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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 43, October 15, 2011

Understanding Inequality and Deprivation amid Agricultural Growth in Telangana


Wednesday 19 October 2011



One of the significant distinctions of the current unrest in Telangana with that of the past, since the 1960s, over the demand of a separate State for the region is the participation of the rural masses. The movement was mostly restricted to students and employees in the past. Notwithstanding political articulation on the ‘need for a separate State’, the strife over the concrete experience of deterioration in the economic condition of the rural inhabitants during the past two decades has itself led them to join the movement for a separate State in the absence of any promising alternative. This seems to be one of the chief characteristics of the agitation for a separate State that has assumed an unprecedented dimension and acquired a unique momentum at present.

Rural Telangana has experienced income declines for ninety per cent of its population, increase in inequality and a drastic decrease in the class-size of cultivators accompanied by an increase in the class-size of agricultural labourers since the early 1990s. This revealing evidence is presented in the Srikrishna Committee Report (CCSAP, 2010),1 based on the NCAER (National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi) surveys conducted once in the year 1993-94 and another in 2004-05. The Committee’s concern over this scenario, despite the purpose of its constitution to study the situation in the Andhra Pradesh State in the context of the unrest in the Telangana region, has not attracted any attention beyond its worry that the vulnerability of the deprived masses can be ‘used’ by political groups: “…most of the deprived communities in Telangana are facing hardship and therefore are vulnerable to mass mobilisation on one pretext or the other, including political mobilisation with promises which may or may not be met.” (CCSAP, 2010: p. 108) Beyond this shallow concern the Committee is indifferent to such evidence that any study characterised by objectivity and rigorous interrogation would be compelled to undertake a critical examination of the trajectory of economic growth and the state’s policy, and attempt to explain the cause of such deprivation and growing inequity. Instead there is a clear disjunction between the Committee’s ‘Equity Analysis’ of negative trends in incomes and inequity on the one hand and its positive analysis of agricultural growth on the other. Without taking into account its own equity analysis based on its analysis of agricultural ‘growth’, the Committee concludes that Telangana experienced improvements in the condition of life: “It can be clearly established that the condition of residents of Telangana region (other than Hyderabad) has, indeed, experienced larger improvements during the past half-a-century and it has caught up with the broad economic conditions prevailing in coastal Andhra. This is possible only when the relative growth in the identified indicators (in agriculture) has been much faster in Telangana compared with coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions.” (CCSAP, 2010: p. 92)

This paper argues that the analysis of agricultural growth by the Committee is partly distorted and lacks critical examination of trends in identified indicators. The analysis purely based on growth rates does not suffice for a comprehensive understanding of the agricultural situation and the condition of the population dependant on agriculture. Further, the nature of agricultural growth in Telangana during the last two decades has been such that it excluded and deprived most of the small and marginal cultivators, which explains the income declines, inequity and a withering cultivator class.

Critical Examination of Agricultural Growth in Telangana

THE agricultural growth that the Committee referred to actually occurred from the mid-1970s with a shift in the cropping pattern accompanied by a drastic increase in groundwater irrigation. The change in incomes and inequity from the early 1990s that it reports actually suggest deprivation of ninety per cent of the region’s population. The Committee assessed growth in agriculture in Telangana as ‘robust’ based on three indicators: growth in the gross cropped area, in irrigation and in productivity. A closer examination of the analysis of these three indicators suggests a distortion of both the facts and conclusions by the Committee.

1. Cropped Area: The growth in agriculture in terms of increase in the GCA (gross cropped area) occurred by 20 per cent in coastal Andhra and only five per cent in Telangana while there was a decline in the same in Rayalaseema from the mid-1950s to the present going by the Report itself. This marginal increase in the GCA in Telangana was accompanied by a decrease in the NCA (net cropped area) which the Committee ignored. Nor did it analyse a huge increase of fallow land in Telangana. The change in the cropped area can be analysed in two ways: one is the change in the GCA and the other is the change in the NCA. The change in the NCA throws light on the actual extent of cultivated land that has increased or decreased irrespective of the extent cropped more than once. The change in the GCA, on the other hand, does not actually reflect if there is any decrease in the extent of the actual cropped land (NCA) when there is an increase in multiple cropping due to increase in irrigation. Regionwise land utilisation shows 26.35 lakh hectares of fallow land (the current and other fallows combined) in Telangana, 9.07 lakh hectares in Rayalaseema and 6.77 lakh hectares in coastal Andhra. (See CCSAP, 2010: p. 183) At the regional level, compared to the mid-1970s, there is a decrease of 11 per cent in the NCA in Telangana, 13.86 per cent in Rayalaseema and 3.5 per cent in coastal Andhra.2 The NCA, till the turn of the century, had actually increased in the coastal Andhra region while there had been a decline in the other two regions from the 1970s. (See Subramanyam, 2002 and Reddy, 2006) This huge increase in the fallow land and a corresponding decrease in the NCA in Telangana raise serious questions about the nature of growth in agriculture and its sustainability in Telangana. The creation of irrigation by those sections of cultivators with capacity to invest in ground-water irrigation facilitated cropping more than once but those sections without such capacity to invest seem to be abandoning cultivation that accounts for decreasing the NCA.

