Ramavath Challi, a widow in her early 20s with three children, recalls the day in August 2017 when her husband drank pesticide to end his life in Mustipally village in Nalgonda district of Telangana. A member of the Lambadi tribe, she shows a copy of the first information report (FIR) which states that her husband took his life “because he couldn’t get a fruitful crop for the last two years on the land he was cultivating and became a debtor and consumed an unknown pesticide, disgusted with his life.”
In May 2018, something unexpected happened. For the half acre of land that her husband owned, she received a cheque of Rs 2,000 from the Telangana government. In October, a few weeks before the state elections, she got another payment of Rs 2,000 straight into her bank account. “I used some of the money to buy rice. I get a widow pension of Rs 1,000 every month. I not only work on my own land, but have also leased three acres to grow cotton,” Challi says.
She is one of the estimated 5.7 million farm landowners across Telangana who got almost Rs 120 billion as part of a scheme called ‘Rythu Bandhu’ (farmer’s friend) – perhaps the biggest ever pre-election cash transfer to voters in India. Under the scheme, every owner of agricultural land received Rs 4,000 for every acre at the start of every season. In effect, every land owner in Telangana received Rs 8,000 for every acre of land during 2018 for the kharif and rabi seasons. There is no cap on the amount of landholding eligible for getting the money (Under Telangana’s Land Ceiling Act, no single person can own more than 50 acres).
The K Chandrashekhar Rao-led Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) government had allocated Rs 120 billion for these payouts in the state’s last budget before the elections. There was such a thin line between this scheme being a clear case of voter inducement or a genuine investment support for farmers, that the Election Commission of India (ECI) asked the Telangana government not to pay the money for the Rabi season. The ECI finally gave a go-ahead after the KCR-led government managed to convince it that the payments were crucial for farmers.
In October, a couple of months before the state went to polls, the ECI allowed the payments to landowners on five conditions – money shouldn’t be paid in cheque but through bank transfers, no new beneficiaries were to be added, no publicity for the payments was to be done, no political functionary should be involved in the cash transfer process and nothing should be given in kind.
Actual cultivator side-stepped
But on the ground, the scheme, which is being touted as a game-changer in tackling the farm debt crisis, seems to have completely ignored the very people who work on the land. Money under the Rythu Bandhu scheme wasn’t given to tenants and landless tenants – the very people who take loans from money lenders at obnoxiously high interest rates to grow crops, and who account for a majority of farmer suicides in Telangana.
According to a study done by Rythu Swarajya Vedika along with Tata Institute of Social Sciences between 2014 to 2018, of the 692 cases of farmer suicides, 75 per cent were by tenant farmers. The report notes that in some districts, this proportion was much higher. In Nalgonda, which witnessed the highest number of farmer suicides in the state, as many as 93 per cent of the cultivators who took their lives were tenant farmers.
Pallagutta village of Warangal district, bears testimony to this. Ravi has leased six acres of land for which he pays Rs 24,000 as rent every year. Irrespective of how his crop turns out, the rent has to be paid to the owner of the land. He needs at least three packets of seeds for every acre of cotton cultivation, which costs him anywhere between Rs 750 and Rs 900 a packet, depending on the variety. All expenses, including labour, fertiliser and others are borne by Ravi.
“I know that the owner of the land has got money (under Rythu Bandhu). But I cannot ask him to share it with me. He will give the land on lease to someone else. What will I do then?” asks Ravi.
“The sarpanch of the village or some government official should come here and tell owners of the land to share the money with those who work on the land. But nobody has come here telling people about this scheme. There was no information about this. There are posters of the most wanted Maoists pasted in this village and electoral rolls, but not a single poster or notice about this scheme. When those who work on the land cannot get support in the face of losses, what option is left for them other than to commit suicide?” says Pollu Ramesh, a resident of the village.
It's my money, not yours
Venkata Reddy, an affluent farmer, who owns five acres in the village where he cultivates paddy with the help of farm labour, says he received almost Rs 40,000 from the government. “I haven’t leased my land to anyone. But if I were to lease it out, I will pay half the money to the tenant,” said Reddy. While Reddy sounds benevolent, other large landowners Business Standard spoke to in Nalgonda and Warangal districts, clearly stated that as owners of the land, they were the rightful recipients of the money and wouldn’t share it with those working on the land.
