Are tube wells precipitating an agrarian crisis in Andhra Pradesh?

In the first of a two-part series, we examine how the state’s policy to incentivise tube wells in a dry ecological landscape is pushing small OBC farmers to the brink 

K. Subramaniam, had, for long, wanted to turn his five-acre plot into an orchard. In 2000, he sunk a tube well without success. His friends said he was in ‘full tension’. The following year, he made two more attempts to sink in tube wells, one of which yielded 2 inches water. So Subramaniam planted 250 sweet orange saplings in his field.

In a year’s time, when water became scarce, he put down a fourth tube well. He found a water yield of 2.5 inches. With abundant irrigation, he earned Rs 40,000 from the first harvest, which took four years to yield, in 2006. Subramaniam planted another 250 saplings on his plot the same year.

As the next summer rolled on, the wells began to dry again. On 1 February 2007, he sank the fifth well unsuccessfully. The father of three still owed the drilling company Rs5,000 for the attempt. Subramaniam was desperate. On February 15, without informing his wife, he called the drilling lorry yet again. Two more attempts were made overnight. When both turned out unsuccessful, the 30-year-old left the scene to relieve himself. He drank pesticide the same night. The 30-year-old’s body was found some distance away from his field the following morning.

Subramaniam lived in Kotapalli village in Andhra Pradesh’s largest district, Anantapur. With more than 800 thousand hectares, Anantapur has traditionally claimed nearly half the area of groundnut cultivation in undivided Andhra Pradesh. The agrarian economy in Andhra’s Rayalaseema region, in which Kotapalli falls, witnessed rapid changes leading up to the mid-2000s. Cereals and pulses, which occupied nearly 67 per cent of the cultivated area in the early 1960s, had shrunk to 15.49 per cent by 2005-06. They were replaced in near corresponding percentage by groundnut in this period– from 18 percent to 74%. This was the principal cash crop that had been promoted, like tobacco or sugarcane, during the colonial times.

The popular varieties of groundnut such as TMV2, although old, are well adapted to Anantapur’s dry ecological conditions. But kharif groundnut yields, already low by national and international standards, had been declining through the 1990s. For the triennium ending 2004-05, the average per hectare yield in Anantapur was 495kg, down from 732kg in 1989-92. Aside from variation in rainfall, a major reason for declining yields had been increased incidence of pest-attacks on groundnut in recent decades. For instance, in the 2005 kharif season, TMV2 farmers reported at least five different pest attacks of which bud necrosis (colloquially known as the ‘AIDS virus’) was the most unfamiliar, and proved to be the most damaging to crop yield.

The production uncertainty was being compounded by rising expenses on fertilisers, pesticides and labour costs. Even as the cost of cultivation increased, farm harvest prices failed to keep pace. In 2005-06, a normal rainfall year, farmers sold (unshelled) groundnut at Rs1,800/quintal. In terms of the comprehensive definition of costing, most small and marginal farmers I surveyed were able to make Rs5,000 and Rs1,623 per hectare respectively. Since small farmers cultivate 2-3 hectares of dry plots on an average, their net annual income in a normal kharif season was between Rs10,000-Rs15,000 at best. The situation does not seem to have improved since.

The adoption of tube wells since the 1980s has differentiated OBC castes such as the Kurubas and the Boyas from within, and from other castes across villages in the Rayalaseema region

As a result, by 2005, groundnut had been losing its long-standing commercial appeal. This prompted a rush towards fruit cultivation. The area under fruit cultivation grew sharply between 1997-98 and 2008-09 – from 17,363 hectares to 30,544 hectares. This shift is remarkable for its causes and consequences. Anantapur has a dry ecology. The district receives an annual average rainfall of 553mm with central Anantapur receiving lower precipitation of 350-400mm. Rainfall available to plants in their root zone, or effective rainfall, is even lower and irrigation coverage is sparse. The region therefore witnesses frequent droughts.

State’s myopic policies
The unviability of groundnut cultivation pushed small farmers such as Subramaniam to risk large and credit-financed investments on tube wells. The crisis betrays changing policy and practice orientation of the central and regional states towards dry land agriculture. Two aspects of this policy are noteworthy.

The first is the state’s agricultural research and extension practice. Local input dealers are arguably the principal sources of “farm knowledge” dissemination given that the state has allowed its existing extension network, already inadequate, to shrivel instead of strengthening it. A study by the Chennai-based MS Swaminathan Foundation on Anantapur agriculture in 2010 found that 73 per cent of approved posts of agricultural extension officers were lying vacant in the district as of March 2009. These officers were expected to visit villages and guide farmers on new technologies.

The second is the state’s myopic water policy in which tube wells have been actively promoted as an irrigation source at the expense of ignoring Rayalaseema’s hydrogeology. This is evident in the share of tube wells in net irrigated area, which grew from 8.48 per in 1991-92 to to 53 per cent in 2005-06. If in the 1980s, it was the scheme of the NT Rama Rao government subsidising individual sinking of tube wells that incentivised groundwater usage, since the 1990s, it was the state’s farm credit and subsidy policy that favoured intensive tube well-based cultivation. In the last three decades, more than half of Anantapur has been over-exploited in terms of groundwater. Subramaniam’s village, Kotapalli, is in this zone.

Groundwater barrier for those falling behind
Subramaniam came from the Kuruba caste, an Other Backward Caste (OBC), with sizeable numbers in central Anantapur. Small and marginal Kuruba farmers with dry land – and farmers from other OBC castes such as the Boyas – have traditionally practiced transhumance (seasonal livestock grazing in different places) while larger OBC farmers have additionally had shallow, well-based agriculture until the 1980s. The adoption of tube wells has since then differentiated these OBC castes from within and from other castes across villages in the Rayalaseema region.

Wealthy OBC households adopted tube well technology in the late 1990s, either alongside or closely after large and middle-level Reddy farmers (the locally dominant caste) did so in their villages. A larger number of small and marginal OBC farmers began attempting to sink tube wells only a decade later, by which time groundwater aquifers had begun to recede. In the village that I studied in 2005, just 34 per cent land-owning households had access to groundwater. A lion’s share of the village tube wells belonged to a handful of middle and large Reddy and OBC households.

Subramaniam’s case shows how the contemporary rural distress in India threads many dimensions of agrarian life at multiple scales. Apart from reflecting remarkably low and fluctuating incomes from a group of crops relative to others, it also points to the imprudence of promoting an extractionist approach in farming in dry land ecologies. It also points to a social crisis. It is the multitude of small, dry land farmers from the OBCs and SC castes that cannot hope to take the farming route to diversify out of it.

(Nilotpal Kumar teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. He is the author of Unravelling Farmer Suicides in India: Egoism and Masculinity in Peasant Life. The views expressed in this articles are his own)

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