Anantapur has 610 Tata Sumos. It has 130 Tata Spacios (air-conditioned). Its not doing too badly on the Qualis front either -- 85 of those are registered here. Nor does it lag on the latest. Barely 48 hours after the national launch of the Scorpio, there were six on these roads. There are now 30.
Much of the swanky stuff has shown up in the last two years. The local road transport authoritys records are a gold mine. There is a modest fleet of Tata Safaris. Plus heaps of Indicas, Santros and Zens. And more Mahindra jeeps than you can count. Anantapur town, where these are registered, has just around three lakh people. This startling research from Eenadu (the biggest Telugu daily) also shows that many more of these vehicles actually run here, but are registered in Hyderabad and Bangalore. Even counting only those listed locally, this little town might have more SUVs and fancy cars per capita than either of those metros.
All in all, amazing signs of progress and prosperity.
Except that Anantapur is one of the poorest districts in Andhra Pradesh. It is also the most crisis-ridden one in the state, along with Mahbubnagar. Agriculture has collapsed since the mid-1990s. More farmers have committed suicide here than in any other part of the country. Large numbers of people have left the district. Thousands of students have dropped out of school and college in the past three years. Including many who were on scholarships. Add to all this, a drought that is biting deep. A genuine one. Against a normal rainfall of 544 mm, the district got 270 mm last year. This year, it has had no rains at all thus far. So where did all those fancy cars -- placing Anantapur in the fast lane -- come from?
Anantapurs crisis has many causes. But is always reduced to a generic drought. The actual variation in rainfall over the last 125 years is far from dramatic. And the average of 522.mm during 1991-2000 was better than during the previous ten years. For 1981-90, the average was just 463 mm. So rainfall in the 1990s was in fact just above the normal of 520 mm. There have been a couple of bad years since then. Including 2001, in which the rains came aplenty -- but too late. Overall, the data do not support the notion of drought as eternal villain. Drought just makes an unbearable situation worse.
The districts poverty and structural inequalities are huge. But drought is still offered as the cause of all that goes wrong. Hundreds of crores of rupees have poured into Anantapur in the past five or six years in the name of fighting drought. And now theres a real one, it helps bring in even more funds. This money has rarely translated into jobs for people. Or improved living standards. Or enhanced nutrition and health. It has largely gone into contractor-led projects. And most recently into a food for work programme that private contractors have captured.
The worse things have become in Anantapur district, the more cars have shown up in Anantapur town. Drought, as the organised plunder of the poor. Contractors, sub-contractors, traders and local politicians own these cars. (Often, thats the same bunch of people.) So do bureaucrats and even, oh yes, NGOs.
As in all things Indian, there is a caste hierarchy in the cars. The research on the whole issue by Eenadu ace reporter Narasimha Reddy bears this out. He has done more stories on rural distress, farmers suicides and the misuse of development funds than most journalists in the country. The flash and latest ones are owned by the top contractors, he says. The Zens, Santros and Indicas are mostly the preserve of the bureaucrats. The NGOs understandably do best amongst the jeeps.
While the cars colour the town and highway, the villages move down another road. Tens of thousands daily visit gruel centres to pick up what will be their main, if not only, meal. A helping of gruel made from ragi, water, a little salt and jaggery. Thousands more battle to save their tiny farms from money lenders.
And still thousands more stand in desperate queues at the cattle camps. Waiting for those five kilograms of straw for their animals. The district administration runs five such camps now. Each with about 10,000 head of cattle that their owners can no longer feed. Despair has driven new records in the distress sales of farm animals. Over 1.6 lakh head of livestock were sold off by May. Thats 60,000 more than were sold in the whole of last year. And at absurd prices. Animals we bought for Rs. 10,000 last year, we are selling at Rs. 3,000 this year, says Seenu. Hes talking to us in Daniyancheruvu village of Nallamada mandal. Seenu is one of many who have brought their starving cattle to the camp here, hoping to feed them.
