Working against the Grain—The Emerging Telugu Countryside
Originally published, with slight modifications, in The India Magazine, Vol.17 (April), pp. 50-57 1997.
Hanumanta Rao, an aging landlord, tells a story about village social relations before 1947. Once a Brahmin complained to Hanumanta Rao’s father, a peddaraitu, an important landowner, in Punnavalli, a village on the banks of the Krishna river—that a Madiga, a so-called untouchable, crossed his muggu, the ritual chalk designs made at the entrance of Telugu homes. Hanumanta Rao’s father, as a penalty, fined the Madiga one rupee. The man could not pay, and Hanumanta Rao’s father decreed that he work six months without wages. At the end of six months, the man grumbled about the harshness of the penalty, and was fined another rupee. After a year of labor, he learned his place.
Hanumanta Rao tells me the story determined that I—an American residing in Nandigama—should understand the immense changes that have occurred in the village over the past fifty years. Such an incident, he insists, could never occur today. We are walking the dirt track between Veladikottapalem village, where the bus drops us, and Punnavalli, a few kilometers away. Soon we have left the road and are walking beside rice fields, along the small levees and ridges. We are surrounded by field after field of green paddy about a meter high, some of it already sprouting. It is mid November. In wind, the green becomes many greens. Much of the walk is muddy, and before long our sandals are in our hands. The mud is grey, more water than dirt, and squeezes finely between the toes. Where it is firmer, it is impressed with the roundnesses of heels and insteps. Here and there it is dry, white, flaky—so sunhardened it slits the skin.
This is Krishna District, wet giving way to dry and dry to wet. This is not the lowlying areas towards Machilipatnam, where kilometer upon kilometer of irrigation brings green pools and paddy shoots standing upright, and rows of thin, half-swayed-over palms. Here, on the track to Punnavalli, you do not see that. Here the sun pounds and the earth is an anvil. Irrigation is intermittent, and the rice tanks are lush exceptions in a patchwork of rainfed, “dry” agriculture: cotton, jute, legumes, millet, chilies.
As Hanumanta Rao elaborates these and many other crops, we pass a plowman digging furrows for sunflowers. We stop to walk his field with him. His plow: wrought iron with four spades, secured by a thick jute rope. His task: to lay down an even, constant pressure while keeping the oxen moving in a straight line. His body: bearing down into his instrument at an angle off his center of gravity, half walking and half being dragged by his beasts. His voice: raspy with clipped syllables—”Ha! Heh! Jah!” His shirt: bright pink, drenched with sweat.
He points us toward a small grove of guava trees, near shanties that give shade and hold borewells. There, we hear water trickling. We knock off some fruits and rest: the sweetest ones, Hanumanta Rao says, are the ones the birds have taken bites from.
Outside Punnavalli, we arrive at the side of one of Hanumanta Rao’s fields and he begins to study the crop. In wind, shuddering: the ricepods, ribbed and bulging, dangling at the tips and the mids of their stalks. They cling and make waves and sometimes without warning break with the force of the air, becoming chatoyant ether-borne cargo. I want to know what a prosperous Punnavalli would be. Hanumanta Rao tells me a story.
Before 1947, he says, landlords were stewards: they cared for workers, giving gifts at festival times, donating generously for marriages and special occasions. Generosity was the foundation of village life, of the good personal relations that enabled the rural economy. Routinely, he remembers, landlords would reward a worker for twenty or thirty years of dedicated service with a gift of an acre or two—and in this way wealth was shared, and want tempered.
After Independence, he goes on, the state broke up zamindari estates—large landholdings of thousands of acres that were a foundation of the colonial tax structure—and placed ceilings on landholding. In former zamindari areas, a middle strata of farmers owning 15-20 acres arose from land sales. These farmers prospered through capital improvements made available from the government, as well as newly available credit from state and commercial banks, and cooperative societies. Agriculture, for them, became a productive, indeed “progressive” enterprise (he uses the English word). However, in Punnavalli, and in other traditionally ryotwari villages—referring to a more disaggregated type of colonial land tax arrangement—landholdings were left untouched, and previously small gentlemen farmers like Hanumanta Rao’s father became large landowners—owning or controlling 100 plus acres. Today, a large landowner, like Hanumanta Rao himself, owns 30-50 acres.
