How years of relentless drought has forced farmers in Anantapur to migrate for survival

The story of Anantapur’s drought has been written over and over again, but hope is bleaker as the district stares at another crisis this summer.
How years of relentless drought has forced farmers in Anantapur to migrate for survival
How years of relentless drought has forced farmers in Anantapur to migrate for survival

“There is no water. We can’t farm anymore,” is an often heard refrain in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh’s largest district. Between June 2018 and January 2019, the region received 47% deficient rainfall. Deficient rainfall is the norm in the district, which is said to receive the second lowest rainfall in the country.

Years of consecutive drought has left many with lack of livelihood opportunities, especially in an area dependent on rain-fed agriculture. The story of Anantapur has been written over and over again, but the situation continues to deteriorate, and hope is bleaker. The drought has driven people to suicide, made women vulnerable to trafficking, forced people to look for an alternate means to earn their livelihood in a place where jobs unrelated to agriculture are few, and is forcing people to uproot their lives and migrate in order to be able to put food on their plates and clothes on their back.

In October 2018, the state government declared all 63 mandals in Anantapur as drought-hit. In Gummagatta mandal’s Pulakunta village, locals say they are witnessing what is the worst drought some of them have seen in their lifetime.

Why people leave

Anantapur recorded its highest rainfall of 816 mm in 2007-08, the last cultivation year for many farmers in the district. Due to its geographical location, the district does not enjoy either of the country’s two monsoons. It doesn’t get the south-west monsoon as it is in the rain shadow region of the Western Ghats, and doesn’t enjoy the benefits of the northeast monsoon as it is far from the east coast.

Fifty-nine-year-old Narasimha Reddy, a landed farmer in Pulakunta who owns seven acres, is exhausted. The seven borewells he has dug have failed to bear water and only pushed him into debt. “There is no point in just having land. I never seen a situation as bad as this. Although there has been drought earlier, the situation now is much worse than before. We sowed seeds thinking there would be rain at least during the Kharif season. But there were no rains. What can we do?” he asks.

Another resident of Pulakunta is Rajanna V, a landless agricultural labourer who returned home for the festival. For the last six years, Rajanna has been travelling to Chikkaballapur, Gudihallapur and Venkatagirikota in Karnataka to be a grape cutter. The only times Rajanna returns home is when work dries up, or when there is a festival.

“I don’t have land but if there were rains and we had water, I would have worked in the grape fields of local farmers instead of travelling to Karnataka,” he says.

While Rajanna and many like him leave their families behind and venture out in search of work and return when the need arises or work dries up, the children of many farmers have also migrated to bigger towns in search of better opportunities and return a few times each year to visit their families.

This is starkly visible in Cheruvandlapalli in Nalamada mandal, where a large chunk of residents are either beyond the age of retirement and live on pension, or are kids too young to go to school. At one point in time the village housed 120 families, but is now a shadow of its former self.

C Laxmidevi, a frail woman in her early seventies, survives solely on the widow pension she receives. “My two sons have gone in search of livelihood along with their kids. They owned five acres of agricultural land each, but had to leave as there is no water and the bores didn’t give water either,” she says.

In fact, Laxmidevi doesn’t even know what exactly her sons do anymore.

“My two sons went to stay in hostels. There’s no water, so they told me that there are no opportunities here and that they would find work elsewhere,” she says.

“A grandson has come to see me for the festival,” she says, her face devoid of any emotion.

In 2018, the state government launched the Andhra Pradesh Drought Mitigation Project, a five-year project with a budget of Rs 1,042 crore. However, activists say that while the project may look great on paper, the implementation on the ground has not taken place in time, reducing its effectiveness.

“APDMP was launched with a few crores, and when you read or hear the project plans, it’ll seem great. But only when all those who work sincerely on its implementation, only when each of them approaches this with sensitivity and works toward mitigating the problem, only then can we achieve this,” says Bhanuja from Rural and Environment Development Society (REDS), a non-profit that works in the region.

The district may be staring at a crisis this coming summer with depleting groundwater levels.

According to Down To Earth, there was only 1.75 TMC ft of water in 163 tanks in the district in January 2019, as opposed to the actual capacity of 26.3 TMC ft in 1,263 tanks.

Chandrasekhar Reddy, Anantapur District Secretary of the Andhra Pradesh Rythu Sangam, says that most people, including landed farmers, have been forced to take up odd jobs in order to eke out a living, something that the government seems to be ignoring.

“In some cases, because the borewells are dry, farmers come to Anantapur zilla and set up small hotels to survive. Some farmers have been forced to work as security guards for lodges. Some farmers have become coolies, some work as wardens or in gardens, and some are even having to bathe dogs for survival. The government knows all this, they are pretending as if they can’t see it even though it is right in front of them,” he says.

The extent of migration Chandrasekhar refers to can be seen in Kadiri’s Udumalagutta thanda in Muthyalacheruvu gram panchayat. Of the 70 families who have homes in this thanda, many young folk migrate to Kerala’s Kottayam district, while old people and children who are too young to study are the only ones who stay back. School going children are usually put up in hostels across the state while the parents are away. Most migrants from this region own land that they have held on to but cannot farm on anymore. In Kottayam, they largely work as construction workers or in rubber plantations.

One of the 70 residents in this hamlet is Lakshmidevi, who is back to the hamlet for a festival, as it is also on these few occasions that she gets to see her children. She has been travelling for work to Kerala for nine years now in search of work. Having gotten married in 2004, she and her husband gave up agriculture in 2009. Their two children study in two schools in different parts of the state – and is what a lion’s share of their earnings goes towards their education.

“Only if we go there can we run the household and educate our children. We want our kids to study. We don’t want them to take up agriculture. Our kids can’t do it now. If there is rain, we would cultivate the land but we’re not even getting the money that we invested in the land,” she says.

Lakshmidevi is determined that her kids are educated, so that they can find a job later on.

“Because our kids have to study, we go there and struggle – come hell or high water, (kashtam or nashtam), we work,” she adds.

Who stays back?

Sixty-year-old Gangireddy Y, a resident of Cheruvandlapalli, makes ends meet with his cattle.

However, owning six acres of land didn’t stop his sons from migrating to Hyderabad and Bengaluru to work as construction workers.

“I have land, but it’s only leaving me worse off. For the 6 acres I have, I need to spend up to Rs 1 lakh. Of this, I get only Rs 40,000 in the end, and have to bear a loss of Rs 60,000. What should we do then? The land is just there. There is no crop,” the farmer says.

The anger is audible in Gangireddy’s voice when he talks about the lack of water and other opportunities, “There is no water even for drinking! Where can we get water for irrigation? What is the point of having land?”

His younger son, 39-year-old Nilakanta Reddy, who has a heart problem, works as a centring labourer in Hyderabad. He is visiting his father for the festival with his wife and two children. He’s helpless and worried, as the condition of his health makes him anxious about both his future as well as that of his children.

“Despite having had an operation for my heart problem, there is always pain. There is not much of a chance of improvement. I continue to live with it, and whatever work I get, I go. There’s no scope of cultivating here. It was fine when we were kids, but for the last 15-20 years, there has been no rainfall,” he says.

Nilakanta echoes a sentiment one hears across the district – “If we stay here, survival will become difficult. There’s only problems and debt here.”

The only people who choose to stay back are people who do it out of a lack of choice.

Srinivas, a resident of Cheruvandlapalli, says that he has been farming for 18 years, but has not harvested a full yield. “It has been approximately 16 years since we received proper rains. That’s why I’ve been thinking of going someplace else. But I can’t go anywhere as my mother is here and I can’t leave her alone, so I take care of her and stay here,” he says.

“I sowed peanuts this season, for which I spent Rs 50,000. I didn’t get anything back but spent Rs 20,000 more. What can we do when there is no work? I have to take debts and survive,” he adds. “If we are still dependent on agriculture, we can’t afford to get our kids educated,” Srinivas rues.

What the future holds

For Srinivasulu Naik, farming is something he gave up on four years ago, after the three borewells he dug on the four acres of land he owned turned out to be dry. With that plus debt, crop failure and the education expenses of his two children, Srinivasulu, his wife and his mother began travelling to Kottayam, where they work as construction labourers.

“The only time we come back is if there is a problem – if the kids are in trouble – or if there’s a festival. We work as well-diggers, do coolie jobs, whatever work is available.”

Srinivasulu is still wishful. Looking up at the clear sky, he says that if there was water, he would go home in the blink of an eye. “We’ll leave Kerala, but we’ll never leave agriculture,” he says.

Those who work on the ground say that the government knows the problem, but is actually encouraging migration.

Peddi Reddy, the state president of the Rythu Sangam, says, “Even NREGA work has reduced. They are not sanctioning enough work for coolies. By not providing livelihood, the government is encouraging migration, which is not a good situation. The government should step in and provide livelihood, drinking water and irrigation facilities.”

Bhanuja from REDS says that things have to be done at the right time, and that the government must take steps proactively to mitigate the problem.

“Apart from crop insurance, farmers must be given input subsidy, loan waiver. If 50% of what is sown is given to the farmer, then they’ll be able to sow crops, their life will move forward and it will be an opportunity to stop migration. NREGA payments must also be made on time,” she says.

Water table levels have depleted this year as well and as Anantapur stares at another dry summer, the locals wait hopefully for rain.

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