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Know your country: Andhra Pradesh blessed by nature’s bounty, troubled by economic disparities

Know your country: Andhra Pradesh -- blessed by nature’s bounty, troubled by economic disparities

Know your country: Andhra Pradesh -- blessed by nature’s bounty, troubled by economic disparities
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By Vijay Kumar Gaba  Jan 7, 2020 6:44:33 AM IST (Updated)

After Uttar Pradesh, AP appeared like a different world altogether. Bountiful nature is exploited judiciously, people are forward looking, women are emancipated, agriculture productivity is high, farmers and agricultural labourers are doing well, education is spreading like a mass movement, primary health facilities are perhaps the best in the country. On the negative side, economic disparities are very high.

This is the third installment of a series that CNBC-TV18 is launching known as Know Your Country. Helmed by our columnist Vijay Kumar Gaba, it is based on his observations about India and its people during his numerous travels across the length and breadth of the country. The third article is focused on Andhra Pradesh, its social fabric and economic disparities. Follow the series here

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I visited 15 out of 23 districts of Andhra Pradesh (AP). After Uttar Pradesh, AP appeared like a different world altogether. Bountiful nature is exploited judiciously, people are forward looking, women are emancipated, agriculture productivity is high, farmers and agricultural labourers are doing well, education is spreading like a mass movement, primary health facilities are perhaps the best in the country. On the negative side, economic disparities are very high. The difference between the top 10 percent and the bottom 10 percent would probably be the highest in the country. The society is deeply divided on caste lines, though not so on religious lines.
As the pilot announces the commencement of descent on to the Gannavaram Airport (Vijaywada), the outside view becomes mesmerising. The lush green paddy fields appear like a large football stadium with green turf. The banana and mango orchards on the sidelines provide the perfect setting. The land brilliantly impersonates Mother India, as described in our National Song. It is "rich with hurrying streams and dark fields, bright with orchard gleams and cool with winds of delight." (सुजलां सुफलां मलयजशीतलाम् शस्यशामलां मातरम्।)
Longest coastline 
Andhra Pradesh has the longest coastline in the country, with a number of serene beaches. The state also has many sacred temples like Tirupati Devsthan. Intuitively, tourism, both religious and leisure, should naturally be the mainstay of the state's economy.
However, nothing on the ground suggests that anyone is even thinking about this. There are talks of industrial corridors, IT parks, agro parks, but nothing on this huge potential.
Manglagiri in Guntur district (15 km from Vijaywada) is a temple town. A very sacred ancient temple of Lord Narsimha (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) is situated here on a sleeping volcano. The town is also famous for handloom sarees and dress materials. The town, however, has absolutely no tourism infrastructure. No hotels; narrow lanes; no parking space; no Hindi/English speaking drivers or guides - nothing.
Similarly, Vijaywada has Kanak Durga Temple, one of the most prominent amongst 52 Shakti Peethas in the country. Again no tourism infrastructure.
Both these temples, and many others in the region, have the potential to become economic magnets like Tirupati, Vaishno Devi, etc. But no one seems to care.
The rural areas in Krishna and Guntur districts are as beautiful as Vietnam, Cambodia and Taiwan (the popular tourist destinations these days). But does anyone care?
I had the privilege of spending a day with M. Vindo Babu (a road contractor) and his wife Lakshmi Tulsi (an academician). The couple runs a school for 500 children in Vijaywada. Three-hundred of these students are sponsored by the couple (fee, uniform, meal and post-school coaching).
Lakshmi, the principal, told me that the normal schedule of schools in Vijaywada (and elsewhere in the state) is usually 10-12 hours even for middle classes. These schools are run as factories for producing medical, engineering and accounting professionals. A majority of schools even do not offer humanity as a subject in senior classes.
Imagine, without knowledge of their history, geography and Hindi -- how these children could be expected to make a career in tourism as an industry. This factory model of education is also destroying the local arts and cultural traditions -- something for which South Indian states are traditionally reputed for.
Moving fast to reach nowhere
I had the opportunity to attend a wedding in Vijaywada. This meant meeting a lot of people from various walks of life and plenty of amazing food. I love both.
In the elaborate marriage function, I noticed a number of socio-economic changes that have been widely accepted even by the older generations. Some of these changes are worth highlighting.
The contest between 'knowledge' and 'belief'
Many communities in Andhra Pradesh, like in Tamil Nadu, traditionally considered marriage within close family auspicious. People were happy to marry their first cousins, uncles and aunts. The primary idea, as I understand, was to not let the family wealth go out of the family and keep the land holdings intact.