The crowds at the camp are so large that lots of tea and food stalls have sprung up around it. To service the thousands of farmers who have not only deposited their cattle here, but have stayed on. There is no work to go back to, says Seenus friend Raghu. Might as well hang on here and make sure the cows are fed and treated for disease. These cattle are our lives. They must have that fodder
Luxury cars may be common in the town. Here, fodder is a luxury. Any of the 2,000 farmers standing up to 12 hours in the queue for it would confirm that. There is a link, though, between fodder and luxury cars. Last year, the Animal Husbandry department claimed a loss of Rs. 385 crore due to the drought. They had to save so many animals. Which mystifies anyone looking at the condition of the cattle theyre supposed to have rescued. But in the block headquarters are shiny new vehicles.
Drought is fodder for the fortunate. The last straw for the poor, but a big meal for the luxury class.
Yet, the current administration of the district is a sensitive one. It is more responsive to peoples distress than many in the past. And it has shown the courage to take on touchy issues like caste and communal violence. The administration here also showed restraint when faced with a state-wide protest in May. The Left parties were picketing the Collectorates on the issue of hunger. But the authorities did not, for once, resort to standard strong-arm methods to disperse the 1,000 protestors. Also, on hearing of the crush at the cattle camps, Collector B. Rajashekar moved to stagger the fodder hours. Each village the camps serviced was given a different time. The idea being to shorten queues and reduce chaos.
But Anantapurs crisis is far older than the present set up. And rooted in larger factors both within and outside the district. In state and national policies which have wrecked its fragile equilibrium. In a path of development hostile to the poor.
In April, Adappa gave up. Creditors were squeezing the small farmer from Oddicheruvu mandal. Hed sunk borewells to 500 feet at great cost on his land in Dabruvaripalli village. They didnt work. Spurious pesticides and bad seed cost more. The crop failed yet again. Adappa took his life in despair.
Self-declared lenders soon showed up. They claimed he owed them Rs. 60,000, says his son Jaichander. But they would not show me the promissory note. Yet, they hoped to change the name on the note from his to mine. And wanted me to sign to that effect. I declined. Many families just cave in and sign. And end up as bonded workers of such creditors. Every household here is deep in debt, he says. Even selling land wont help pay up. Land worth Rs. 25,000 an acre eight years ago wont fetch Rs. 6,000 now.
Now his widow Lilavatiamma could lose their four acres to creditors. She is hit in other ways, too. Three years ago, she would have got Rs. 10,000 under the Family Benefit Scheme to help her after her loss. But with suicides mounting in Anantapur, the government changed the rules. The sum was reduced to Rs. 5,000. As the deaths rose still further, the scheme was scrapped altogether for suicides. So I cannot get the Rs. 10,000 that would help my son complete his education, she says. Adappa and Reddy are just two amongst 2500 suicides in Anantapur over the past six years.
Zero investment and a collapse of credit have ravaged agriculture. The landless poor have seen working days crash as a result. Crippling rises in the costs of seed, fertiliser, power, pesticide and water have crushed small farms. The deeper the policies bite, the greater the casualties.
There is a savage drought of compassion afflicting policy makers.
Back in the town, more luxury cars roll out of what is known as the Goodwill Colony. This is an island of expensive apartment buildings. Goodwill is the term used to describe the ten per cent kickbacks paid on all contracts in the district. Money from such kickbacks financed most of the buildings here. So Eenadu calls it the Goodwill Colony. Another name for it is The Food For No Work Programme. The same people with homes here own so many of those cars.
The Automobile Revolution -- that beloved cliché of countless magazine covers -- has arrived in Anantapur. But its a very different kind of revolution than that which people here had hoped for. While the Scorpios zip around the streets of the town, the wheels of economic and social justice turn a lot more slowly in Anantapur. Here, drought is in the drivers seat.