Modern Day Slavery
Water is a resource that will never run out, they say; but its scarcity has been the undoing of many families in Kadiri, a town in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantapur district.

(This story is first in a two-part series on the agrarian crisis in Anantapur and its fallouts. Read the second here.)

Anantapur district has seen varying degrees of drought for many years now. Barren lands and wilting crops are a common sight in these parts. The sun beats down on you and wears you out, and there is no water in sight.

Like the rest of Anantapur, the drought has meant that the town of Kadiri, too, has been reeling under an agrarian crisis for many years now, as it has a largely rain-fed agricultural economy. As a result, residents who do not have the resources to migrate in search of greener pastures are struggling with poverty, mounting debt, and government apathy.

The drought has propelled a large number of farmer suicides, out of desperation or devastation. At least 223 farmers took their lives between June 2014 and October 2016 because of debt.

Among the many who have lost family members to suicides is Gangulamma, who is still hoping to turn around her luck.

The price of scarce water

R Gangulamma is a healthy-looking woman in her early 30s, looks exhausted, and her voice begins to quiver every time she begins to speak about her life in the last four years. (She will be referred to as Gangamma henceforth.)

Gangamma’s husband, Ramanjula, owned 2.75 acres of land, which they hoped to earn a living from. Five years ago, Ramanjula decided to borrow Rs 5 lakh to dig borewells, hoping that water would ensure that they have a good harvest. Other than having to pay for the borewell, Ramanjula also had to pay another Rs 70,000 for electricity to be able to dig the borewell.

Four borewells were dug, three failed. Finally, one bore water.  

Ramanjula and Gangamma decided to plant crops, and even got a good harvest. The two hoped for a better life, and believed that they would be able to educate their daughter well.

However, the prices plummeted that year, worsening their situation.

“None of the crops were profitable. The rates were also low. We also planted a lot of kanakambaram flowers, but it caught a disease,” says Gangamma.

As a source of additional income, the family decided to buy four cows, but only two survived, which further added on to their distress.

And one day, five years ago, Ramanjula decided to kill himself.

“He didn't tell any of us where he was going, we had no idea,” says Gangamma. “We were wondering where he was. He told my sister's son: "I'm killing myself because I couldn't stand the pressure of loans. Your aunt has no one other than me. Please take care of her."

Gangamma and her 15-year-old daughter have been trying to eke out a living from those two cows ever since, but that, too, is proving to be difficult.

“There's no crop now. We have just planted some fodder for the two cows – but even for that, there is not enough water,” she says.

Gangamma, however, has still been trying to plant crops in order to able to at least pay the interest on the debt that has been accumulated over the years. In order to make sure that her daughter gets a good education, she has also been working as a manual labourer.

“My hands are full of welts. That's our situation. We have no one to help us. It was just my husband,” Gangamma says, barely holding back tears.

While Gangamma has still managed to remain afloat in order to support her daughter, in other cases, water has ruined not one, but multiple generations of the same family.

Debt-ridden families vulnerable

We are at a meeting in Kadiri, at the office of the Rural and Environmental Development Society (REDS), a 22-year-old NGO working on rural development, sustainable agriculture, child rights and anti-trafficking. A lot of the women gathered here are single mothers, victims of trafficking, victims of domestic violence, and have witnessed the suicides of husbands and children.

“People who had rain-fed agriculture and had groundnut as a major crop, dug deep borewells, often killed themselves due to the lack of water,” says Bhanuja, the founder of REDS.

“Ever since agriculture has taken a hit here, landless farmers and those with just two to three acres of land have been forced to migrate.

And the lack of alternative livelihoods in the region, she says, sets them down the path of desperation.

‘He said that I would receive compensation for his death’

Dressed in a blue saree with a look of worry set on her face, Ramanamma looks much older than her 40 years of age. Her husband killed himself following consecutive years of crop failure on their one acre of cultivable land. Her three children – two daughters and a son – were married by then, and Ramanamma’s son took over the farm, hoping for better luck.

Her son also decided to take a loan in order to dig a borewell. However, that failed to bear any water, pushing the family deeper into debt.

“The crops kept failing, and we already had loans of up to Rs 3-4 lakh. When the moneylenders would come and ask where the money was, we would just repeatedly tell them that we would repay it. ‘You sowed the crops but you’re not making any money. You have to pay us now’, they would say and would torture us to give the money back,” Ramanamma recounts.

