By R.V. Ramanamurthy. Ramanamurthy is a Professor in the School of Economics, University of Hyderabad. His research interests include agrarian change and political economy of development. He is the author of Agrarian Question: A Reader (2021).
I was a child labour, employed initially for cattle grazing work. My own father was an annual farm servant. He became old and fell sick by the time I was young. The crucial point of our dependence on landlords arrived because of bride price system. I had to borrow Rs.18000 ($700) in 1969. That’s all, we were into a bondage, where our annual wage and the interest on it was never enough to pay on annual basis, after meeting our consumption. Chandranna, Atmakur, ca. 2015
Chandranna grew up as a child labourer in Atmakur, Nizamabad. Atmakur is a relatively small sleepy village with just over 200 households. It is located just 65 km from the Hyderabad city in the Medak District.
I visited this village in 2015 as a part of my research on agrarian change. I was invited to stay with the father of a colleague from the University who was a landlord.
Chandranna, aged 65, reminisced with me about his life as child labourer, a farm servant, and an independent labourer. He had worked as a farm servant for much of his adult life before finally acquiring four acres of his own land.
He suggests that the year 1983 was a watershed moment for him. Until then, agriculture in the region was based on open wells. This required considerable labour power to run the ploughs and water from the wells as well as looking after the oxen that supported this work. A 200 acre household required 20 bullock carts, 70 ploughs, and 140 bullocks. The labour power needed was nearly 10 palerlu (permanent annual farm servant), 150 casual labourers, and 40 child labourers. Part of the labor agreement included meals at the farm during the planting and harvesting seasons. In Chandranna’s words:
We were paid in kind. There is was little way out. Then came Telugu Desam party and NT Rama Rao in 1983, the then Chief Minister, extended rice scheme of 20 kilos at a price of just Rs.2 per kg. This has created little saving over the family consumption. Then I heard a man from the party came told us that the landlord has to part with 25 percent of his land if he engages annual farm servant. This has rattled the landlords. Then one day I received a pamphlet, asking all annual farm servants to boycott the work en masse, not only in the village but in all adjoining villages. I couldn’t believe, but was confirmed by my relatives in the next village. We all stopped on the day the boycott call was given, ran away from the village for about 10 days and returned.
Land was unevenly distributed in the village. In Atmakur one landlord owned half the village land and half the village labour worked for him. This inequality was common in the region with most of land owned by landlords.
However, by 1983, this annual farm servant system that was so critical to conduct the agriculture began to collapse. Farm servants performed the major operations of transport, ploughing, feeding the bovine, supervising the labour and participating in the labour. A system of patronage and exploitation existed. The farm labourer’s position was more secure than the free casual labour in terms of food security. But in exchange they had to perform 14 hour “chattel slavery” in return. Farm laborers were basically bonded into this system in a permanent manner. This is sometimes referred to as a “semi-feudal” relation of production.
At the time, it was a mystery to me how this long-lived system broke down so suddenly. There was no documented evidence that illustrated this radical transformation in the country side.
Chandranna’s words give us something close to a testimonial of these changes. He notes that after the farm servant boycott:
We were not contacted by the landlords. We saw the landlord purchasing a tractor in coming months, but we were relieved. I worked as farm labourer since then and purchased the land with my savings. I sent my son to the school. Now we have drinking water to our house since 1993. In our youth, we had to collect the daily wage in terms of paddy, reach home at 7 pm, hand pound the rice, lit a wooden stove, bring water from the common well, cook by 8.30 pm and used to fall sleep after 14 hour work. Now my son doesn’t understand what we underwent. He wont even care to fill the water when we get. Ah, what difficult times we had!
And what happened to the landlord? My elderly host in Atmakur was the `Mali Patel,’ a traditional village official in charge of criminal dispute administration. This post was abolished in 1983 by the reforms of Chief Minister N T Rama Rao. Forty years ago, my host owned 250 acres but now he owns less than 20 acres. At 83, he barely commands any power or respect in the village. I was intrigued by the changes in his life and the larger changes in Chandranna’s life. How did his power wane over this period? How these changes arrived needs to be further investigated. The landlord sold off much of his land to perform marriage of his 4 daughters, some for standing up for panchayat elections, and rest to pay for the expense of educating his son in private schools and colleges. The village was a dry village with meagre sources of irrigation. Consequently, the land there did not command much value historically. This changed recently when rural land values began soaring high on real estate demand beginning in 2004. Today, the elderly Patel is barely noticed and commands neither fear nor respect from the village community.
Atmakur is like many other villages in Nizamabad and across Telangana. Now about 500 labourers everyday travel to Hyderabad city to work in the unorganized labour sector. They work at quarries in the region, small factories, and public works. The labourers take every possible means of transport and no longer depend on the traditional agricultural relationships in the village. Despite the sentimental slogans for farmer, agriculture in the village employs little more than 150 labourers. Farm technology has made deep inroads into the traditional village system. Electric borewells, harvesters, and tractors have all replaced manual and bovine power.
But the real value of land is not in what it grows, it is in its potential for rents in a future real estate boom.