The bus we're on is one of about 34 leaving the Mahbubnagar region direct for Mumbai each week. That's against just about one a week, a decade ago. People are leaving in droves.

Drought? Mahbubnagar does have a problem. Quite a bit of that, though, is about the control, distribution and use of water. At 634 mm, the average rainfall of the last 14 years here is close to 30 mm above normal. Those, at least, are the official numbers. There have been deficit years. And a couple of truly awful ones -- as in a lot of other districts. This year, District Collector Madhusudhan Rao says, "the deficit is eight per cent so far". Unpleasant, but not crushing.

However, it hurts a lot more when that comes atop the many other problems Mahbubnagar has. Problems that are not seasonal. For instance, a social backwardness that helps hold down lakhs of people in bondage. (This is a district where some workers still have to present their landlord with a pair of sandals each year. Where teashops routinely use separate glasses for dalits and upper caste customers.) Our bus has more than a few dalit passengers. None of them can enter the temples in their villages. Forget about having their weddings in them.

Or take debt. Every migrant on our bus is steeped in it. "We'll be paying that forever", says Venkataiah, a Lambada adivasi. with a rueful smile. "How can we ever make it up?"

The huge lack of employment in the district hits everything. Even the women's self help groups (SHGs) at the village level. "Each member is to put one rupee daily from her earnings into the group fund", Subhadramma had told us in Vepur. "In theory that's fine", this landless worker had said. "One rupee a day, thirty days, thirty rupees. But when we earn only Rs. 12 or Rs. 15 a day, that single rupee counts. So what happens when we find work for less than ten days in the month?" What happens is that the SHG flounders. With many members migrating -- and several others borrowing to make their payments. With their spouses running up other debts, meanwhile.

It's a district where mass human migrations have destroyed the chance of large numbers of children becoming literate, let alone getting an education. "Of course we take the small ones and go", Sarnamma had told us in Gurrakonda village. "How can we leave them behind?" With their parents on the move for up to nine months a year, these children will end up an army of hard-core illiterates. Their chances of climbing out of poverty, devastated. Every family on the bus has at least one very small child with it. Often more.

It's a district where a small group of powerful feudals controls most resources. Including water. The shortages of water for the poor often arise from this control. Unequal sharing further shatters the small farms. Even if they are not big 'droughts' in an absolute sense, these shortages cause huge damage. They certainly lead to even more out-migration.

Development here has often been based on strategies that have boomeranged. Maybe on plans once aimed at a more prosperous section that have also caught on down the line. With the poor imitating the rich. Every small farmer you meet has spent a fortune on borewells. "That is a major cost", Chandraiah, a farmer had told us in Gurrakonda. He still thinks it's a good idea to sink more. Even though, "Yes, that has been a big route to debt".

Every migrant on our bus is steeped in debt. "We'll be paying that forever", says Venkataiah, a Lambada adivasi. with a rueful smile. "How can we ever make it up?"

The focus here has rarely been on equity or a fair deal for the poor. In water, its been more about extraction. As Collector Madhusudhan Rao's figures show: "In the mid-1980s, the district had 97 per cent open (or traditional) wells. Just three per cent borewells. By 2001-02, that figure was reversed. Now it was 97 per cent borewells and three per cent open wells". Desperation has also driven the borewells deeper. Debt has swollen with their number.

Inequality, always a feature of this region, has deepened sharply this past decade. And with it, despair. New forms of bondage have joined the old ones.

Quite a bit of these find reflection in the labour-contract systems. And in the migrations themselves. Many of those on the bus to Mumbai are in the grip of contractors. Here in Mahbubnagar, and also often in those towns outside the state where they seek work. The old Palamuuru contract labour system, as it is called, is quite alive. But it's also gained new features.

There are over one million human beings from here who have at some point in their lives worked outside Mahbubnagar. All have tasted the contractor raj that runs the district. And that is an extensive, many-layered system.

Large contractors do not directly hire labour. "They first farm out chunks of their projects to others", says Ramulu of the Agricultural Workers Union. "For instance, if your clout has landed you a canal contract, you give out some kilometres of work on it to different sub-contractors. The sub-contractors then contact the gumpu maistrys or group labour contractors. These are men who have within their control several team leaders or maistrys who can bring dozens -- some even hundreds -- of workers to them. Each of these maistrys is capable of raising teams of workers from different villages".

"Each team has a panni maistry, or work leader who acts as a sort of disciplinarian. What the contractors do is to pay an advance to the gumpu maistry. He in turn gives out some of this to the regular maistrys, and so on down the line. Finally, a small part of the money goes to the workers who make the journey to Mumbai or elsewhere".

The workers might get a small advance ranging from four to ten thousand rupees. That's a fraction of what the middlemen get along the line. The maistry recruiting in Kanimetta village could have got Rs. 20-40,000. The gumpu maistry above him, a lot more. But that small advance at the bottom binds the debt-strapped workers.

