The Road to Telangana

India’s new state faces old problems

Children joined the movement for a Telegu-speaking state by lunching on public highways in February 2010. AP PHOTO/MAHESH KUMAR A
Children joined the movement for a Telegu-speaking state by lunching on public highways in February 2010. AP PHOTO/MAHESH KUMAR A
01 March, 2010

ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON in the summer of 2008, I found myself standing in a concrete building on the outskirts of Armoor, a town in the Nizamabad district of Andhra Pradesh. The building was called Garden City Function Hall, but apart from its bleak surroundings—the vegetation blasted dull yellow by months without rain—there was little to distinguish it from countless other such structures in India, usually rented out for weddings and celebrations. There was a hall with a stage, a lawn covered by a white tent, waiters dressed in jeans, waistcoats and shoes without socks and a few bedraggled swans in one corner.

The occasion that afternoon wasn’t a wedding. As the waiters circulated with glasses of water, a man with long hair and a splendidly oiled moustache climbed onto the stage and began singing, his right hand sometimes pressed to his heart, sometimes swept out in a gesture intended to raise people from their midday torpor. A chorus line of young boys, bare chested and in white dhotis, danced behind the singer, breaking out from time to time in a sheepish refrain of “Jai Telangana!” or “Victory to Telangana.”

They were demanding a new state called Telangana, an area of some 155,400 square kilometres to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh, India’s fifth-largest state. I was a stranger to the region and had known nothing of the movement for Telangana until that afternoon, but the 100-odd people in the audience—ranging from farmers with calloused hands to lawyers wielding video cameras—were all there to support the demand. This was true of R Limbadri, a professor of public administration at Osmania University in Hyderabad, who had brought me to the event. Limbadri was a Dalit who had grown up in a nearby village, a man whose Chaplinesque moustache belied the childhood experience of humiliation and deprivation that he had transformed into a firm but good-humoured activism. When Limbadri addressed the gathering, therefore, he was less dramatic than the singer, saying that he supported the demand for Telangana, but only if this new state was envisioned differently, committed to ending the vast social and economic disparity that has marked Andhra Pradesh in recent years.

Telangana movement leader, K Chandrasekhra Rao’s indefinite hunger strike hastened the state building process. AP PHOTO/MUSTAFA QURAISHI

I liked Limbadri’s speech, but I doubted that it had much impact. The gathering seemed to be without definition, lacking leaders or even a plan of action, and all I picked up in the afternoon heat was a faint expectation that the Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS), the political party formed in 2001 on a pro-statehood platform, would do well enough in the next elections to exert political pressure in Delhi. Indeed, as I followed Limbadri out of the function hall, the gathering looked too placid to have anything to do with abstract ideas like a new state. As children played on the lawn and smoke billowed out from the kitchen, the crowd gave the appearance of enjoying a leisurely afternoon that would culminate in a free lunch.

The indifference seemed even more evident when India went to the polls last April. The TRS, which had done well in the past, turned out a spectacularly poor performance, losing three of the five seats it held in the parliament and 16 of its 26 seats in the state assembly. It seemed that even the people considered to be putative citizens of Telangana had other things on their minds than adding to the 28 states and seven federally administered union territories that already comprised the republic of India.

Students at Hyderabad’s Osmania University were another key constituency agitating for statehood. {{name}}

APPEARANCES, HOWEVER, can be deceiving, as most people discovered on 10 December last year, when the Indian Home Minister, P Chidambaram, hastily announced that the central government would begin the process of creating the state of Telangana. Chidambaram was reacting, in part, to a hunger strike in demand of a separate state by K Chandrasekhara Rao, a TRS politician. Rao’s fast, begun on 29 November, had drawn large crowds in Hyderabad and in the rural areas that would become part of Telangana, but it evoked little interest outside of Andhra Pradesh. The central government’s announcement that it would create Telangana by merging nine districts in the northwest of Andhra Pradesh with the capital city of Hyderabad seemed to come out of nowhere, and while it triggered celebrations among the supporters of the new state, it also sparked vehement counter-protests that have resulted in the ongoing stalemate.

