Elusive relief in Andhra Pradesh

Published : May 23, 2003 00:00 IST

While the groundwater level is falling fast, farmers and landless agricultural workers are left to fend for themselves in a nightmare year on the drought front. The failure of the state and its machinery is the pronounced feature here.

in Mahboobnagar

ANDHRA PRADESH is currently experiencing drought conditions that are unprecedented in the State's recent history. Initiating a short-duration discussion in the Legislative Assembly, the State Minister for Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation reeled out the figures. The sheets of statistics annexed to the Minister's statement revealed that rainfall in 2002-03 was the lowest in the last 41 years and that crop coverage and crop production were the lowest in the last 30 years.

Out of the 1,109 mandals, 1,035 were declared by the State government to be drought-affected during 2002-03. In 15 out of the 23 districts, all the mandals were categorised as drought-affected. In the other districts, there were just a couple of mandals that were not declared drought-hit. Barring East Godavari, West Godavari and Srikakulam (where again almost half the district was declared drought-hit) in no part in the State were agricultural operations normal during the year.

The State government ensured that the facts and figures regarding rainfall, losses in terms of damage to crops and the extent of land left uncultivated were collated quickly. It presented a credible case for Central assistance to the State. For a dispensation that had focussed in recent years on integrating the strides made in the area of Information and Communication Technology into the instruments of governance, the collation of such data (and their updating after the weekly tele-conferences that Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu holds with District Collectors) did not involve any special effort. The Chief Minister could pressure the Centre to despatch teams to assess the situation twice during the past six months - in September 2002 and February 2003.

The State has sought Central assistance of Rs. 2,373.44 crores from the National Calamity Relief Fund (NCCF) and 20 lakh tonnes of rice to take up employment generation works (in addition to 5 lakh tonnes received already). Hardly any relief operations are on now. Farmers and landless agricultural workers are left to fend for themselves. Food shortages, even conditions of starvation, are beginning to take their toll: famine conditions exist. The State government insists on using the term "drought conditions'' and not famine. Those at the helm, after all, should be aware of the fact that while drought conditions are caused by the vagaries of nature, a famine is not a natural phenomenon and suggests the failure of the state and its machinery.

While the figures put out by the State government alone will illustrate the situation across the State, the intensity of the problem will have to be seen in a larger context: almost all the districts had suffered a drought of similar intensity thrice during the past six years. In other words, Andhra Pradesh has received normal rainfall only for two years between 1997-98 and 2002-03.

The cumulative impact of all this is most evident in the matter of groundwater availability. In the absence of any canal irrigation system, particularly in the Telengana region, farming depends on groundwater. Amidst vast tracts of barren land along the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway, there are small patches of green. These are on land belonging to those who can afford to sink borewells to a depth of more than 45 metres at a cost of Rs.35,000 and more. Even this will take care of farming activity only partially on a given area of land and help the farmers cultivate for subsistence.

Out of 116.45 hectares of cultivable land in the State, the crop area during the past season was only 97.12 lakh ha. While the South-West monsoon (June to September 2002) measured up to just 417 mm (against the normal of 624 mm), the North-East monsoon registered a mere 156 mm (against the normal of 224 mm). The two major reservoirs in the State - Nagarjuna Sagar and Srisailam - as well as smaller barrages have either dried up or are on the verge of going dry.

Foodgrain production fell significantly. The kharif season witnessed a shortfall in production to the extent of about 1.8 million tonnes, and the situation worsened in the rabi season. Against an expected production of 14.13 million tonnes over the two seasons, actual production was only 10 million tonnes. In a State whose economy has traditionally depended predominantly on agriculture and where surplus earnings from farming have invariably found their way into investments in real estate (the only other activity that seems to be thriving in the State is running private professional colleges) a drought of such proportions can cause havoc.

Government estimates reveal that at least 1.38 crore agricultural labourers have lost opportunities for gainful employment and at least one crore small and medium farmers have been forced to leave their land fallow for want of water. There has been large-scale migration by landless and marginal land-owning farmers engaged in subsistence agriculture. The idea of leaving their villages to go to far off Mumbai or to Gujarat to work as manual labourers does not appeal to them, but they just do not have enough to sustain them through this season. They are in no position to keep their cattle alive either. Distress sale of cattle is on: weekly markets across the State have witnessed a substantial rise in the number of head of cattle sold for slaughter.

THIS brings into focus the most crucial aspect of the story: the response of the state to the misery caused by lack of rain and the failure of crops, both these factors leading to the immiserisation of a cross-section of the people who depend on the fields to keep themselves alive.

The Centre delaying a decision on the quantum of financial assistance from out of the NCCF has prevented relief activities being set in motion. With only 0.5 million tonnes of rice released for relief work against 2.5 million tonnes sought by the State under the Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana, or the SGRY (this Central scheme has replaced the Food for Work Programme), the poor remain exposed to starvation. Officials insist that the State is yet to witness starvation deaths and that instances of death of the old and infirm persons cannot be classified as death due to starvation. Able-bodied men from several villages have left their homes in search of subsistence, leaving behind their parents and children to fend for themselves. The deaths, hence, can only be attributed to the drought conditions and the shortage of foodgrains, caused partly owing to the failure of the civil administration to initiate new projects under the SGRY.

This, however, does not mean that sanction of funds and release of foodgrains for such works by themselves would help the poor tide over the crisis. Apart from the poor quality of the rice issued under this scheme (seemingly this is the method adopted by the State government to prevent the siphoning of foodgrains supplied under the scheme to the open market), the most common complaint from those given foodgrains in exchange for work under the SGRY relates to the nature of work. Digging when the soil is parched involves more effort than when it is damp, and this fact is hardly taken into consideration. Famished even otherwise, the few able men who have refused to migrate to Mumbai or to Gujarat find it difficult to carry out the work assigned to them.

It is not as if those at the helm are unaware of these facts. But then the drought, for many of them, is just a part of the vagaries of nature, and as in the past the sufferings could be mitigated only if the Central government is pressured to sanction substantial funds and release foodgrains stacked in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India.

The Chief Minister and his men are meanwhile working overtime to ensure investments in huge projects, including in the irrigation sector. World Bank President James D. Wolfensohn was shown the vast potential for such works during a conducted tour organised by Chandrababu Naidu in November 2000, when the latter tried to sell the idea of a lift irrigation project that would make the parched tracts in Mahboobnagar a fertile region. When such projects materialise, they could convert the Telengana region into a granary. The landless agricultural labourers would have moved out of there by that time: the young and able ones would have migrated to the cities in search of manual labour and the rest will die of starvation by then. And those who still hold their lands could then import farming machinery with ease.

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