If they're labouring in another part of the state or within Mahbubnagar itself, they haven't a hope of getting the minimum wage. Already, at the Jurala canal lining works, we've met some earning less than Rs. 45 where the wage ought to be Rs. 83. If they're going outside the state to Mumbai, they would earn much more. But a lot of that will disappear on their return.

"We have to pay up a good bit to our local creditors", says Venkataiah. "That is, if they are to allow us to live in any degree of peace in the village". Often the principal sum has been repaid many times over. But the exorbitant interest rates -- 60 per cent or higher -- keep them in debt. At least two-thirds of what he earns in Mumbai goes in debt repayment on his return. Besides, he's spent a lot on health and other expenses in Mumbai. Venkataiah, at least, goes out as a carpenter. And yet he's left with almost nothing. The less skilled ones have it much worse.

The contractor fraternity has worked out an effective system that delivers for it. This accounts, in part, for the large numbers of people on the 34 buses that leave the region daily. The system has a simple rule. Never use local labour if you can help it, no matter how good they are.

"Local labour tends to go to weddings and festivals", explains Chandrashekhar Reddy. He is an outspoken and important contractor on the Jurala works project. "Labour from outside is more easy to discipline. I have workers from Bihar, Orissa and elsewhere. Where this company goes, they go". And so, on his canal lining project, you can find workers from those states. Also many from other parts of Andhra, like Khammam. But fewer from Mahbubnagar itself.

The contractor fraternity has worked out an effective system that delivers for it. The system has a simple rule Never use local labour if you can help it, no matter how good.

As another contractor put it: "Outside labour does not know the local language. They are more dependent". They are thus harder to unionise. They can be put through wretched work conditions without a chance of redress. The press tends to get mobilised, if at all, when the affected workers are local. Those from outside carry little clout. In some of the work sites, then, pregnant women have worked right up to the day of delivery. And resumed work less than ten days later.

Mahbubnagar labour itself goes to at least 30 cities across the country. Fulfilling similar strategies for the same or different contractors over there. "We've built skyscrapers in Mumbai and apartment blocks in Pune", Sailu in Kondapur village had told us. "But in Mahbubnagar we have no work". District Collector Madhusudhan Rao lists a series of projects and works that are on in the district. He believes that "anyone who wants work in Mahbubnagar can find it now".

Those crowding the buses and trains believe otherwise. Employment on the projects are controlled by the contractors to whom they are given. "They won't pay us anything liveable here", says Nagesh Goud on the bus. Nor do the food-for-work programmes, to the extent they exist, fill the need. The long lines at the gruel centres in several villages make that clear.

Agriculture has taken a severe beating and not just because of a drought. The rise in the costs of inputs have crushed small farmers. So has the collapse of rural credit. Bus drivers Fashiuddin and Sattar know well how many small farmers travel with them each time they take the route out of Mahbubnagar. "Farming, says Fashiuddin, is a mess."

"Every single cost has gone up", Chandraiah, a farmer in Gurrakonda had told us. "A bag of ammonia phosphate costs three times what it did in 1991. The cost of paddy seed has doubled. That of power has risen manifold. Farming has become too difficult".

"With those costs, we need credit. But if you are a small farmer like I am, with two acres, that's impossible", Chennaiah in Vepur village had said. "If we go to the bank, we are rejected. But the bigger landowners are well connected. My request for Rs. 20,000 will be turned down. The landlord, however will get, say, Rs. 60,000. He uses what he needs of it. Then he loans me that Rs. 20, 000 -- at a rate of interest much higher than that of the bank".

There's a constant propaganda, however, that leaves quite a few villagers believing the rains, new irrigation schemes and relief works could end all their problems. It's a claim forever drummed in by many, from the MP and MLAs and local politicians down to the village elite. Because that line results in projects. And projects result in contracts. And contracts result in money for the right people.

Sure, the water shortage hits the poor. But Mahbubnagar's distress is a complex mesh. It rests on one of the most oppressive and structured systems of labour exploitation. On its complicated contractor-maistry mafia. It feeds on the death of small farms driven by the policies of the last twelve years. On the crisis of agriculture itself in the region. It is fuelled by the social backwardness of centuries. And driven by the dismal human development record of the past decade. The lack of employment spurs the mass human migrations that so debilitate the district.

"What are all those provisions doing on your dashboard"? I ask bus driver Fashiuddin as we get off. "Oh those", he smiles. "We'll do our own cooking when we get to the Kurla bus depot in Mumbai. I like Maharashtra -- but their food! They don't use any chilli at all unlike in our meals at home. So we take all our stuff and cook it there". With plenty of chilli.

At least some things about Mahbubnagar remain delightfully true to its home state.

Part I : The bus to Mumbai