In some ways, it was the turning point in Andhra Pradesh. The 2002 visit of Congress president Sonia Gandhi to the State both galvanised her demoralised party and brought hope to families destroyed by the agrarian crisis. Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu till that moment seen as invincible by even his opponents began to look less so.
The highlight of Ms. Gandhi's visit to the devastated Anantapur district was a meeting where many from suicide-hit families gathered. Each was issued a special "victim pass" for the event by Congress organisers.
Media reports of the time recall the anguish of the Congress president, appalled by what she heard and saw. This was, after all, the State's worst-hit district in the farm crisis. Hundreds of suicides were being reported each year. Many had been calmly recorded as "suicide due to unbearable stomach ache (kadupu noppi)." Story after painful story poured out. One of the saddest being that of 12-year-old Jayalakshmi Palem. A keen learner, the 7th standard student had killed herself when faced with dropping out of school. Her father Laxminarayana, a small farmer in Mamillaguntapalli village, could no longer pay her fees.
Other girls, too, had killed themselves under similar circumstances. In some households, the suicide of a father was followed by that of his eldest daughter. Often, the girl blamed herself for her father's death, feeling he had taken such a step because he had failed to get her married.
And countless other households had seen suicides, too. The farm crisis was eating into Anantapur. The Congress president's meeting was the big moment for the families to be seen and heard. "Sonia Gandhi spoke to my mother," says 12-year-old Somashekar, younger brother of Jayalakshmi, with some pride. He too might well have dropped out of school later on. The visit and the public focus it got ensured he did not.
It was also the big moment for local Congressmen to be seen and heard by their leader. To make a good impression and grab that photo-op. This, some of them did by declaring to the media that they were "adopting" those families that had lost their breadwinners. It was, says one officer, "a real Kodak moment." For the families it proved a fleeting one. Five years on, most have never seen the parents who "adopted" them. Some might-have-been foster parents flatly deny making any such commitments. Others claim they have done their bit and that is enough.
Jayalaksmi's own home is a fractured one. "Both her parents are across the border in Karnataka, doing coolie work," says her grandmother P. Mangamma. "Their four acres are lying fallow." They had Mangamma leave her own village and move into their house here so that young Somashekar could live on and study in this village.
"There was no option," she says. "Farming had collapsed. But even that coolie work has since become a huge problem. Laxminarayana had a nasty fall from a height at a construction site when the scaffolding there collapsed. His back was injured and right now only his wife can work." So the four-member family depends on the daily wage of one woman - when she can find work, in another State. And on Mangamma's old age pension of Rs.200. "They only come back once in two or three months. And most months they can send just Rs.200 or Rs.300 home."
Surely, this was odd. Media reports say the family was 'adopted' during Ms. Gandhi's visit by Congress MLA J.C. Diwakar Reddy. He is now the State's Panchayati Raj Minister. Neither Mangamma nor her grandson has any harsh words for the Minister. They've just never seen him in their lives. In fact, they haven't seen any of the local leaders since that meeting.
Mr. Reddy remembers it differently. He told The Hindu that he "did not make any promise to adopt the family." However, he "still stands by the commitment" that he did make. Which was, he says, that he would e ducate Somashekar. He is "ready to deposit annually, the full amount required for the boy's expenses towards school fee, books, clothes, and hostel charges." The school Somashekar goes to charges Rs.2,400 a year as fees for a day scholar. Not a small amount in this poor village. Curious turn
This is where it gets curious. The school is not charging the boy any fees. The correspondent of the Sri Vignan T.M. and E.M. school, Mastan, insists, "we have not taken any money from the boy. As his was a poor family, we did not accept any fees at all." Well, at least not since Jayalakshmi's death and Ms. Gandhi's visit.
Mr. Reddy says he deputed a mandal president and a village sarpanch to meet the family after Ms. Gandhi's visit and see to the child's school needs. But, he told The Hindu, "the family sought cash instead."< /p>
Mr. Reddy said he would rather "deposit the amount with the head of the institution in the name of boy." The institution insists it takes no payment at all in this case. And the boy's family does not claim to be making one. Neighbours say that someone did pay a small amount the first year, after which the school stopped charging its fee. But that was it. "So where," asks one villager, "does this leave all these 'adoptions?'"
Anantapur is not where it was in 2002. The district did receive special attention after the change of government in 2004. On some fronts it has seen distinct improvements.
On others, unfulfilled promises and hardship. In this district, there are still those dragged out of school and college by the farm crisis years ago - and who never went back. That includes the holders of full government scholarships forced to quit to help their families in the fields.
Farm suicides are fewer than they were in 2002. But they still happen and could rise again in this fragile region. As elsewhere, agriculture is plagued by uncertainty. Efforts by some groundnut farmers to switch to vegetables, papaya, sweet lemon, and other crops have not quite worked. The next two seasons could prove crucial, says one senior officer.
"A lot more depends on the kind of policies we adopt than on the number of children the Ministers adopt."