Monday, December 14, 2009

Doubt IV: Telangana Revisited

Three years ago, I made this post on Telangana. I, then, spoke from my observations as one among the hordes of engineering graduates who aimlessly join colleges and aimlessly pass out of it. Today, I will not claim to be wiser than I was then. But, I am, slightly, better informed. I am posted at Vijayawada and I hold the additional charge of Khammam. One in Andhra, the other in Telangana. Every week, I shuttle between the two places. Double work, double responsibilities, double reprimands, but single salary. Thanks to my jurisdiction which is predominantly rural, I got the opportunity to meet more than a dozen farmers. Farmers from both Telangana and Andhra regions. I must have spent, on an average, half an hour with each of them. The motive behind the interaction, or interrogation as they would call, was to ascertain their income. I have questioned them in an excruciatingly detailed manner about their families, lifestyles, crop cycles, credit facilities, past, present, future etc. And like any typical loquacious villager, they would tell me more than I would ask. I have also interacted with a lot of civil contractors from both the regions who execute irrigation projects in both the regions. It is these interactions which form the basis of my present post. I am not a sociologist or a political scientist. My observations could be totally wrong. But I will say, what I have to.

In this post, like in many others, it has been projected that a separate Telangana will fetch more water to the farmers in the region and, hence, greater prosperity. But, irrigation projects have become extremely complex in the present era with issues like environment, displacement of people (especially tribals), rehabilitation, resettlement, compensation etc. The separatists often project those from other regions to be shrewd, dominating and successful lobbyists. But even these attributes could not help them in making Polavaram a reality. Last year, when I cruised on Godavari from Rajamundry to Perantalapalli, all that was visible of the project were the concrete blocks placed by the survey teams indicating the extent of submergence. Polavaram is a testimony to the compounding complexities of mega projects in recent times. A new state would just be an addition to the existing hurdles. Every proposed project will reach the hallowed portals of the apex court, with the downstream farmers appealing for a stay. Yes, I understand that the constitution clearly leaves river water sharing to the legislature. But that did not deter Karnataka and Tamil Nadu from knocking the doors of the Supreme Court. And to overcome all these, political stability is crucial because decision-making becomes the first causality of political instability. Empirical observation reveals frequent leadership changes in smaller legislatures.

Hypothetically, let us assume a utopian scenario. There is an unbelievable consensus among the leaders in the proposed state. They exhibit imaginative statesmanship and succeed convincing all the stakeholders to agree for the irrigation projects. The projects are completed well within timeframe and the cost escalation is so less that the projects become a case study for schools of governances in the universities across the world. Will it usher in prosperity in the agrarian lives?

During my interaction with the farmers, both from Andhra and Telengana regions, the problems faced by them had little to do with water and more with other issues like increasing balkanization of farmlands, salinity of soil, raising prices of agricultural inputs etc. Since, most of them have to endure months at a stretch without seeing a single rupee of income, they just can’t wait for remunerative prices to arrive. Initially, I was very happy to notice the presence of large number of cold storage units in this part of the state. I was happy that finally technology has empowered the poor farmer to fetch him the best price for the crop. But my joy was short-lived, when I enquired a little. I was told that produce in the cold storage mostly belonged to the non-farmers. The real beneficiaries are the commission agents. And except a few large farmers, who have the financial strength to wait and preserve them in cold storages, the rest can never avail the best prices. The middlemen procure and preserve them in cold storages. Officially, the commission agents earn 1% of the transaction. Remember, it is one percent of the transaction, not the profit. (So they make money, irrespective whether the farmer makes profit.) But, the actual earnings would be much more due to price fluctuation, discrepancies in weighing and discounting on the account on “poor” quality of the produce. I have come across agents who earn Rs 35-40 lakhs a year. Now, consider this. A person makes Rs 35-40 lakhs a year, without having even an office. He does not have to bear the vagaries of nature. He does not suffer from risk of pests. Most importantly, he does not have to wait for six to nine months. This man does not have an identity, unless the UID cards give him one. Some have registrations. But many don’t. They don’t file their returns of income. There are thousands of such faceless agents who thrive on the sweat, blood and misery of the farmer. Yes, you have market yards, legislations, rules, bye-laws, vigilance systems and many other systems which aim to protect the farmers and ensure they get the right price. For example, the rice millers are barred from procuring paddy from persons who are not farmers. The Government has framed every possible law and rule to protect the farmer. But farmer is in such desperation for money that he would be more eager to cooperate with any deviation if he assured of instant cash.

Do those, who have burnt public property worth in the last few weeks, have any imaginative solution to such issues? I am surprised that none of the blogs have addressed these issues. Can you remove these faceless agents from Telangana? There are many of them who belong to other states, let alone other regions of Andhra Pradesh.

People speak of the employment which the irrigation projects would generate. Again, on the surface it looks very attractive. And when you apply a dash Keynesianism, it appears as if it is time-tested. Scratch a little, the facts become different. I deal with a lot of civil contractors who execute irrigation projects. And they do not use local labour. Most of them get labour from states like Maharashtra, Chattisgarh and Orissa. They claim that the labour from these regions is cheaper than local labour. Further, since the workers are away from their native, they turn up regularly for work and consequently, the absenteeism is low. Let us leave aside the genuineness of their reasons to opt for labour outside the state. The fact remains that execution of irrigation projects in a region may not necessarily translate into employment opportunities for the residents of the region.

Therefore, there is no guarantee that the new state will benefit either the farmers or daily wage labourers. These form the bulk of the poor and impoverished.

So, please enlighten me, in whose name, the public property worth crores are being destroyed?