: ANANTAPUR (ANDHRA PRADESH), JULY 29. When Hyder Wali was thrown out of his job in the 1990s, he went out looking for an autorickshaw to drive. Sadly, thousands of others in his situation had the same idea at the same time.

The number of autos in Anantapur town shot up from 2,500 in the late 1980s to over 10,000 by the end of the next decade. "For jobless people here, there were few other options," says Mr. Wali. Soon, "there were too many autos. Earnings fell from Rs. 80 a day after costs, to half that or less."

It was not just the auto trade that collapsed. As thousands of workers lost their jobs and purchasing power in the mid-`90s, the farm crisis here grew. Countless small farmers saw their already troubled markets shrink further. The forced closures of large numbers of factories in this period hit the farmer long before the present drought did. Anantapur is the worst-affected district in the ongoing farm crisis.

The Andhra Pradesh Lightings where Mr. Wali worked for years was a joint venture. "This unit had problems but could have been turned around. We won State awards for best products and quality more than once," says Mr. Wali. "But the private partner did not care. And the Government would not listen to us." So the 750 workers dependent on the company lost their jobs.

Closures and lockouts

The process began in the late 1980s with the closure of the Guntakal Spinning Mills. "That was one of the biggest in Asia," says V. Rambhupal, CITU district president. "Some 3,000 jobs were lost. Then came the rapid closures and lockouts of the 1990s. Hundreds of workers were thrown out when the Government-owned Nizam Sugar Factory Limited was sold and shut down. Since the NSFL used local produce, it also hit peasants badly." These were not drought-stricken farmers, but cane growers with a crop to sell.

"Likewise," says Mr. Rambhupal, "closing the mulberry research centre at Penugonda hurt sericulture in Anantapur." The 1990s saw a wave of closures of both Government and private units in the district. Allwyn, the Bharat Gold Mining Ltd., and A.P. Oilfed were just a few amongst those that folded. The Pattabhi Forge and Anantapur Cotton Mills also went down with many others. "It was the Government's policy to close lots of its own units. Private owners did the same for their own reasons," says Mr. Rambhupal.

Rise in child labour

The shut downs went on through the 1990s. Many other units either folded or saw major retrenchment. A huge rise in child labour accompanied the process. And a big drop in wages further hit purchasing power. Where workers (as in A.P. Lightings) wanted the chance to run their own units, "we were told it was impossible. No credit would be given," says Mr. Wali.

Meanwhile, close to 70 per cent of oil mills dealing with groundnut also shut down. And while employment growth in rural Andhra Pradesh fell to 0.29 per cent during this period ? lower than in the rest of the country ? Anantapur fared even worse.

Some former employees of the NSFL run tiny teashops and `beedi bunks' close to their old factory. People like B. Rajagopal who earned Rs. 4,500 a month in the late 1990s is lucky if he makes half of that now with his `beedi bunk.' Many tried migrating for jobs. "Five or six of our fellow workers even died," says Mr. Rajagopal. "Some of them were quite young. The stress was too much."

Picture: The cocoon market at Hindupur has seen a serious decline with the dumping of huge quantities of Chinese silk. Since nearly 60 per cent of this taluka's ryots depend on sericulture, the impact has been devastating (Courtesy: The Hindu; photo by P.Sainath).

"The Government made us sell them these grounds at Rs. 2,000 an acre before the plant came up in 1979," says Ugra Narashimappa. He is one of 29 small farmers who lost all their holdings to the NSFL for a pittance. "Now we are landless. They promised us jobs that never came. Instead, this land is being sold for Rs. 50,000 an acre."

Real estate was booming and there was money to be made on the unit's 160 acres. The NSFL was sold to a company that shut it down here and shifted its equipment to Karnataka. This, ex-workers point out, leaves the land up for sale. "They should give it back to us," insist the now landless and jobless farmers. But they know it won't happen.

Land of `milk and silk'

The Hindupur region, known as the land of `milk and silk,' sank on both fronts. "The children of milk producers drink less of it today," says Krishna Reddy, a farmer here. Their families have to sell every litre they can and that at very low prices. The dairies that used to buy the milk take much less now. Some are closed." Silk is in the doldrums. "Output prices have sunk while input costs have soared," says Visweswara Reddy, district general secretary of the A.P. Ryuthu Sangham (APRS). "The dumping of Chinese silk led to a crash in prices that crushed our producers. And you can see the WTO's impact in this taluka where 60 per cent of ryots depend on sericulture. The Government reduced import duties on silk from 100 to 30 per cent. Bigwigs in the silk trade in Gujarat also lobbied to get that done. Our growers were hit and thus reduced acreage for mulberry."

"Up to 25 tonnes of cocoons came here each day in the 1990s," says Mujib Khan at the Hindupur market. "Today, you won't see 20 quintals." All this, points out Mr. Visweswara Reddy, "has fractured both jobs and farming."

Silk imports from China saw cocoon rates fall from Rs. 250 a kg in 1992 to Rs. 70 and less within a few years. In 2002, the APRS led over 10,000 angry farmers in a major protest. Their struggle forced the Government to take some action against dumping. But largescale smuggling and imports continue. Silk, which cost Rs. 2,200 a kg 12 years ago, sells for about a third of that now.

Long before the drought bit deep, Anantapur was already in trouble. The close links between workers, farming and industry were broken by the new policies of the 1990s. Thousands of workers and farmers were being displaced at the same time, with no new options. As jobs became scarce and farmers faced new costs and lost old markets, and as credit vanished, Anantapur slipped further into crisis. "A crisis driven by policy," says Mr. Rambhupal of the CITU. But now laid entirely at the door of drought. (Courtesy: The Hindu)