2. Irrigation: The Committee reports: “The NIA (Net Irrigated Area) in all the three regions of AP has increased over the years. In fact the NIA in Telangana has doubled (from 0.8 million hectares in 1956-60 to 1.7 million hectares by 2006-09). Thus Telangana has experienced a whopping 113 per cent increase; while coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema have experienced a much lower growth of NIA at 30 per cent and 55 per cent respectively.” (CCSAP, 2010: p. 88) Firstly, this huge increase in irrigation in Telangana, which was contributed largely by groundwater irrigation, has been accompanied by a drastic decrease in tank irrigation from nearly 4.5 to 2.5 lakh hectares. (See CCSAP, 2010: p. 194) What is serious is that more than two lakh hectares of tank irrigation has been lost in Telangana, an area more than what is created (‘potentially created’) through major and medium projects over the last fifty odd years; this is casually dismissed by the Report as a “nationwide phenomenon”. (CCSAP, 2010: p. 207)

A serious question that the Committee did not look into is the impact of this loss of irrigation, mostly in the last 15 years, on the households which hitherto were dependent on tank irrigation. And, whether all sections of cultivators dependant on tank irrigation were able to compensate for themselves by creating ground-water irrigation. At present even rain fed crops are not cultivated under the ayacut (command area) of these tanks because of waterlogging in the rainy season or in expectation of the tanks getting filled to enable irrigated crops. The newly created ground water irrigation in all probability seems more unevenly distributed across sections of cultivators than the irrigation in the past under tanks. Further, some of the Scheduled Caste and other lower sections of the rural households own small patches of land only under tank and not elsewhere. A majority from these sections who possess land elsewhere do not have the capacity to invest in groundwater irrigation. Tanks becoming redundant have cost the lowest sections of cultivators not only access to irrigation but deprived them of their subsis-tence, that is, rice. Whether it was “purposely destroyed” due to negligence of tanks by the state as alleged by activists in Telangana (CCSAP, 2010: p. 207) or whether this was a conspiracy plotted on the upper catchment area of rivers in view of the large potential for hydro-electric power and canal irrigation to regions of natural gradient or not, it has dispossessed large sections of cultivators from irrigation. Secondly, growth in ground water irrigation, one of the indicators that the Report attributes to growth in agriculture, is ill-conceived. The Committee notes that “well irrigation has shown a marked increase and today forms the bulk of the total irrigation (14 lakh hectares out of the total of 18 lakh hectares)” (CCSAP, 2010: p. 189) in this region. It dismisses the grievance that this ground water irrigation has cost the farmers huge investments, losses and indebtedness as based on “misconception”. (CCSAP, 2010: p. 207)

Groundwater irrigation per se is not an unviable mode of irrigation. It is viable in those regions where there is optimal rainfall and surface irrigation to recharge the water table. But the irony in this State is that canal irrigation was created with public expenditure, where ground-water irrigation was possible and viable, whereas this mostly pushed the farmers to create groundwater irrigation with their own private investment in the regions where rainfall is scarce. What the Committee did not present is that a majority of the dug/open wells in the Telangana region have become redundant with overexploi-tation of ground water with deep borewells. For instance, in Mahabubnagar district alone, the irrigated area under open wells, which reached 89 thousand hectares in 1990-91, has reduced to 10 thousand hectares at present, while during the same period the irrigated area under borewells has increased from a negligible amount to 1.2 lakh hectares. This is apart from a reduction of tank irrigation to almost negligible amount at present from 68 thousand hectares in 1955-56.3 In other words, the increase in groundwater irrigation with the technology of deep borewells has caused severe losses to those households dependant on open wells, apart from the loss to households due to the drying up of tanks. This occurred more severely in the south Telangana region where the rainfall is very low. The Committee itself presents in a table (CCSAP, 2010: p. 18) data on overexploitation of ground water that there are altogether 181 blocks identified in Telangana as ‘overexploited’, ‘critical’ and ‘sub-critical’ depending on the extent of exploitation of ground water, while it is 37 blocks in coastal Andhra.