But state intervention, he insists, has generally eroded the productivity of agriculture, and more than that, eroded the social contract. Through state subsidies of rice and oil—and through their own thrift and cooperation—many landless and landpoor workers have acquired an acre or two. Large landlords, who rely on tenants, now find their backs to the wall. Emboldened tenants, he complains, now demand advances before they will lease-in land, and frequently delay in paying their rents. Here Hanumanta Rao makes the crux of his point: because capital costs are fixed for large and small farmers alike, the cost of labor is the critical determining factor in whether any farmer, large or small, makes a profit. Indeed, because small and landless farmers often work for free on one another’s lands, small cultivators make a better profit than large ones.
It is early morning: gates creak, birds caw and twirp, and whistle in trills and saws in the silhouettes of dense palms hanging above houses. In their courtyard in Punnavalli, Appa Rao and his daughter sit on a woven cot by the doorway of their mud house. His wife brings tea in a small ceramic cup. Slowly Appa Rao’s lips take the heat, and then the liquid, and the rush of cool air. The tea: begins from a ceramic bowl in a shady part of the courtyard, half filled with water, its interior penetrated with algae toward a blotched brown inner core. The fire that boils the water: begins from his small axe that in his grip chops and dethistles the snarled flora lining the fields, planted as barbedwire to keep out the waterbuffalo, whose milk fattens the tea. After ten days in the sun his wife carries the dried brush home, where it comes to crackle under aluminum pots.
Hanumanta Rao, Appa Rao and I sit, chatting. Hanumanta Rao esteems him a model of a successful small farmer, and so has brought me to meet him. After Hanumanta Rao leaves, Appa Rao begins to speak his own story. This is his economy: he owns 2 acres of irrigated land, and leases-in 8 acres. His production costs are 20,000 rupees for pesticides and fertilizer, 800 rupees for water, and 13,000 rupees for hired labor, totaling 33,800 rupees. Various sources of credit are available to him. From his landlady—Hanumanta Rao’s sister—he borrows 15,000 rupees, on which he pays 5400 rupees in interest. From the bank he borrows 10,000 rupees, on which he pays 1200 rupees in interest. From his pesticides merchant he borrows 5000 rupees, on which he pays 1200 rupees in interest. In sum, for his production costs, he pays 7800 rupees in interest, increasing his costs by 23%. His total costs including interest come to 41,600 rupees. This year he will grow, by his estimate, an average of 22 100kg bags of rice per acre, against the 30 bags an acre ought to produce in a decent year. A substantial part of his loans are tied up in meeting his family’s daily needs during the growing season, when there is little work. His earnings, then, are: the 44 bags of rice that he earns from his own two acres, plus the 96 bags he keeps from the 8 acres he leases, after paying rent to his landlady of 10 bags per acre. He sells the 140 bags at an average price of 300 rupees per bag, for a net total of 42,000 rupees. His yearly profit is 600 rupees.
Completing the story, he smiles—the smile of a man living half by wits, half by the graces of his creditors, some of whom, like Hanumanta Rao, are also his patrons in the traditional paternalistic sense, and almost his friends. In his smile I can see what successful small farming means: his goal is not really a profit, but a yield sufficient to make him a worthy debtor.
I go to visit Sitaramayya, manager of a local gramani or agricultural bank. He speaks to me about changes in irrigation. Most of the mid-coastal lands of Andhra Pradesh, he says—in East and West Godavari Districts, and in Krishna District east of Vijayawada—have been irrigated in the past thirty years, and have been among the most productive ricegrowing areas in India. The rest of Andhra, including Nandigama mandal, where we are, relies on rain. In 1979 a branch of the Nagarjuna Sagar canal was completed through Nandigama mandal as far as the riverside village of Eturu, 20 kilometers from Punnavalli. The coming of partial irrigation affected the agriculture of the area dramatically.