“In that situation, my son, too, killed himself. He said that I would receive compensation from the government for his death,” Ramanamma says, her voice quivering, recalling her son’s death.

But Ramanamma’s struggles did not end there. Her elder daughter, too, killed herself, because of personal issues. And her younger daughter, Rekha*, who has a three-year-old son and has been separated from her husband, was forced to migrate to Saudi Arabia after local money lenders hounded the family. Rekha is today stuck in Saudi, and hasn’t been paid for two months.

“The government doesn't care. They just conduct pointless meetings. If this goes on, all of us will have to commit suicide,” Ramanamma says.

‘No support from government’

Ramanamma now cares for her elder daughter's son who studies in Class 9 and Rekha's three-year-old son – on no income except a widow’s pension of Rs 1000, and the ration from the Public Distribution System.

It has been over two years since the death of Ramanamma’s son, but there has been no indication that the family will receive any ex-gratia.

“The government doesn't care if we have food on our plates or if we are dead. They get their salaries, so they get by. How are we supposed to take care of ourselves and our children?” Ramanamma demands to know, clutching the mic she’s holding in anger.

The agrarian crisis and lack of alternative livelihoods

Agriculture scientist GV Ramanjaneyulu says that crop failure has increased over the years in Anantapur, and that the government needs to tackle the agrarian crisis as a whole, instead of merely looking at it as an issue that can be solved with technology.

“Six out of 10 years are drought years… That’s been the experience of Anantapur for the last century. Soils are becoming dry, as groundwater level and moisture level is going down. It’s almost becoming a desert. As a result of that, the frequency of crop failure has increased,” Ramanjaneyulu says.

The agriculture scientist adds that there are three key problems that the government will require to tackle – change in rainfall distribution pattern; a shift in land ownership from people in agriculture to those who live in urban areas; and a change in crop pattern.

“If you put all these things together – land is not in their hands so cost is going up; climate has changed; without larger public and private investments made, soil health is not built at all; and crops they were cultivated prices have crashed due to cheaper imports – created the kind of crisis that we are seeing in Anantapur,” he says.

“In this situation, each of these three problems requires a solution. However, not much has been done. The government looks at technological solutions – they distributed rain guns, but the arrangement for water was never done,” he says.

Ramanjaneyulu says that there is a lack of political will, “but industrialisation has also not happened because there is lack of water. If you look for any industrialisation, you need water. Within the given situation, what could have been done, should have been done. But it was not focused on.”

This is echoed by Rubina, one of the women in Kadiri.

“I am a teacher. But if the school principal refuses to give the salary, what can I do? There is no development here. No offices, no companies, nothing. If companies come also, only educated people with degrees and +2 qualification have an advantage.” she states. “For the rest, you can either do farming or become a teacher. There are no other options here,” Rubina says.

It is the very lack of alternative livelihoods and an integrated approach to tackle the problem that has made things worse. Water has fuelled debt, and debt has made residents vulnerable to trafficking.

“Mainly, the families of those farmers who are lost to suicide, are trapped by brokers, and trafficked to brothels in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune,” Bhanuja says. “Single women, domestic violence survivors, child marriage victims, Dalit and Adivasi women, minority women, are more vulnerable,” she adds.

Vulnerable women and girls trafficked

Which is what happened in Gangulamma’s case. She used to be relatively well-off as her family owned three acres of land on which they sowed groundnuts. But, there was no water to irrigate their crops.

“Two years ago, we wanted to dig a borewell, so we took a loan of Rs 3 lakh from a moneylender at 14% interest. The borewell failed,” she says. She had also taken a loan of Rs 1 lakh for her daughter’s wedding.

When her family was attempting to figure out a means to pay off their loan, a few brokers overheard Gangulamma in her village, and asked her if she would go to Saudi and work as a domestic help to be able to pay off her debt.

“The agent said that I would have to do housework. I didn't know anything about Saudi. I thought it would be nice. It's just housework, and that I will get Rs 40,000 a month,” Gangulamma says. But when she reached, she was sexually exploited.

*Name changed to protect identity

(With inputs from Jahnavi Reddy)

Read: Trafficked, enslaved, exploited: The fallout of Anantapur’s agrarian crisis