However, the disintegration of joint families defeated the primary purpose and the undesirable effects of this practice were exposed. Incest and significant genetic disorders were found to be two worst side effects of this widely prevalent practice. Thankfully, people have realised it and now avoid marrying within blood relations.
I think the Khap Panchayats in the northern states like Haryana, UP and Rajasthan need to study this transition in the Andhra society deeply and draw some lessons for their respective communities.
Another interesting observation was how the youth is trying to stay connected to traditions with the use of technology.
Applying turmeric and sandalwood paste to the bride and groom before marriage is an important ritual in most Indian marriage ceremonies. In this ritual, the family members apply the antiseptic, antifungal, and antibacterial paste made from freshly grounded turmeric and sandalwood to the bride and groom, followed by a bath with milk, curd and holy water. The primary idea is to (a) cure any skin infection the couple might be carrying; and (b) protect the couple from any infection that they might contract meeting with so many strangers during the marriage ceremony.
Traditionally, the women of the family, neighborhood and relations, would sing folk songs (a medley of devotional, emotional and naughty songs) while these rituals are being performed. These songs have been traditionally treated as an integral part of the ceremony.
In recent years, it has been observed that like many other traditional things, the knowledge of these songs and method of performing the ritual have diminished considerably. In this particular marriage, the young family members decided to take help of technologies and used the folk song videos available on YouTube to perform the rituals. I must confess, it actually did go very well.
We can debate endlessly, whether culture can survive purely in digital mode, without human touch and efforts. But for now, the irrefutable fact is that a part of our culture that is facing extinction has been put on an effective and inexpensive life support system. My view is that the digitisation of the traditional knowledge and practices shall keep this treasure alive and relevant much longer than earlier anticipated. The downside is that the digital repertoire of culture is egalitarian and susceptible to manipulation and distortion by the ill-informed, unscrupulous and malevolent.
It is going to be a keen contest between "knowledge" and "belief".
The digitally preserved traditional knowledge can only connect people to their legacy. It cannot make them believe in the relevance of their legacy to their current context. For that, consistent improvisation and practice would be needed.
After all, you cannot become a professional doctor or engineer just by watching tutorials on YouTube or reading the course books. It takes much more than that.
It would be interesting to watch, how our Generation X strikes a balance and wins this contest.
On a side note, on this trip, I realised that the Internet is more like Indian ethos. All have an opportunity to seek knowledge and express it in their own way. Followers have complete liberty to choose what they want to follow.
For example, I recently found that there are more than 500 YouTube videos uploaded by Indians strongly prescribing "to eat" and "not eat" garlic. Watching these videos does not help anyone. It actually compounds the confusion and indecision. We would eventually have to find someone (a guru, an elder, or a doctor) who would show you a clear precise path and convince us to tread that path.
Without such guidance, we shall remain travellers to nowhere — always on the move; always in a rush; always busy, doing nothing, going nowhere.
Focusing on weaknesses, ignoring strengths
The successive state governments have ignored the key strengths of the state to focus on the weaknesses, especially the growth of the industrial base.
A large number of farmers in the Krishna district have taken up palm oil farming. Many mango orchards have been converted into palm oil plantations. The yield per acre of palm oil plantation is apparently 2x to 3x that of a mango orchard or paddy field.
A mega food park and an industrial park are coming up in Mallavalli area. Reportedly the land was acquired and given to the industrial units for free in 2017. However, so far no production unit has come up in the area. Lack of water is cited as the primary reason for this.
Commercial vehicle maker Ashok Leyland has started the construction of its body-building unit here recently. Completion of these two projects can add materially to the local economy.
The land prices in the area are running around Rs 2.5 to 3 million per acre. Considering the best net yield of palm oil plantation of Rs 80,000/acre, agriculture remains mostly an unviable business, like many other states.
Cash is still the most favoured mode of transacting. Almost all the people I met were carrying a significant amount of cash in their pockets.
Telugu vs. Punjabi
Andhra Pradesh is a privileged child of nature, much like Punjab. It has one of the most fertile lands, plentiful water, adequate sunshine and rain, long coastline, and industrious people. Except perhaps for the Anantpur district, which is drought prone, the rest of the state is well endowed by nature.
In Punjab, this endowment of nature made the people complacent. Assured of two good crops, farmers freely indulged in alcohol and narcotics and lost the hunger for growth. The youth who were ambitious and failed to relate with the parents' complacency started to look for greener pastures outside since 1970s. A long phase of militancy in the 1980s further intensified the desire for migrating to Europe and America. In the past two decades, the passion has degenerated into obsession, causing widespread problems like drug addiction and depression amongst youth.