The opposition to Telangana has come not just from the residents of other parts of Andhra Pradesh, but also from a national array of business leaders and urban media outlets. Their argument is less about the rural districts than the inclusion of Hyderabad in the new state, which for them signifies an end to ‘Brand Hyderabad,’ the entity that has over the past 15 years come to mean a global hub of outsourcing and information technology. They seem to be outraged that an apparently cosmopolitan and wealthy city can be yoked by government fiat to an impoverished rural

region, and they are perplexed by pro-Telangana demonstrators like the students at Osmania University who announced last December that they would prevent the celebration of New Year’s Eve at the upscale hotels and clubs of the city.

I had stayed at Osmania University, however, and I had met the students, mostly from rural, low-caste backgrounds in Telangana, their shabby clothes and hesitant sentences a far cry from the affluent urbanites who frequent Hyderabad’s expensive hotels and nightclubs. As the stalemate continues, with the state buffeted by protests from both sides, it seems clearer than ever that the conflict in Telangana is indeed about the city and the countryside. It is not, however, simply a matter of the irrational, sectarian supporters of Telangana expressing an unjustified desire to seize Hyderabad’s wealth for themselves. It is about an increasing divide in Andhra Pradesh that has gone unnoticed till now between the rich and the poor, the upper castes and the lower, and between the urban growth based on technology, real estate and financial speculation—‘Brand Hyderabad’—and the rural deprivation visible in the drought-prone districts of the northwest. Telangana, in that sense, is the spectre created by the singleminded globalisation that has favoured Hyderabad over its surrounding rural areas, even though its origins go back a long way, to the time when an independent India was being formed in 1947.

A protestor throws a rock at one of Hyderabad’s many gleaming towers in 2009. AP PHOTO/MAHESH KUMAR A

THE AREA CONSIDERED TO BE Telangana radiates out from the city of Hyderabad, an arid region sitting on the Deccan Plateau and marked by black volcanic rocks. In colonial times, it was part of the ‘princely state’ of Hyderabad, ruled directly by the Nizam from his opulent and cosmopolitan capital city. The last Nizam of Hyderabad, Osman Ali Khan, was said to be the wealthiest man in the world, and he was significant enough in the society of oriental potentates to marry his two sons to the daughter and niece of the last Caliph. He was also surrounded by incompetent courtiers, and the reforms encouraged by his predecessors had withered away to leave his peasants so deprived that they began a communist rebellion against him in 1946. Two years later, trying to avoid the fate of joining India or Pakistan, the Nizam was deposed by Indian troops. The peasant rebellion continued against the Indian government, to be finally crushed in 1951. Then, after a local leader called Potti Sriramulu died in the course of a hunger strike in demand of a new state for all Telugu-speaking people, the central government created Andhra Pradesh in 1956 by merging many of the Nizam’s territories with neighbouring areas that had been part of the state of Madras.

The new entity was linguistically unified, with Telugu as a common language, but it combined three regions distinct in their ecology, social makeup and prosperity. There was ‘coastal Andhra,’ looking out to the Bay of Bengal and relatively well-off; there was poorer Rayalaseema, south of coastal Andhra but with only a tiny part of it touching the sea; and then there was Telangana, landlocked, rebellious, cosmopolitan because of the influence of the Nizams but also the poorest of the three areas. The merger only accentuated the existing differences, with people from coastal Andhra rising up to dominant positions in politics and business, and from 1969 to 70, the state witnessed a violent agitation for a separate Telangana state. This was followed, from the 70s onwards, by a series of armed leftwing movements, and although the Maoists were present all over the state, with Srikakulam in coastal Andhra playing an important role in beginning the first rebellions, many of the cadres and the leadership were from Telangana.

By the turn of the century, however, such agitations had begun to look insignificant, sidelined by the transformation of Hyderabad from an elegant, old-fashioned city into a global metropolis that was host to foreign companies like Microsoft, Google and Dell, while also serving as the home base of Satyam, India’s fourth largest software company and until recently considered one of the great success stories of globalisation in India. The man responsible for these changes was N Chandrababu Naidu, Andhra Pradesh’s chief minister from 1995 to 2004. Naidu’s political base had always been limited, largely drawing sustenance from the fact that he was the son-in-law of NT Rama Rao, the immensely popular film star who founded the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). When he eventually took over the TDP, he did so by defying the wishes of the dying Rao that the party leadership go to his second wife, and he followed this ascendance by transforming his mentor’s populist legacy into a cold, technocratic politics.