As irrigation brought higher land prices, commercial crops—vari (rice), michi (chilies) and patti (cotton)—began to replace the traditional crops of jonna (millet), pesara (green gram) and kandi (red gram). The commercial crops demanded greater capital for production, in the form of pesticides and fertilizers, which rapidly became the most lucrative local trade. He tells me that his own bank is due to close in the villages and shift its operations to the towns. Why? Egregious levels of default, lack of discipline among small farmers. I tell him about Appa Rao’s use of production money to meet daily needs. Sitaramayya becomes animated. This is a wrongful use of money, he cries! With a decisive sweep of his arm he blames the suffering of small farmers on their “love of luxury”—cinema, drink and radios. It is, he insists, because small farmers waste money that they must turn to landlords, merchants and dalaris—credit brokers—for loans at high interest rates. His speech is a curious mixture of anger and triumph. I leave feeling shaken by his vehemence.
The fields are quickly drying out. It is January. The last cotton of the three month harvest is poking up; the first blush of red is on the chilies, and the sturdy branches of the green and red lentilbushes are growing heavy. The ricefields have been drained and the stones exposed, and the plants: having long been immersed to the point of becoming faithful to water, they have recently met the sickle and are now gathered and bound and baled high for drying. Soon vamilu dot the fields: house-sized blocks and domes of solid paddy stalk, some wetter and some growing desiccate. The paddy, in its initial gesture toward its names: a naked play of yellows that corresponds, if you can read it, to ten and more seedtypes—workers and farmers will tell you which color belongs to which variety. It is hard to describe the immanent meanings of the waiting crop, pendant in the pallor of the Punnavalli sun. There is something indomitable, a kingliness about rice in its procession from incipience to nutrience, something extraordinary about the immense, productive sundering it commands: the earth is rent, seeds are flung into the wound, water is given to bathe the ground and mud forms like a bandage. An intricate process of incision and recuperation follows, exciting the tiniest creatures of the soil, as well as human beings, and making vacancies for the next crop, its rain and rings and its vowels and satisfactions. Cultivation of rice: survival by the removal of stitches.
Within weeks it is the time of threshing and winnowing—the time of rice made into flocks of flying kernels and chaff. To thresh in Telugu desham: on long wooden tables in the middle of wide tarpaulins, untold thousands of dozens of men relentlessly pummel the dried bundles of cut stalks, flogging, shaking and flogging again. Particles of dust and freed seeds cling to the pores, penetrate the eyes, roll off in the scratching of hands. Sweat comes in unnatural abundances. The threshing floor is a tumult, a place of extreme exertion on the margins of ordinary physical activity, demanding a special concentration to harness a continuous violence. The sweet pungency of country cigars—whole dried tobacco leaves torn into strips and rolled thick—mixes with the ambient vapor of the new crop, which hangs freshly in the threshing floor. The women dolefully and with extraordinary economy of movement carry basketfulls of kernels to the edge of the threshing area—to winnowers who lightly and expertly shake the baskets into the wind, which carries dust and debris back into the field, leaving the kernels to drop again at the feet. At the end of the day, the men and women pack and tie 100kg burlap sacks, and the men load them onto bullock carts or loaned tractors, and ride them intently to the godowns and compounds and cloisters of landowners and middlemen, or sometimes directly to the village mills (where all such sustenance eventually travels and where the great burlap weights are borne on shoulders slowly and assiduously and made into shipments for central markets close and distant, which in time return them in divers grades and in stages of smaller and smaller quantities).
Early on another morning I meet Gangiraju at his home in the village of Bellamkondavirapadu. He is landless tenant farmer, father of three. He owns no land but leases-in 2 acres, on which he grows cashcrops, an acre of chilies and an acre of cotton. For supplemental income he runs a small shop in the village, which brings about 3000 rupees per year, and works occasionally as a field laborer, which brings the family about 3600 rupees per year. His wife and daughter likewise work in the fields: both earn 8 rupees per day in the field, working 200 days per year, together earning approximately 3000 rupees in income per year. His two boys attend school, and do not bring in money. His family’s total yearly income: 9500 rupees. He says that 10,000 rupees is the minimum necessary yearly income to avoid having to take loans for food.