Lakshiraman, a farmer who has leased out his four acres in Pedda Thanda village says, “I got Rs 32,000 under the Rythu Bandhu scheme which I used to expand my shop in the village. I need the money for my own business and won’t share it with tenants. However I feel, the government should put a cap on the size of landholdings which are eligible for getting money. Those who own more than 20 acres of land don’t really need that money. Many who own 50 acres are not even living in India. These people don’t need the money.”
The tenancy conundrum
The reason why the Telangana government didn’t pay tenants under the Rythu Bandhu scheme has as much to do with law as it has with politics. The Andhra Pradesh (Telangana Area) Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act, 1950 prohibits all kinds of tenancy in the state, with some exceptions. According to this Act, there was a complete prohibition on all kinds of agriculture land leasing in Telangana after 1953 with certain exceptions. The main exception was that a landholder who held land equal to, or less than, three times the area of the family holding in the locality, could lease out the land for a period of five years. Any extension of the lease would be for five-year periods. If the landholder wished to terminate the lease at the end of five years, a written notice was to be given to the tenant a year before. While the law is in place, actual leasing seldom happens on these terms.
More often than not, there is no written agreement and rents and tenure are fixed through oral contracts in Telangana. In such a scenario, the Telangana government has little clue of the extent of tenancy in the state’s villages. Reports suggest that chief minister KCR had himself admitted in July 2018 that his government had “no record of tenant farmers” while justifying why Rythu Bandhu could not be extended to them.
According to Telangana’s Social Development Report 2017, there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of farm tenants in the state. The report states that tenancy holdings accounted for 4.7 per cent of the total operational holdings in districts that now comprise Telangana in 2002-03. A decade later, the tenancy holdings accounted for 20.1 per cent of all operational land holdings. If farm tenancy was growing at the same pace, almost a quarter of all operational holdings in the state would be held by tenants as of date. But then, a lot of such tenants also include marginal farmers with holdings barely enough to sustain them. Most of them end up leasing more land than they actually own.
The report states that in 2011, marginal holding (less than 2.5 acres) constituted almost 62 per cent of the operational holdings in the state, but the area actually operated by marginal farmers was only 25 per cent. In effect, KCR’s Rythu Bandhu scheme seems to have been a boon for a vast majority of farmers in Telangana. But is it really so? What perhaps takes the sheen off KCR’s scheme is that it completely sidesteps landless farmers – the ones epitomised by Neela Ravi. It is estimated that almost 43 per cent of all rural households in Telangana are landless.
Little relief for the suicide group
Kiran Kumar Vissa co-convenor of the Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a Hyderabad-based farmers NGO (Photo: Sai Manish)“There are almost 1.5 million tenant farmers cultivating almost 40 per cent of the land in Telangana. Half of the landowners own more than five acres. A third of the money under Rythu Bandhu - almost Rs 40 billion went to absentee landowners. Clearly, it is the people who take risks to cultivate land who have been left out of this support system. If the intention is to reduce debt, cure farm distress and eliminate farmer suicides, the tenants should have been included in its ambit,” says Kiran Kumar Vissa, co-convenor of the Rythu Swarajya Vedika, a Hyderabad-based organisation working on farmer issues. Vissa has filed a writ petition in the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh High Court challenging KCR’s “investment support scheme.”
His petition states, “The government’s own reports show that there are more than 11 lakh (1.1 million) persons cultivating lands of others in the state and they are most vulnerable to agrarian distress. The state has avoided making arrangements and provisions for identifying them and entitling them to this investment support, thus depriving them of minimal public support.
There are also issues surrounding the “land records purification” drive carried out by the KCR government in the run-up to the implementation of the scheme. Vissa says that all the government did was computerise existing land records, some dating to pre-independence times, instead of carrying out proper verification of actual records. In almost every village that Business Standard went to, there were landowners who complained of not having received money for all of their land.
At Narmetta, a large village in Jangaon district of the state, farmers from surrounding villages gather every Friday for the evening bazaar. M Ramalingam, a cultivator who has come to hawk his wares from nearby Chowdaram village, says, “When the first cheque was paid, I got only Rs 8,000. The officials said I owned only two acres, when I actually own five acres, on which I grow paddy. I refused to accept the cheque. Either they give me money for the entire land or none at all. Tomorrow they will say I own only two acres and take the remaining land. But in October, the government just deposited Rs 8,000 straight in my bank account.”
There were some complaints of bribes being paid to revenue inspectors and other officials who spanned across the state during the land purification exercise in 2017. Some said that officials asked for money to verify the entire land owned and in some cases deliberately understated land to force land owners into a corner. Business Standard could not verify the authenticity of these allegations of corruption by land inspecting authorities in the state.