One can draw many similarities with Andhra society. Migrating to foreign lands is a passion for youth, gradually transforming into an obsession. Alcoholism is widely prevalent and rising. Gambling is becoming a favourite past time with an increasing number of people, as they grow complacent about their farm income.
The differences with Punjab are few but stark. In Andhra, parents are equally eager to send their wards abroad for study and work, whereas in Punjab parents are generally found to be reluctant. The immigrants from Andhra are mostly highly educated professionals or wards of rich people going abroad for studies. In the case of Punjab, it was mostly labourers and drivers. Punjabi immigrants did not invest much in Punjab, once they got settled in foreign lands. The idea of returning was mostly absent in their minds; whereas Andhra immigrants are investing in their home state. The idea of coming back is always on top of their minds, though they may never actually do that. I feel we need to closely watch these trends over the next many years. Any convergence with the trends in Punjab should ring alarm bells in Andhra Society and administration.
  • The US visa is still a passion for the middle class. It is tough to find a middle class family that does not have a member working or settled in a foreign country. Going abroad for studies and work is no longer a status symbol. It has become as mundane a part of the middle-class lifestyle as preparing for competitive examinations.
  • There are numerous instances of young people returning from foreign shores or leaving corporate jobs and taking up agriculture as a profession. Predominantly cash crops, organic farming, farm automation, integrated farms, staggered selling of produce to maximise returns are key features of the farms being cultivated and managed by these professionals. In Guntur, for example, almost 25 percent farmers are now not selling their turmeric crop within 3months of harvesting as used to be the case before.
  • Obesity is becoming a class phenomenon in the state. Young students and professionals are mostly health conscience and preferring healthy food and habits. While the middle aged, businessmen, government employees, and service providers are showing a tendency to become obese.
  • Even in traditional families, religion is fast becoming more a matter of fear and desire rather than spiritual attainment and social order. Most traditional rituals are fast becoming mere formality to be performed mechanically without understanding the nuances. The majority of priests and the current generation of elders do perform religious and traditional rituals more out of the fear of punishment for non-compliance rather than as an enhancement of quality of life.
  • The fetish for gold and precious stones is still uncompromising. But a significant portion is now imitation. Younger people even in rural areas do not see gold as a good investment. People prefer iPhone a better wedding gift rather than gold jewellery. A temple trustee said that they preferred bonds and cash over gold as donation.
  • Economy
    • Andhra is one of the most balanced economies in the country. Except for a few northern districts, agriculture is well developed and productivity high. A strong education movement has provided a strong base for services sector. Industry, especially knowledge-based industries such as IT services, and high-risk R&D based industries such as pharma have flourished due to high risk-taking aptitude, a large pool of skilled professionals and supportive administration.
    • I found strong savings and investment culture in the state. My deep interaction with about 400 people suggests that the state people have a much stronger enterprise culture than the commonly recognised Gujarati and Marwari communities.
    • Contrary to the trend seen in other primarily agrarian states like MP, UP, Punjab and Haryana, the investment in agriculture in the state is high.
    • Social infrastructure is well developed, mostly due to strong community culture and private initiatives. Physical infrastructure is much better but may have suffered badly in the past 5 years due to political reasons.
    • The state has a large middle class with strong savings, investment and consumption tendencies. Presently, investment activities in the state are at a standstill both in public as well as private sector. The state is probably one of the better lead indicators of national economic trends.
    • There is a huge gap between political promise and execution capabilities. The huge unexploited economic potential of the country that is part of the folklores in global markets, is oblivious to the fact that the politicians and administrators may not have the mindset and ideas that are pre-requisite for exploiting this vast potential.
    • Andhra Pradesh is a classic example of the growing chasm between the political vision of the Indian society and the actual socio-economic practices. The disproportionate rise in the number of cases of disagreement, defiance and non-compliance could be correlated to this.
    • Vijay Kumar Gaba explores the treasure you know as India, and shares his experiences and observations about social, economic and cultural events and conditions. He contributes his pennies to the society as Director, Equal India Foundation. The views are personal. 
      Read his columns here.
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