He farms with the hope of saving money to buy land. But the farming is tough. His production costs for 2 acres amount to 9000 rupees: 6000 in rent, 3000 in labor charges, 3000 in fertilizers and water. The rural banks in Konayapalem village nearby charge interest of 1 rupee per 100 per month to the 170 persons in the village they extend loans to. Bank loans, however, are not given for people like himself, with no land. I tell him of Sitaramayya’s accusation of small farmers’ mismanagement. Bankmanagers, Gangiraju retorts, require bribes from small farmers—which they pay by taking high interest rates from the dalaris. His only option, he says, is to take his production loans from fertilizer shop owners, who charge double the official bank interest rate, 2 rupees per 100 per month, totaling for him 3000 rupees. This is to say he starts production effectively 3000 rupees in debt for relying on merchants’ credit. In Bellamkondavirapadu, he says, some 30-40 landless people take such loans to cultivate land, including 20 members of his caste, which he names as Harijana. He takes no loans from landlords for cultivation, he tells me, but many Harijanavallu do, at an interest rate of 3 rupees per 100 per month, triple the bank rate.
He goes on: last year his debt from a bad crop and from low prices was 10,000-12,000 rupees, of which the shopowner agreed only to take the interest this year. He speaks bitterly about price fluctuation: last year 1 kintal of cotton (100 kgs) brought 1400 rupees; this year it is 2500 rupees. But five years ago, chilies in Guntur were only 100 rupees per kintal, which made for huge losses. That year, he says, his family nearly starved, and many others did die of hunger. This year, the relatively higher prices enabled him to pay something on his loan, leaving him 6,000-7,000 rupees in debt. He tells me that he has tried to farm for the past ten years, each year relying on loans from dalaris, but has never been able to save anything. He believes that there is a lower, if more reliable living working solely for wages than leasing-in land—although wages paid in kind at a rate of 8 1/2 kilograms of rice per day (technically calculated as 60 manikas of rice per two days of work per five laborers) still tend to be higher than those paid in cash. But he believes that farming might pay off. And sometimes, ironically, wages can be lower than the penalty for a bad debt: since a man will not earn more than 8000 rupees in two years of wages against a 10,000 rupees debt, he effectively earns money by taking the loan, losing it and then going into hard labor.
Hard labor, I ask? After two years, he says, if there is no payment on a loan of 10,000 rupees or more, a debtor must sell the equivalent number of acres of land he rented, if he owns them, to the dalari. If he is landless, he works two years without wages. Without wages means: he receives payment in rice only for himself—not more than enough for himself—which is to say nothing for his family. And if he refuses, I ask? Then, he says quickly, the gondas—thugs—will come.
I am again walking the track to Punnavalli with Hanumanta Rao. We reach the porch of the family house, where Hanumanta Rao’s older brother, Narsimha Rao sits silently during the day of the weighing of rice, the most important day of the year in their own economy. Here, on the porch of the ancestral home, time moves furtively: in the stillness of the porch there is only the slightest intimation of muscle and will turning the earth over and over on itself, year upon year, occasionally pushing propertylines, and building rooms. There is only a hint of the meetings of iron and earth, of hoof and cot, of sickle and stalk, of heel and water, of shirts on and off shoulders, of hands to plates to mouths, and the movements of oral deeds, and the movements of contemplation—the movements through which the village endures. By the end of the day, only some ricekernels remain on the tiles from when the middleman, the dalari, came and scrubbed them hard between his palms, dehusked them, examined their quality, and set his price. The year’s income, excepting the collection of loans, is determined by a single morning’s negotiation.
Hanumanta Rao gazes quietly into the large courtyard of the compound. He is lean, and strong, even into his fifties. His face is tense and proud, but not arrogant. He is not a sage: he knows, ruefully, how to survive. He knows the difference between indulgence and pleasure, and prefers pleasure, which is to say simple pleasures:— cards and a little whiskey in the evenings, rolling his own cigars, occasionally a bustrip to the village of a friend. As a landlord he is not a king, after all, but still he is a prince, and as a prince he depends for his livelihood on those who must provide for him to provide for themselves. The lines of his face speak the sort of peace he knows: a solace in the productive inertia into which the lives he presides over dissolve.
After much discussion, I have pieced together Hanumanta Rao’s own economy: he owns 27 acres, 22 unirrigated and 5 irrigated. He bears no production costs, but collects a rent of 3000 rupees per acre for his irrigated lands, on which his tenants grow rice, 1000 rupees per acre for his rainfed lands, on which his tenants grow primarily cotton and lentils. His income in rent is 37,000 rupees. Periodically he also gives small loans to his tenants, on which he collects interest at 36% annually.
I walk alone under the avenue of trees planted along the Sagar canal. I arrive at what seem the barriers to collective prosperity.