Naidu was from Rayalaseema, but his support came largely from farmers and businessmen in coastal Andhra who had grown wealthy from the agricultural technologies introduced by the Green Revolution of the 60s. This new class of entrepreneurs needed new places to invest their excess capital, and the natural site for this was Hyderabad. In the West, Naidu found enthusiastic supporters in the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and Britain’s Department for International Development. He also took on the Maoists, who had crystallised into one organisation called the Communist Party of India (Maoist), alternating between initiating talks with them and escalating security operations against them, and narrowly escaping a Maoist assassination attempt against him. By the end of his term, however, Naidu had put the Maoists on the defensive, forcing them to move out to neighbouring states.

The pacification of the countryside and the booming of the city, a section of which Naidu had renamed Cyberabad, was in keeping with his vision of transforming Andhra Pradesh into a clone of Singapore. In the late 1990s, he hired the American consulting firm McKinsey to prepare a policy paper called ‘Andhra Vision 2020.’ The paper recommended a far smaller role for the government, with the winding down of public projects and subsidies in the rural areas, and tax breaks and incentives for private businesses that focused on information technology, services and real estate. If such an approach was followed, the McKinsey report said, it would ensure that by the year 2020, “poverty will have been eradicated and current inequalities will have disappeared.”

The wife of a farmer who killed himself with pesticide in 2005. Telangana lies in the heart of the farmer-suicide belt. AP PHOTO/MUSTAFA QURAISHI

IT DOESN’T TAKE LONG after entering the rural areas that comprise Telangana to see the effects of Naidu’s policies. A week after I attended the statehood rally, I returned to the town of Armoor. I was travelling by bus this time, and the slow journey evoked sharply the contrast between city and country; the malls, condos and private engineering colleges giving way to women harvesting green stalks of rice by hand, humped bulls ploughing muddy furrows, farmers spraying pesticides and an occasional pump gushing water onto a field. The rest of the land, uncultivated, was gently undulating, filled with palm trees, cacti and rocks.

It was picturesque, but the bus was taking me into a suicide zone that stretched through the districts of Telangana and across the state border, westward into the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra (which, not coincidentally, has its own demands of statehood) as well as north into the state of Chattisgarh, where Maoist squads remain locked in battle with a particularly repressive regime. These are the three areas most affected by the farmer suicides that have plagued India since 1995, with nearly 200,000 farmers killing themselves in response to fluctuating crop prices and high levels of debt. And although Naidu was voted out in 2004, replaced by the Congress Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy (who died last September in a mysterious helicopter crash), the only significant difference in Telangana seemed to be that the Congress government had put up posters on the backs of buses with the numbers for a suicide helpline.

Once I had entered Armoor, a dusty stretch of concrete buildings spread on either side of the highway, there was no sign of prosperity other than two white mansions rising out of the flat scrubland. They belonged to seed dealers, middlemen who had taken over the role of supplying seeds and loans to farmers and buying back the crops, activities in which the government had played a role until Naidu implemented the McKinsey reforms. The seed dealers had prospered under the new arrangement, but not without friction, as I discovered when I went closer to the mansions. Both buildings were gutted, their white walls scorched with fire, the doors and windows gaping holes in their façades, the wooden frames transformed into charcoal.

I was being shown around by a man called Devaram, a wiry, abrasive man who was an organiser with the CPI-ML (New Democracy), a Maoist party that has abandoned armed struggle for traditional electoral politics. Devaram had grown up an ‘untouchable’ in a nearby village. By the time he was ten, he was working in the fields as a labourer for 18 to 20 hours a day and had become a communist. He had seen comrades killed by the police, fled to Hyderabad, worked in construction in the Gulf and been deported for organising a strike there. He was a self-described troublemaker and he enjoyed telling me how the mansions were set on fire.

