretched, if that is at all possible, the conditions under which its men, women and children live and labour. It is not even 100 km from Hyderabad, or "Cyberabad" as Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu calls the city he claims is Andhra Pradesh's portal to prosperity via the infotech route, a ci ty still basking in the afterglow of President Bill Clinton's visit.

Gairangadda, by contrast, is gripped by the classic symptoms of acute drought, which in varying degrees of intensity exist in 612 of the 810 mandals of Andhra Pradesh. The drying up of water sources, both for drinking and agriculture, has led to c rop losses, loss of jobs, increasing levels of indebtedness, distress sale of cattle and other assets, increase in out-migration, a sharp drop in purchasing power, which the recent hike in administered prices has added to, and a growing population of the undernourished and the hungry. It is one of the many villages that Frontline visited which has been entirely bypassed by any major relief effort, though the State government, from its Chief Minister downwards, claims it has reached all drought-af fected villages. Indeed, Gairangadda stands out for having been bypassed by any development effort at all.

The failure of the southwest monsoon in 1999, which has resulted in drought conditions in almost a third of the State (the districts of Chittoor, Cuddapah and Ananthapur being the most affected, followed by several of the Telengana districts such as Mahb ubnagar, Ranga Reddy, Nalgonda, Medak, Warangal, Adilabad and Nizamabad), has had a differential impact on different segments of the population.

The first to feel its force are those who have the fewest livelihood cushions even in 'normal' times. Dalit and tribal populations, socially discriminated against and often spatially removed from the village; and from amongst them women, children, the el derly and the physically challenged bear the brunt of adverse economic changes. They are the first to lose jobs and assets, and their debts increase manifold in comparison with those who are better able to repay debts. The breadwinners from amongst these sections are the first to leave in search of food, water and sustenance elsewhere. Indeed, in drought conditions they are among the first to succumb: the number of cotton farmers, most of them Dalits with marginal holdings, committing suicide by drinkin g pesticides, is slowly rising in the cotton-growing areas of Mahbubnagar district.

"I'll come with you for work," a young woman called after the Frontline team as we walked away from Gangapur village in Mahbubnagar district. "My husband has deserted me as I cannot bear him children and there is no work or food here. Take me with you."

This drought, the worst since 1987-88, crept up on the State over the past year and the government did not heed the warning bells. There were signals aplenty of the impending drought. According to information put out by the State government following its official acknowledgement of drought in large parts of the State, the southwest monsoon had partially failed and 16 districts had received less than the normal quantum of rain, which affected the kharif crop. Out of a normal kharif crop area of 80.16 lak h hectares, only 74.71 lakh ha was sown and there were production shortfalls in groundnut, redgram, sunflower and paddy. Similarly, there was a 34 per cent decrease in the northeast monsoon rainfall and a shortfall of over 10 lakh ha in the area sown bet ween 1998 and 1999. A report submitted by the National Remote Sensing Agency in October 1999 warned of depletion of the area under cultivation.

A group of women trudging in search of work, near Kalvakurti in Mahbubnagar district.-H. SATISH

The State government's drought management plan, which apart from the provision of relief has an active public relations component to it, has been taken over by the Chief Minister himself. The media are inundated with a flood of statistics at regular pres s conferences, and Chandrababu Naidu himself holds a weekly video-conference session with District Collectors that is open to the public and the press to watch. Government handouts list the many 'action plans' that are in the pipeline and have endless li sts of the quantum of money spent under different heads of expenditure on drought relief. The latest government document on drought relief presented to the Assembly on April 1 states that a total sum of Rs.174.97 crores has been released for drought reli ef. It has gone towards the provision of drinking water, seed supplies, input subsidies for farmers who have lost more than 50 per cent of their crop, supply of fodder and employment generation schemes.

NOTHING could be more striking than the wide gap between the claims of the government on paper in respect of the provision of drought relief and the reality on the ground. This correspondent visited two areas in Mahbubnagar and Nalgonda districts, where the drought has been most severe, and one area in Medak district where its intensity is just picking up. In each village, one ran a checklist with a representative cross-section of the residents on whether one or another measure of drought relief has rea ched them. In no village was there evidence of any relief having arrived.

Take Gairangadda hamlet, for example. (Hamlets are generally low on the priority lists of the official drought-delivery system. They are difficult to access and have small, poor and unempowered populations. To get to the nearest shop, primary health cent re, ration shop or bus stop, the residents of Gairangadda must trudge 3.5 km in searing heat along a kutcha road that runs through an arid countryside of sand and rock to the village of Kodugal.

"What do we do? How do we live? Do we all lock our homes and migrate to Hyderabad?" despairs Mudavath Chandi, an articulate woman in her late thirties who met the Frontline team in Kodugal village and insisted we visit her thanda (hamlet). The absence of easy connectivity can have deadly consequences for the people of the thanda. Sita Venkat, a young resident, had lost her baby a day after childbirth as she could not be taken to the nearest health facility on time. The hamlet has j ust one handpump, the only source of water for drinking, washing and for the cattle. Most families here have marginal holdings on which they grew cotton in the hope of quick and high returns. The cotton crop withered owing to a combination of factors - s purious seeds, poor pesticides and lack of water for irrigation - leaving the owners deep in debt. While most of the able-bodied men have gone to Hyderabad in search of work, those who remain eke a living now from collecting tendu leaves for beedi rollin g, but this lasts only a few weeks in the year.

Chandi shows us around the village of ramshackle huts and undernourished inhabitants. There is anger at the increase in the prices of rice and kerosene. Families in the village, which has no electricity, are dependent on kerosene lamps at night.