A barrier: payment of rent itself, in which landlords claim a third to half of the crop produced wholly at the tenant’s expense.
A barrier: the interest rates that small farmers pay to obtain necessary capital inputs—commonly 24% to 36%. These interest rates push most small farmers into chronic debt or perpetual insolvency, forcing up to half of informal production loans toward daily household needs, and drastically decreasing productivity. It is through high interest rates that the landed castes have maintained their control over the countryside in the changes since 1947.
A barrier: irrigation, which has driven land prices far beyond the reach of the landless and landpoor. Rents on irrigated lands have risen to the point that risky farming with high input commercial crops is imperative.
A barrier: wages, which have risen with increased cash cropping sufficiently so that the landless and landpoor earn more work for wages than leasing-in land. The higher wages prove a greater strain on poor farmers than on the large farmers, making unpaid cooperative labor imperative for small farmers. Still, many people across the countryside dream of owning land, even half an acre, hoping that if they work and sacrifice enough they will produce enough, and that prices will be more than the cost of capital outlays plus interest. They dream secure only in the knowledge that they can save money by overextending themselves in their labor
In specifically economic terms, the countryside is marked by what might be called an endemic pauperization of the primary producers of agricultural wealth. This endemic pauperization amounts to something other than an explanation of supply and demand reciprocities by which neo-classical economists describe spatial and temporal localities. The structural problem, as I understand it, is the foundation of agricultural productivity on the economic vulnerability of vast sections of the population, so that markets reproduce already existing differentials of wealth. Primary cultivators enter markets disadvantaged by previous or simultaneous participation in other markets, which is to say a nexus of reciprocal increases and decreases between wages, prices, credit availability, interest rates, tenancy and landholding, all of which aggregately work to prevent surplus accumulation by primary producers. Failing to account for these interlinked reciprocities as structural and not coincidental implies freedom of economic agency where it simply does not exist.
I venture: the endemic pauperization of primary cultivators speaks of a class relation with two basic forms: an active form associated with entrepreneurial, or “capitalist” farming, and a passive form centering on rent and debt payment, or “feudal” farming. Neither the state nor institutional financial establishments will invest in small landholders, and almost not at all in the landless—who have no security. The gains of the poor are accordingly capricious.
I ask myself: in the emerging Telugu countryside, what will stop large landlords increasingly from seeking out entrepreneurial tenants, often from distant places, who will lease-in several dozen acres in a particular village and use laborsaving machinery, rather than leasing to poor locals?
It seems no coincidence that some time later I meet Hanumanta Rao strolling arm in arm with a man from Telangana who, he tells me, will be leasing in all of his and his brother’s and his sister’s land in Punnavalli—more than 100 acres—in the coming season.
I am walking through Nandigama’s Harijanapeta, the so-called untouchable’s quarter, a hamlet of mudhouses roofed with the cheapest variety of mud thatching. It is June, and there is no work. Basvayya, a man in his middle forties, bluntly tells me his story about contemporary rural social relations. Along with more than 50% of the local population, he is landless and tries no farming whatsoever. He earns his living by wages alone. He tells me what he expects and receives in the way of economic and social contract.
“We make ten rupees a day...three or four thousand per year—sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less... Bhuswaminunchi, tiyyaledu. We don’t take anything from the landlords, and anyway they don’t give us anything. Appu? Annum? Appu chesi, pappu kuda? Kadandi. There are no loans. There is hardly gruel. Whatever we make day to day, that’s what we have, that’s all... Is it enough? Idi chala? Look at me! Chudandi! Chudu! Look! [His ribs show prominently]. Is it enough? I have four children. I give to them, and then I go to bed. I give to them and whatever is left I eat a little and sleep. That’s it. This girl? Ivida? Ma ivida. [Pointing to a young woman] She’s my daughter. They’re eating. I don’t have anything... If there’s an accident, an emergency? If anything happens? Aymaym jarigitay, cherchipotam maym. If anything happens, we just die. That’s it. We die. We have no government, no protection, nothing.”
Just such a man knows how to be careful. And I realize: as extraordinary as it must have been for Hanumanta Rao’s father to fine a man a year’s unpaid labor, it must have been just as extraordinary for such a man to trip over anyone’s muggu.