It was a complicated story, involving a rivalry between the two dealers who owned the mansions. The bigger dealer had asked 25,000 farmers in the area to grow red sorghum seeds, offering them a very high price for the seeds. He had placed such a large order that he would need a bank loan to pay the farmers, but he expected to make a substantial profit selling the seeds in northern India, where they were in demand as animal feed. But when the farmers were ready to deliver the seeds, they found him refusing to take delivery or make the payments. The other dealer had clandestinely bought red sorghum from some farmers and deliberately sold them at a far lower rate, driving down the price. The same man had also approached the banks and asked them not to approve the loan to his rival, who, he said, was sure to suffer substantial losses because he had offered farmers unrealistically high prices. The farmers found themselves sitting with sacks of red sorghum in their village warehouses, without any money to buy material for the autumn crop, the most important one of the year. Some of them went on hunger strikes, while others held demonstrations outside the district collector’s office in Nizamabad town.

Finally, one June morning, around 10,000 farmers gathered in Armoor. After first setting fire to three government jeeps, they converged on the mansion owned by the dealer who had reneged on his contract. The dealer did not live in the house, and the farmers allowed the tenants to leave before torching it. The police began shooting, and one man got a bullet in his ribs, but the crowd forced the police to retreat. Then they set fire to the mansion owned by the other dealer before gathering on the motorway and blocking traffic for the rest of the day.

A FEW DAYS LATER, I went to the nearby village of Hasakothur, from where some of the rampaging farmers had come. In the afternoon, the village looked peaceful, buffered from the highway by fields of soybeans, wheat and turmeric. Gopeti Rajeshwar, a stocky man with cropped hair, was one of the farmers who had joined the protests. He was adamant, however, that it was not the farmers who had burnt the houses but thugs hired by the rival dealers (and when I later spoke to the dealers, they agreed, blaming each other rather than the farmers).

Rajeshwar had chosen to grow the red sorghum because the rate offered had been attractive and because it required relatively little water, which was one of his biggest concerns. He took me out to the fields, past a teenage boy carefully tapping toddy from a palm tree, to a depression in the ground overgrown with weeds. “That’s a water tank,” Rajeshwar said. “It’s been dry for ten years.”

Like most of the farmers, he depended on an electrical pump or a ‘borewell’ to access the groundwater. The borewells were expensive, around 50,000 rupees each, he said, while the companies that put the borewells into the ground charged 150 rupees for each third of a metre they dug. Sometimes, it was necessary to dig a dozen times in a roughly two hectare plot before water was found, and often it was necessary to go down as deep as 75 metres. The borewells were usually financed through loans from seed dealers or moneylenders, and it was often the debt incurred from these loans, combined with poor prices for crops, that led to farmers killing themselves, as was the case with three men in the village who had committed suicide the previous year.

Rajeshwar had avoided debt so far because his family had worked in the Gulf. His father had gone first, in the early 1970s, working in Dubai for two decades. Then, at the age of 20, Rajeshwar too had gone to Dubai. He had worked on construction sites there for two years.  After paying off the 50,000 rupees he owed the middleman who had got him the job, he saved just enough to buy a borewell.

We had returned to the village square, where an emaciated older man sat and listened to our conversation. “He’s not telling you how bad things really are,” he broke in. Rajeshwar laughed and said, “There’s no point in getting into too many details.” The man, a tailor called Janardan, talked about having worked in Dubai and in Saudi Arabia. He had sent his son now to Dubai to work as an electrician, paying 80,000 rupees to a middleman for the job. He had borrowed the money, which had become, after a year’s interest, 100,000 rupees. I asked Janardan if he made any money from tailoring in the village. He looked at Rajeshwar and said, “They never have any money for new clothes. My wife makes 500 rupees a month from rolling beedis. We live on that.”

THE DETAILS OF RAJESHWAR’S LIFE are part of a larger pattern. The lack of water he spoke about is one of the major grievances cited by Telangana supporters, and it is borne out by studies like a recent report by the Planning Commission, which notes that the tanks that were once primary sources of irrigation in this dry region have largely been silted over, and that a tremendous increase in the use of borewells by farmers is leading to a depletion of aquifers in the region. Meanwhile, the debt incurred by farmers, the volatility of crop prices created by the speculation of seed dealers and the utter absence of government support has created a situation in which a primarily rural population can no longer survive through agriculture.

