As my jeep tumbles along the incredibly bumpy mud road to Palukur village in Kandukur, Andhra Pradesh, I am surprised to see that the villages look quite normal. In my head, drought-affected villages looked like deserts. Palukur itself features dusty, scattered vegetation, cows and buffaloes roaming around, and a clutter of small, clean houses. The villages in Prakasam district--the worst affected in the state--bear more internal wounds than external.
More than 50 villagers are gathered together for a community meeting in Palukur, braving the blazing sun at 10am. With almost the entire village dependent on agriculture and related activities for a living, the drought has left most families reeling. From April to September, agricultural activities come to a standstill every year for the smaller farmers and labourers, severely impeding their income. The production had fallen from 40 bags of rice per acre to 25 bags this year. How do they manage? The answer was a resounding chorus: we migrate.
When my brothers visit, they bring me biscuits and fruits from Hyderabad. But... they miss school, and they are very sad when they have to leave.
Not quite greener pastures
Almost 80% of the villagers have at least one family member who migrated to the nearby cities in search of work. Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Mysore and Adilabad are the most popular migrant destinations. Construction labour is the most common 'career' change for the migrating rural poor, with their 'new' homes being construction sites.
The two sons of Koteswara Rao (37) migrated to Hyderabad when the drought started. Both Vamsi (17) and Chitti Babu (15) dropped out of school to work as masons in Hyderabad's construction sector, because their father's crops had failed. The sons visit their family in Kandukur once in a few months. "They ask me why I didn't let them finish school," says Koteswara Rao. "They rarely talk about it at home, but I think they feel bad. And I know, mason work is tough," he adds. The boys dream of returning to the village some day. "When my brothers visit, they bring me biscuits and fruits from Hyderabad. But both of them want to settle here and live with us. They miss school, and they are very sad when they have to leave," says their little sister Keerthana, who studies in Class 8.
Some cups runneth over
More often than not, wealthy contractors arrange for the transport and new jobs in the cities for the desperate villagers, joining hands with city contractors. Just a stone's throw away from the meeting place, I see a sprawling two-story house with a fresh coat of paint and a boundary wall--quite a rare spectacle in a very modest village.
"Whose house is it?" I ask.
The ration shops don't sell vegetables any more. The last time I got dal (lentils) was in January... we have been living on rice and pickles.
"The contractor's. He takes people from the village to Hyderabad," a local youth replies. According to him, contractors have local agents who approach youth who are willing to migrate and work as labourers. The contractor is never directly involved in the whole scheme, he says. Going by the house, this contractor seems to have struck gold in ruins of rust.
Drought on a plate
The drought also affects what the villagers eat every day. With more than a quarter of the country's population overall, and 2,35,37,861 people affected in Andhra Pradesh alone, prices of many vegetables have soared in rural pockets. Timothy, whose father owns a small vegetable shop in Palukur, buys vegetables at high prices from the wholesale shops in Kandukur, the nearby town. He then incurs expenses on the transportation of vegetables from Kandukur to Palukur, and is forced to use auto-rickshaws as buses do not ply to Palukur thanks to the mud roads. The shopkeeper sells the vegetables to the villagers. "The villagers are very angry with my father because he had increased the prices of vegetables. But what else do we do?" Timothy asks me.
Many families have stopped buying vegetables and lentils altogether due to the higher prices. The government ration shops have also been running out of supplies. "The ration shops don't sell vegetables any more. The last time I got dal (lentils) was in January. Since vegetables are unavailable, we have been living on rice and pickles," says a visibly distraught Ruthamma, from Palukur.
Looking for support
Anganwadis have proved to be a huge blessing for little children in the villages. Children were excitedly sitting in a circle on the floor in the anganwadi in Mopadu Ambedkar Nagar village, when we visited. It was lunch time, and the anganwadi teacher was serving each of them rice and vegetable curry. The children are given rice and vegetables every day, and also egg four times a week.
I am waiting for my MNREGA wages, for the work I finished last year...
The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), aimed at ensuring an income for vulnerable rural households, has not been helping much, say the villagers. Usually, it takes 30-45 days for the wages to reach the villagers, who struggle due to the delay. "I am waiting for my MNREGA wages, for the work I finished last year," says a tired old man at a community meeting in Mopadu Ambedkar Nagar. For a provision that aims at "enhancing the livelihood security of people in rural areas", MNREGS is yet to realize its potential.
Despite the Andhra government having announced schemes to help, the drought-affected have not yet received the monetary assistance. "We need some compensation from the government," says Mariyamma. The villagers also demand a hike of the PDS quota from 5kg of rice per person to 10kg, and a regular supply of oil and dal. Livelihood was also an area of concern, with demands for assistance in setting up small shops and buying milch animals.
As I walk towards the jeep, withering under the heat and sweating profusely, I remind myself that there are months more to go before the rains arrive. Will the single well that provides water for the 150 families in Palukur hold up till then? I am not sure at all.
Also see on HuffPost: