As one steps into the Amaralingeswara Swamy temple in Andhra Pradesh’s capital Amaravati, in one corner of the ground floor one can spot an elderly gentleman wearing a spotless dhoti, an angavastram over his chest and vibhoodi on his forehead.
The man sings padyams in chaste Telugu in praise of Lord Siva that fill the temple and are music to the ears of the devout. His attire and flawless recitation of padyams, penned in jargon that is difficult for ordinary folks to pronounce, give an impression that he is a temple priest.
But 70-year-old Rudra Nagamalleswara Rao is a poor tenant farmer making both ends meet by seeking alms from pilgrims visiting the temple. After he was pushed into poverty by mounting debts, he has been left with no option but to live at the mercy of devotees. He has five mouths to feed – his wife Saraswati, son Sambhaiah, his daughter-in-law and granddaughter.
Rao used to grow cotton and tobacco on seven acres of leased land in his native place Chevapadu, located close to Amaravati. He found himself trapped in debts of up to Rs 7 lakh. He had to sell 1.5 acres of land and migrate to the temple town of Amaravati. Currently, he has a house allotted by the government under a housing scheme meant for backward classes.
Rao’s son Sambhaiah, who took up tenancy cultivation in Vizianagaram district, also landed in huge debts of over Rs 20 lakh. To liberate his son from debts, Rao sold off the rest of his land. He was forced to sell his house as well, to his elder daughter Peddintlamma, and then live in a rented house paying a monthly sum of Rs 1,500. A Class 10 dropout, Rao developed a liking towards Telugu literature and stage art based on Indian classics, which has now become the source of his livelihood.
Tip of the iceberg
The moving story of Nagamalleswara Rao sums up the plight of farmers who opt for tenancy farming in the state.
The fertile farmlands in the capital region were known for horticulture, floriculture and vegetable crops. The capital gobbled up 30,000 acres of private land and another 20,000 acres of government land, robbing tenant farmers and farm workers of their source of living.
Failing to find work locally, most of them migrated to far-off places in Kurnool, Nellore, Prakasam and Krishna districts. A few of them succeeded in diversifying into alternative vocations like masonry or operating autorickshaws. Like Nagamalleswara Rao, others live through bad days.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau’s 2016 data, Andhra Pradesh, with 804 farm suicides, along with the neighbouring Telangana, joined the list of traditional suicide hotbeds in the country.
“The data presented in the Parliament was under-reported. In fact, the number of suicides reached 1,500 during the year,” counters P Jamalayya, secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Kaulu Rythu Sangham, adding that most of them were tenant farmers. Indebtedness is believed to be the reason for most of the farmer suicides.
The Commission on Agriculture, headed by Dr Rokkam Radhakrishna who has been the Chairman of the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, appointed by the Government of India in 2007, observed that indebtedness is only a symptom and not the root cause. The root of the crisis lies in stagnation in agriculture, increasing production and marketing risks, and the lack of alternative opportunities to earn a livelihood.
Drop in net sown area
The drive by the Andhra Pradesh government post the bifurcation to transform the ‘successor state’ into a ‘sunrise state’ with an accelerated industrial growth has resulted in a drop in the net sown area from 42 lakh hectares to 38 lakh hectares. This is one of the findings of a 2017 report submitted by the 11-member commission on inclusive and sustainable agriculture.
The reason for the drop is massive irrigation and road projects, industrial corridors, ports and airports and rapid urban growth, for which large amounts of farmlands had to be acquired.
The report also observed that the trend of absentee landlordism, which lets cultivable land slip into the hands of tenant farmers, multiplied in the recent past, with 21 lakh hectares accounting for tenancy farming out of the total sown area of 60.73 lakh hectares.
Among other things, the commission recommended the creation of a land bank that included pooling of huge patches owned by absentee landlords and handing them to tenant farmers for sharecropping.
Jamalayya points out that the annual credit plan devised by bankers lacks equity and inclusiveness in the delivery of credit for tenant farmers. Even as there are around 33 lakh tenant farmers in the state, only 3.5 lakh farmers received a credit of Rs 1,000 crore out of the total credit outlay of Rs 63,000 crore in the year 2018-19. Denial of bank credit is forcing tenant farmers into the clutches of usurious moneylenders and, in turn, triggering suicides, he says.