As a result, millions of people from Telangana move to the Gulf states and to Indian cities in search of work. Nine of its ten districts—the exception being Hyderabad—are classified as ‘backward’ or extremely poor by the Indian government. Even when the government provides subsidies for industries, as it did in Mahbubnagar district in the 1980s, the owners employ workers from other states in order to prevent unionisation and keep labour costs as low as possible. Today, Mahbubnagar, in spite of its many factories, sends two thirds of its adult population, nearly a million people, to work elsewhere, mostly as construction labourers. The majority are either from the lower castes  or are Lambada tribals, and a recent report published by the United Nations Development Programme notes that these workers sometimes make as little as 1,200 rupees a month in cash and food.

Yet Telangana is not singular in its deprivation, incredible though that is. The Rayalaseema region that lies south of Telangana shares many of its characteristics, with a similar scattering of backward districts, suicides by farmers, migration to other areas in search of work, lack of irrigation and shrinking reserves of groundwater. It is a similarity that has been cited by the opponents of Telangana, although that doesn’t explain why Telangana became the focus of a movement for a separate state, or why the Indian government was even willing to consider this demand.

The movement for Telangana derives some of its strength from its conscious history of difference, from its fluency in Hindi—a legacy of the Nizam’s administration—to its long history of agitations, including the Maoist rebellions, which remain a significant factor in the current upheaval. Today, the Maoists—whose chief, Mupalla Laxman Rao, better known as Comrade Ganpathy, was a schoolteacher in the Karimnagar district of Telangana in the early 1970s—support the idea of a separate state, which helps the opponents of Telangana paint the movement as nothing more than a Maoist front that seeks a separate state only in the service of radical class warfare. The initial willingness in Delhi to create Telangana, meanwhile, seems to have had some basis in the idea that a new state might actually reduce support for the Maoists, perhaps by channelling more funds to the area and creating a local elite that profits from this arrangement. The central government may also have been looking back to 2000, when the creation of the states of Jharkhand and Chattisgarh put in place new regimes that were willing to be far more brutal than their predecessors in battling the Maoists.

All these strategies and accusations—which revolve around an underground group generally portrayed as irrelevant to the new, globalising India—reveal the degree to which that globalising project is in crisis in Andhra Pradesh. It is no coincidence that the struggle over the state’s future arrives at a time when many of Hyderabad’s booms turn out to have been bubbles. The good years that favoured the coastal Andhra elite now seem to have been packed with projects built on shifting sand.

THE CRISIS STARTED LAST JANUARY with the revelation of massive accounting fraud at Satyam, the software company, and the resignation of its chairman, Ramalinga Raju. Although Satyam had been sold off by the Indian government and Raju was in jail when I visited Hyderabad last August, the fallout had spread to Maytas Infra and Maytas Properties, companies owned partially by Raju’s sons. The building of a subway system in Hyderabad, a project granted to Maytas Infra, had come to a halt because the company had no money, and all that existed of the project were the virtual subway stops still visible on Hyderabad’s Google map. In Mahbubnagar, I spoke to the manager of a steel factory that was one of Maytas Infra’s suppliers. He was facing losses because of the stalled subway project; Maytas Infra, which had no cash, had paid him off with four unfinished villas in a development owned by Maytas Properties.

It was astonishing to hear of this sort of barter economy operating underneath the sheen of Brand Hyderabad. But people I met in Andhra Pradesh constantly reminded me that appearances were deceptive, especially when it came to the apparently globalised software industry. They reminded me that Maytas was Satyam spelt backwards, a double of sorts for the more famous company, and that the boom in Hyderabad had been far more about real estate than software. “Places like Hyderabad don’t become IT capitals of the world unless there’s a real estate dividend,” a journalist who knew the city well told me. “Maytas was earlier called Satyam Construction, and that company predates Satyam Software, which is to say the Rajus were about real estate and construction before they were ever about software.” Indeed, just before admitting his role in the Satyam fraud, Raju Senior had tried to push through the acquisition of the Maytas companies by Satyam. He had apparently known that the Maytas projects would stall and had been hoping to pass the losses on to Satyam shareholders while extricating his sons.

One morning, I met up with P Sivakumar, or Siva, a man who owned an incomplete house in an unfinished 30-hectare development near Cyberabad called Maytas Hill County. The drive there took us past the grey Satyam tower and the white Microsoft campus, the horizon crowded with giant yellow cranes standing in silent prayer over building shells. In the distance, on a rising stretch of land, were large letters spelling out the development’s name, carefully arranged to look like the iconic Hollywood sign.