Further, the Committee did not acknowledge the failure of borewells and the loss incurred on account of such failure. Also unrecorded have been those several unsuccessful attempts to sink borewells (see Sainath, 2004) that make the present count of borewells responsible for the growth in irrigation. According to a sample survey (Human Development Report, 2007) in the State during the year 2004, 26 per cent of the farmers have invested in sinking borewells during the previous five years. It was highest in south Telangana, where nearly 50 per cent of the farmers invested on borewells and 66.5 per cent of the investment was lost due to the failure of borewells. While the Committee “recognised that tubewells do involve costly investments and in pockets of low groundwater availability, operating costs are also high” (CCSAP, 2010: p. 207), it did not compare how this private spending on borewells affects the returns in agriculture in Telangana with that of coastal Andhra which predominantly depends on canal irrigation. Oblivious to several studies on the agrarian crisis in Telangana that point to investments and losses in borewells leading to indebtedness and impoverishment, the Committee opines that “such a large increase (in groundwater irrigation) would not have taken place if it was leading to the general impoverishing of all farmers”. (CCSAP, 2010: p. 207)

3. On Productivity the Committee notes that “Telangana has shown large improvements in output per hectare during the last five decades or so and it is consistent with growth in irrigation as well”. (CCSAP, 2010: p. 91) It also shows that the growth in productivity for rice, cotton and groundnut has improved considerably. The growth in productivity in Telangana is documented by other studies too. Distress amidst growth is a ‘paradox’ that characterises the agrarian crisis in Telangana. (Vakulabaranam, 2005) Scholars have attributed this crisis to the agricultural liberalisation policies4 on the one hand and an increasing dependence on excessive groundwater irrigation borne out of private investment in the region as resulting in immiseri-sation—increasing poverty, indebtedness and also frequent committing of suicides—of the peasantry on the other. (Revathi, 1998; Partha-sarathy and Shameem, 1998; Vakulabranam, 2004, 2005) This growth, mostly in the yield component due to increase in the use of HYV seeds, fertilisers and pesticides and due to the shift in the cropping pattern, is explained as ‘distress-inducing growth’ and ‘growth-inducing distress’ for this region by Vakulabaranam (2005) in his study on the agrarian crisis in Telangana. However, there is no evidence if growth is induced by distress across all sections of cultivators. In the other words, there is no evidence that all sections of cultivators witnessed growth in their respective farms. In the absence of data on the class of cultivators vis-à-vis access to irrigation, the kind of crops cultivated, the growth in productivity, fallow land etc., it is difficult to be conclusive about the impact across sections of cultivators of the shift in crops and growth in productivity of these crops if the shift depends on the capacity to invest higher amounts compared to the crops grown earlier.

The shift in cropping that occurred in Telangana is from the ‘traditional’ rainfed crops like jowar towards paddy and cotton, which require higher investments including for groundwater irrigation; these are now the two major crops of the region. The share of paddy in the total cropped area has increased from 14.1 per cent in the late fifties to 24.7 per cent at present in south Telangana and from 20.8 per cent to 34.2 per cent in north Telangana. The share of cotton has increased from 0.4 per cent to 8.2 per cent in south Telangana and from 4.0 per cent to 14 per cent in north Telangana. Simultaneously, the share of jowar has decreased from 26.7 to about eight per cent in south Telangana and from 31 per cent to about four per cent in north Telangana.5 The productivity growth that the Srikrishna Committee has projected is for the same crops—paddy and cotton, along with groundnut in Telangana. Needless to mention, the shift towards paddy depends on the capacity to create groundwater irrigation in this region and to invest more for cotton and groundnut when compared to crops like jowar or castor. Cotton, when cultivated under rainfed conditions, was equally vulnerable like any other rainfed crop due to the uncertainties of rainfall; and it also suffered from high input costs and fluctuating output prices even when cultivated under irrigation. (Parthasarathy and Shameem, 1998) Only paddy was found to provide a minimum economic security with stable returns. As it is mostly cultivated under irrigation, its output is less uncertain unlike the rainfed crops.

