Rayalaseema’s horticultural shift presents a sobering picture

Farmers’ shift from groundnut to sweet orange cultivation on the back of ill-conceived state policies is changing caste and labour dynamics  in Andhra Pradesh’s largest district

In the first of this two-part series, we examined the unviability of groundnut cultivation for small and marginal dry land farmers in Andhra Pradesh’s Rayalaseema region. This is why the attraction of cultivating fresh fruits in tube well orchards has been catching on since the late 1990s.

In the state’s largest district, Anantapur, the area devoted to the cultivation of fresh fruits has grown by nearly 150 per cent between 1997-98 and 2014-15. Sweet orange (Citrus sinesis), mangoes, pomegranate and sapodilla are the major fruits grown here. With around 100,000 tonnes of annual production between 2013 and 2015, the district is a major producer of sweet orange in the state.

This move towards fruit production locally is a part of a broader national shift in food production. The states of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have emerged as new high-value fruit producers. The share of fruits and vegetables, both fresh and processed, in India’s agricultural exports has increased remarkably since the 2000s.

The states at both the central and provincial levels have incentivised this shift in order to address the crisis in traditional crops. The Centre’s New Agricultural Policy, announced in 2000, targeted an agricultural growth rate of four per cent through increased public investment, cultivation of high value crops and crop-risk management. In 2003, the Andhra Pradesh government rolled out micro-irrigation schemes under which local farmers with tube wells began receiving heavily subsidised sprinkler and drip sets. Subsequently, in 2005-06, the National Horticultural Mission was started to provide farmers with cash subsidy and training for developing nurseries, setting up new gardens and rejuvenating older gardens among other assistance.

Rich pickings from sweet orange cultivation
Unlike gherkins in Karnataka and strawberries in western Maharashtra, sweet orange is not a new crop in Rayalaseema. Wealthy farmers in water-rich uplands in Anantapur, particularly those adjoining Kadapa district, where a fruit research station has existed since before Independence, are known to have maintained citrus groves in the 1970s and 1980s. But sweet orange has now become a crop that a large number of small and marginal farmers in water-scarce mandals, i.e. sub-district blocks, desperately want to cultivate.

Local farmers purchase saplings from nurseries in Kadapa. The plants do well in upland red soils with the availability of low but assured irrigation. They bear fruit for 15 to 20 years, with the first fruition occurring four years after plantation. Orchards are harvested biannually but the main harvest comes during April-May. Plants are pruned post-harvest, and artificially water-stressed for three weeks to induce optimal budding and flowering. Hundreds of traders, both the locals representing wholesale merchants in Anantapur and Bangalore, and those from Kurnool (purchasing for Hyderabad and other North Indian markets) descend on local orchards for purchase through April to May.

The formation of markets for groundwater across villages is a recent phenomenon. Orchard owners lease tube wells for Rs60,000 for six months. But there have been cases of distressed farmers paying Rs40,000-50,000 for tube wells for a few weeks leading up to the harvest

In water-scarce Anantapur, crop yields for the principal harvest range between 8-10 tonnes. Seasonal selling rates fluctuate wildly depending on fruit quality, real time demand in distant markets and on individual farmers’ capacity to hold against traders. Still, at an average rate of Rs30,000/tonne (for the triennium ending 2018), gross returns per-acre from the crop are often double than that from the best double-cropped groundnut yields under tube wells.

Thus, even a farmer with a two-acre orchard can earn a gross income of Rs4-5 lakh annually, making sweet orange highly lucrative for the locals. Indeed, in the course of my research in 2015-16, I have heard ‘records’ and ‘success’ stories related to small and large farmers who have made a fortune from sweet orange cultivation.

Pricey access to water
Yet, the crucial requirement of prolonged availability of irrigation lends a perspective on horticulture as a sustainable remedy for farm distress in dry Rayalaseema. In Reddipalli village in central Anantapur where my research is located, only one-third of all resident households enjoy access to groundwater. Among the orchard-owners in that village, the locally influential Reddys are well represented - around 70 per cent - in relation to their demographic share while the more numerous Scheduled Castes fare badly, with less than 10 per cent owning tube wells. The OBCs, with about 40 per cent households having access to tube wells, are located in the middle of this ownership spectrum.

Even for this small group of orchard farmers, the availability of groundwater is precarious. They often depend on multiple tube wells for squeezing just up to two inches of groundwater every summer, i.e. from February until May. Most local orchard owners, even the ‘luckier ones’ whose tube wells are located inside water bodies (dead or partially alive streams, infrequently filled tanks, etc.) are compelled to buy water.

The formation of markets for groundwater across villages is thus a recent phenomenon. Orchard owners lease tube wells for Rs60,000 (in 2017) for six months. But there have been cases of distressed farmers paying Rs40,000-50,000 for tube wells for a few weeks leading up to the harvest. It is a seller’s market even if buying farmers try to consolidate their bargaining position through caste and extra-caste social networks. The entire risk of tube wells going dry during the lease period is borne by the buying farmer. Many small orchard farmers hence speak of experiencing mental stress and prolonged insomnia during summer months every year.

Shift in rural labour pattern
How does the much larger population of OBC and SC farmers fare in the world of horticulture? SC households depend much less on income from their own cultivation, trading of old cattle and from coolie work on land belonging to upper caste owners. Mechanised horticulture does not require as much labour as groundnut under irrigation does. Conversely, off–farm work, such as driving autorickshaws between villages and mandal market, doing construction work in Anantapur town or ‘security guarding’ the local wind farms has become central to their livelihoods. Their collective ties to a farm-oriented rural life is now becoming tenuous.

In villages closer to the mandal headquarter, such households have turned to daily wage work in housing construction during Kharif season. In interior villages, they commute in autos or on tractors to work in villages where the tube wells hold more water both during Rabi and Kharif seasons. The presence of ‘mestri’ (farm labour contractors) in such villages indicates a widening casual farm labour market even during Kharif.

Promoted as a remedy for agrarian distress across rural India, the horticultural shift in Rayalaseema presents a sobering picture. Policies that reinvigorate the culture of cultivating a wider set of crops, including millets, and of maintaining livestock, are needed to complement the cultivation of various fruits. In doing so, farm policies have to pay considerably more attention to local hydroecologies, leverage on local wisdom and practices around them, and revitalise the vast network of local watersheds. It is unclear if there is any incentive for the government and local civil society groups to undertake such policies in earnest. It is equally unclear if local farmers across would reimagine their social solidarity to demand such policies of their government.

(Nilotpal Kumar teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore. He is the author of Unravelling Farmer Suicides in India: Egoism and Masculinity in Peasant Life. Part of the research for this article was funded by the Azim Premji University. The views expressed in these article are his own)

An American woman walked on Gandhi’s Dandi trail - from the end to the beginning
‘Laws are the raw materials of a democracy’
A Nobel laureate and Mumbai’s Underworld!
Editor’s Pick More