Siva was in his 30s, with a small paunch and dark circles around his eyes. He was born in Anantapur district in Rayalaseema, but he was also a new kind of floating citizen created by the globalising forces unleashed across India in the past two decades. Siva had been a computer programmer in Hyderabad until the late 1990s, when Duncan Goenka sent him to work for its software division in Virginia, United States. He lived there for some years, sharing a two-bedroom apartment in a suburb with three other techies. He got married, had a son and a daughter, moved to Baltimore and then settled in Edison, New Jersey, where he lived for ten years. He became an American citizen in 2007, which was, as he put it, “the trigger for moving back” to India, especially because he didn’t want his daughter to pick up American cultural norms. “Once you have the US passport, you’re not tied down. You can go back to the US if you need to,” he said. I asked him if there were any drawbacks to not having an Indian passport while living in India. “See, we’re from here,” he answered. “We know how to work this system, and you don’t really need an Indian passport for that.”

We pulled up in front of Siva’s house, which he had bought for eight and a half million rupees. It was a two-storey, unpainted structure with a sloping roof and a small front lawn that looked out at a street full of houses just like it. The only difference was in the degree to which each was finished. The first few houses were almost complete, the next few half-done; at the very end, they were just blocks of grey concrete. A 13-storey apartment building loomed in the distance, but here the narrative was vertical, since Maytas had run out of money after completing the third floor.

Maytas had at least built part of the housing development, which was spread over 30 hectares. The land it had been given, Siva said, was 121 hectares, out of which 34 was supposed to be a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Maytas had presumably received tax breaks for the jobs supposed to be created by the SEZ. But all it had done about that was dig a vast hole in the ground, which looked to me like a pretty accurate depiction of what the globalisation of Andhra Pradesh had given its poorer citizens.

A couple of the other property owners came over when they saw Siva. There was a woman in a salwar kameez and trainers (“from Dallas, Texas”) and a man on a little scooter (“from Virginia”). They told me they had organised demonstrations outside the house of one of the Raju scions, demanding the completion of their villas. At the same time, they had hired their own workers to make their residences habitable so that they could move in as soon as possible. Siva explained the sense of urgency while showing me around the inside of his house. He and his prospective neighbours believed that, just before being found guilty, Raju Senior had illegally transferred money from Satyam to Maytas. Siva was very specific about the details—3 trillion rupees had been moved through an offshore account in Mauritius—and he and his neighbours were afraid that the government would seize Maytas Hill County. If they moved in, however, they would have a better chance of fighting the case—possession, as the saying goes in India, being one half of the law—which was why there was such a frenzy to complete the houses.

In the meantime, Siva said, they would have to do without the promised facilities. There was no swimming pool, no tennis court, no movie theatre and no 22-hectare clubhouse. More to the point, there was no water treatment plant, and tankers drove in periodically to fill private reservoirs, workers chasing after them with plastic bottles. There was electricity, but it was a commercial line charging a higher than average rate.

As we stood near a crooked ‘Emergency Assembly Point’ sign, Siva talked about his reasons for buying a house in Maytas Hill County. “We wanted to live with people like ourselves, Andhra people but with an NRI [Non Resident Indian] background, so that we could have some of the US lifestyle element. Out there, in the rest of Hyderabad, it’s all so messy.”

It would, of course, become even messier in a few months, when Delhi approved a separate Telangana and the agitations began. There is nothing in common between the Maytas Hill County owners and the Telangana supporters, between the seekers of a gated community and those wishing for a more equitable state, between the property rights the first group can count on and the derision that the marginalised people focusing their hopes on Telangana can expect to receive. If they have anything in common, however, it is in how they reflect, in different ways, the desire of a group to live with people from the same community and to take possession of land that it believes it rightfully owns.  They demonstrate, in their different ways, the truth that has become evident to everybody. Ten years before Andhra Vision 2020 is set to mature, everyone understands that there is no such thing as perpetual growth, that there is not enough to go around, and that the only certainty is the increasingly mad scramble for diminishing wealth, water and land.