Even under the neoliberal regime while cotton prices have fallen due to the removal of restrictions on imports, the prices of paddy remained stagnant in India although the same have fallen in the world market. This is partly due to the support systems in the form of subsidies from the State Government as well as the Central Government. Neglect of rainfed crops like jowar, on the other hand, forced the cultivators in this region to shift towards paddy. As “sorghum cultivation would only pauperise the farmer”, and in “absence of choice” that “dominates the attitude of the farmers in the region of Telanagana …presence or absence of a well conditions choice of crops… The moment a farmer can afford a well he takes up rice cultivation.” (Alary, 1999: pp. 1402-1404) Large and medium cultivators who shifted to these crops initially benefited. The ground water crisis resulted in due course since a large number of cultivators joined in the exploitation of ground water witnessing the initial gains from this shift in crops. This ground water crisis and trade liberalisation policies took a toll on all these sections of cultivators from the mid 1990s.6

The fact that there is a drastic decrease in the cultivated area of ‘traditional’ rainfed crops like jowar in itself suggests that they are unrem-unerative and least preferred. That these unfavo-ured crops are still cultivated in a considerable amount of area and a sizeable area of land is left fallow in Telangana suggest that most of the small and marginal cultivators, who lack the capacity to invest higher amounts in cultivation, either still pursue the cultivation of these rainfed crops or leave the land fallow.

Understanding Deprivation and Rising Inequity in Telangana

THE evidence presented in the Report shows that there is a marginal decline of per capita income for ‘cultivators’ and a steep decline in such income for ‘agricultural labourers’ along with the falling of agricultural wage rates. (See CCSAP, 2010: p. 109) In fact, income decline for ‘culti-vators’ appears meagre because a considerable size of this category is reduced to the category of ‘agricultural labourers’ since the occupational category is determined, as mentioned in the Report, by the largest share of income. The share of cultivators in all occupational categories has declined from 39 per cent to 25 per cent and the share of agricultural labour has increased from 38 per cent to 47 per cent in Telangana. The income has increased only for ‘non-farm self-employment’ in the occupational category. This latter category includes money lenders, seed, fertiliser and pesticide traders, agricultural commission agents, borewell-drilling machine owners and contractors of public works in this region. This occupational category seems to correspond to and form the ‘well-off’ class (in the class-wise categories) (see CCSAP, 2010: p. 109) which has shown increase in income while all other classes —‘most deprived’, ‘deprived’, ‘lower middle class’ and ‘upper middle class’—have experienced decline in income. And, the same occupational category seems to belong to the ‘high Hindu castes’ recording improvement in income while ‘SCs, STs, OBCs and Minorities’, which form ninety per cent of this region’s population (CCSAP, 2010: see Figure 2.43, p. 116), have experienced a decline in incomes. (See CCSAP, 2010: p. 109)

The fall in incomes for ‘cultivators’ in general reflects the agricultural crisis in Telangana as documented by scholars despite growth in irrigation and productivity. The lower sections of cultivators and agricultural labourers experienced higher welfare declines during this period. (See Vakulabharanam, 2005) Increase of incomes for the ‘non-farm self-employed’ category and a steep decline for the lower sections account for the increased inequality in the region. The rise in groundwater irrigation, increase in the share of the cultivated area of crops like paddy and cotton on the one hand and decline in the NCA, decrease in tank irrigation on the other suggest a class dimension to growth in agriculture as well as deprivation in Telangana. As mentioned above, a majority of the small and marginal cultivators, who lack the financial capacity to shift to crops like paddy or cotton, either still pursue ‘traditional’ crops like jowar under rainfed cultivation that have become non-remunerative in recent years, along with hiring out for agricultural wage. Some of them abandoned cultivation (which is due to a reduction in the NCA) as they find it more economical only to engage in wage labour than to pursue the cultivation of such crops. Most of these sections who own land under tanks are deprived of both irrigation as well as cultivation. And, in all these cases their share of income from wage labour has outweighed the share from own cultivation, and thus they are recorded as agricultural labourers.