No relief has come to Gairangadda according to the residents of the village, and there was no evidence of it there. Between the hamlet and Kodugal, the nearest village with a population of 3,000, runs a tributary of the Dindi. Although the river bed is d ry now, it fills up during a good monsoon, and the residents of Gairangadda have to ford the rushing river with water coming up to their shoulders during the three to four days when the monsoons are at their heaviest. "If two or three check dams are buil t across the river, it will irrigate half a dozen villages" said S. Ram Reddy, a resident of Kodugal who owns 7 ha of land.

The poor have been hard hit by the recent increase in the prices of rice and kerosene. The feedback from every village Frontline visited, especially from women, was that the price increase is a heartless blow at a time when the drought has already put them under such pressure. Rice has gone up from Rs.3.50 a kilo to Rs.5.50 a kilo, and kerosene from Rs.3 a litre to Rs.6 a litre.

Mahbubnagar district, once known as Palamur, has a long history of out-migration. Palamur labourers have a reputation for the most physically arduous work, and are believed to be docile and compliant, an even greater virtue as far as labour contractors a re concerned. Contractors from all over the country come to Palamur to engage labourers. This year migration has taken place earlier and in much larger numbers than ususal. The district administration says that six lakh persons have already migrated. Lab ourers leave after the rabi harvest and return soon after the first monsoon rain, spending almost six months in a year elsewhere. Migration levels have been higher this year as farmers have incurred heavy losses owing to the failure of the groundnut, pad dy, castor and cotton crops. "We are famous everywhere for our work, but no one realises how difficult life is in Andhra Pradesh," said Chennakesavalu, a small farmer from Gangapur village in Mahbubnagar district.

Outside the home of G. Shivaiah, the 45-year-old cotton farmer who killed himself by consuming pesticide (see box), an agitated group of women, and a few elderly men gather to speak to the Frontline team. Three farmers burdened by debts committed suicide by consuming pesticide in Gangapur. There has been an across-the-board escalation in debt in the last season. There is only one power-operated pump in the Dalit section of the village in which water comes once in four days. Some road construction and tank-bund building work was initiated near the village under the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS). The contract rates are Rs.650 to complete a stretch of 1,000 ft of road - a job that takes a gang of six to eight men and women three days to complet e."We get very little at the end of it all," said Chennakesavalu. The increase in the price of rice and kerosene has put food further out of the reach of the poor. "Our village is dead. Only god is safe" said Balamma, an elderly woman in the group.

Children carry water in Mahbubnagar district.-H. SATISH

Nalgonda is among the severely drought-affected districts. The district was one of the theatres of the Telengana Uprising of the 1940s and 1950s, a fact recalled by the red flags that festooned the villages the day after May Day.

Chityal Mandal has 16 gram panchayats and eight hamlets falling within it. Toddy-tapping is a major source of livelihood in this area and owing to the scarcity of rain, the toddy yield has been far lower this year than last year.

Kurumatla village is 6 km from the main road. V. Yadagiri Gowd and his six brothers together own 2.4 ha of land on which they had 50 trees which were used for toddy-tapping, of which 15 withered this year. The yield from the remaining trees is much lower than normal. The 140 toddy-tapping families in the village now want the tree tax of Rs.50 a tree - which is collected two times a year - waived as there is a substantial fall in yield. From here too there is regular migration of labourers who specialise in drilling work. "People from all castes migrate. Already some 300 families from our village have gone to Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai in search of work," said Yadagiri Gowd. In Kurumatla, some work was contracted under the EGS but the contractor allege dly employed labour from elsewhere and not from the village. "In any case it was only some 30 to 40 persons who got work," Yadagiri Gowd said.

The total failure of the government's delivery system for drought relief was more than evident in the villages of Kurumatla, Vembai and Tallavallam, particularly in respect of providing drinking water and creating employment. Near Vembai, a spanking new overhead tank stands in solitary splendour, a monument to the uncoordinated and unplanned drought policy of the government. The tank was constructed at a cost of at least Rs.5 lakhs without first establishing a source of water. Yet a longstanding demand of the people of Vembai for which they made innumerable representations to government officials, that is, the desilting of the Peddacheruvu tank, has fallen on deaf ears. The tank used to irrigate several villages in the vicinity. The provision of drinki ng water is the most immediate demand of people here. This is an area where water has a high fluoride content, and this rises as water levels fall, as has been happening. Complaints of swelling and pain in the joints are common enough, as is the sight of little children with misshapen knee and elbow joints. "We have to walk 1.5 km for water and I need to bring at least 20 pots a day for my family's use," said P. Yadamma.

THE drought belt of Andhra Pradesh extends into the contiguous districts of Raichur, Gulbarga, Bellary and Chitradurga in Karnataka. In Karnataka, however, the process of assessing the drought situation is still not complete at the official level. The Re venue Department has asked the District Magistrates to send reports on the ground situation. The actual position will only be known in the latter part of May.

Alarmed at the tardiness of drought relief and the leakages that are taking place in a substantial way in whatever little relief work is being undertaken, the Andhra Pradesh unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) announced the opening of gruel ki tchens in six of the worst-affected districts of Mahbubnagar and two in Ananthapur from May 6. The kitchens, to be run initially for 30 days in each village, will cater to 150 to 200 people. Each person will be given two jugs of cereal gruel with jaggery , one to be consumed right there and one to be taken home.

"Marginal hunger is just the beginning," said B.V. Raghavalu, State secretary of the CPI(M). "The situation will only get worse and will soon acquire famine proportions. It is wrong to assume that drought will disappear with the arrival of the rain. Farm ers must have resources when the rains come," he said.

While conditions of drought are expected to intensify over the coming month, its impact on the lives of the people in the drought-affected tracts is dependent upon the seriousness with which the government gets down to the job of delivering immediate rel ief to those areas and the people who most require it.

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