Hence, there is a decline in the share of ‘cultivators’ and a simultaneous increase in the share of ‘agricultural labourers’. The argument of deprivation of marginal cultivators is further strengthened by the fact that the size of marginal cultivators, that increased up to the early 1990s, has declined since then. (See Vakulabharanam, 2005) Dispossessed from irrigation and cultivation, these sections engage more number of mandays in hired labour than in previous decades, adding to the number of agricultural labourers to be hired. Secondly, the increase in the share of small and semi-medium operational holdings due to increased fragmentation of land for various reasons has in turn led to increased engagement of own/ household labour reducing the demand for hired agricultural labourers. The increased use of machinery like tractors has also substituted agricultural labour. All these factors have thus resulted in a fall in the agricultural wage rates. These sections of agricultural labourers, marginal and small cultivators mostly belong to and constitute most of the rural SC, ST and OBC population, something evident from the declining incomes of these communities.

The crisis in Telangana partly reflects a general agrarian crisis after the implementation of neo-liberal policies in India; its specific nature and severity also has a regional dimension that is borne out of a policy marked by neglect and bias in agricultural development. The regional bias of the agricultural policy since the ‘Green Revolution’ model is to be found in other semi-arid regions like Rayalaseema too. But for specific political, historical and geographic reasons the regional bias of the state’s policy is articulated and sought to be resolved by the separation of the Telangana region into a State. Unrest over this agrarian crisis witnessed a change of government in 2004 in the State. But with no respite yet in this region the unrest has found expression this time in the rural masses joining the agitation for a separate State.


1. Alary, Veronique (1999), “Rice Cultivation in Telangana: Comparative Study in Irrigated and Non-Irrigated Zones”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 34, No. 23, pp. 1402-1404.

2. Committee for Consultations on the Situation in Andhra Pradesh (CCSAP) (2010), Report, Government of India.

3. Human Development Report 2007, Andhra Pradesh (2008), Hyderabad: Government of AP and CESS.

4. Parthasarathy, G. and Shameem (1998), “Suicides of Cotton Farmers in Andhra Pradesh: An Exploratory Study”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, No. 13 (March 26-April 3, 1998), pp. 720-726.

5. Reddy, D.N. (2006): “Half a Century of Travails of Agriculture in Andhra Pradesh” in R.S. Rao et al. (ed.), Fifty Years of Andhra Pradesh, 1956-2006, Hyderabad: CDRC.

6. E. Revathi (1998), “Farmers’ Suicide: Missing Issues”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 33, No. 20: p. 1207.

7. Sainath, P. (2004): “Sinking borewells, rising debts”, The Hindu, June 23.

8. Subramanyam, S. (2003): Study of Regional Disparities, Hyderabad: NRRRC.

9. Vakulabaranam, V. (2004): “Agricultural Growth and Irrigation in Telangana:A Review of Evidence”, Economic and Political Weekly, March 27, 2004: 1421-1426.

10. Vakulabaranam, V. (2005): “Growth and Distress in a South Indian Peasant Economy During the Era of Economic Liberalisation”, The Journal of Development Studies, 41(6):971-997.


1. Committee for Consultations on the Situation in Andhra Pradesh, headed by Justice B.N. Srikrishna, was constituted by the Government of India to examine the situation in the Andhra Pradesh (AP) State and make appropriate recommendations in view of the unrest over the demand for a separate State of Telangana on the one hand and a counter-demand for maintaining the present status of a united Andhra Pradesh; it submitted its report on December 31, 2010.

2. Source: Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Govern-ment of AP. This trend in Telangana and Rayalseema coincides with the increase in groundwater irrigation.

3. Source: Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Government of AP.

4. The agrarian crisis in India at large due to the neoliberal policies has witnessed a fall in agricultural growth (see Patnaik, 2007). Whereas in Telangana the ‘lagged-Green Revolution’ resulted in growth [mostly (two-thirds of it) yield component] that is mainly attributed to the increased use of inputs—HYV seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and new technologies which include a technology to exploit ground water for irrigation. (Vakulabaranam, 2005)

5. Computed from source: Directorate of Economics and Statistics, Government of AP; also see Subramanyam, S, 2002, and Reddy, D N, 2006.

6. See Parthasarathy and Shameem, 1998; Vakulabranam, 2005.

The author is pursuing Ph.D at the Department of Anthropology, University of Hyderabad. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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