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Breaking away: India's internal frictions

Cover story The latest statehood movement in India reveals a crisis at the heart of the country's globalising ambitions. Siddhartha Deb on the fight for Telangana.


India's latest statehood movement reveals a crisis at the heart of the country's globalising ambitions. Siddhartha Deb on the fight for Telangana. One Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2008, I found myself standing in a concrete building set amid a patchwork of agricultural fields on the outskirts of Armoor, a town in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The building had a grand title, Garden City Function Hall, but apart from its bleak rural surroundings - the vegetation blasted dull yellow by months without rain - there was little to distinguish it from countless such structures in India that are regularly rented out for weddings and celebrations. As waiters dressed in jeans, vests and shoes without socks circulated with glasses of water, a man with long hair and a thick moustache began singing, his right hand sometimes pressed to his heart and sometimes swept out in the hope of stirring people from their midday torpor. A chorus line of young boys, bare-chested and in white dhotis, danced behind the singer, occasionally breaking out in a sheepish refrain of "Jai Telangana!" - "Victory to Telangana". The singers were demanding the formation of a new state called Telangana, an area of some 155,400 square km to be carved out of Andhra Pradesh, India's fifth-largest state. The hundred-odd people at the gathering, from farmers with calloused hands to lawyers with video cameras, were there to support this demand, as was R Limbadri, a professor at Osmania University in Hyderabad, who had grown up in a nearby village and had brought me to the event. Limbadri was a Dalit, a member of the lowest Hindu caste, and he was far less dramatic than the singer when he addressed the crowd. He supported statehood, he said, but only if Telangana was formed as a different kind of state, one truly committed to ending the incredible economic disparity that has troubled Andhra Pradesh in recent years. 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), a political party formed in 2001 on a pro-statehood platform, would do well enough in the next elections to exert political pressure in Delhi. Yet when India went to the polls last April, the TRS performed very poorly, losing three of its five seats in the national parliament and 16 of the 26 seats it held in the state assembly. But the election debacle did not mark the end of Telangana. Last November, a TRS politician named K Chandrasekhara Rao began a hunger strike, claiming that he would not eat until Delhi agreed to a separate state. As Rao's condition deteriorated and he was moved into a hospital in Hyderabad, large crowds across Telangana began demonstrating in his favour. India has a long tradition of statehood movements employing pressure tactics, from hunger strikes and demonstrations to armed insurgency. But when these tactics succeed, they typically do so only in the wake of protracted negotiations. Perhaps this explains why the Telangana protests drew little nationwide attention - until the central government, 11 days into Rao's fast, unexpectedly announced that it had agreed to his demands. It would begin the process of creating Telangana, the first new state since 2000, by combining Hyderabad, the area's biggest city, with nine rural districts surrounding it. In Andhra Pradesh, Delhi's acquiescence triggered celebrations among Telangana supporters, but it also sparked counter-protests. More than half of the state's assembly members threatened to resign, local Congress leaders standing to lose influence denounced their colleagues in Delhi, and business leaders and media outlets across India began an outcry that Telangana would destroy "Brand Hyderabad", which in recent years has become a symbol of India's success at soaking up information-technology jobs outsourced from the West. Faced with such opposition, the central government began stalling, calling inconclusive meetings even as heated protests and strikes were held by supporters and opponents alike. The agitation was particularly severe in Telangana, where buses have been burnt and shops attacked; in Hyderabad, students at Osmania University announced that they would prevent New Year's Eve celebrations at the city's upscale hotels and clubs. From a distance, such reactions can seem like hysteria. Indeed, Telangana's supporters have been portrayed in urban media outlets as irrational and sectarian, driven by nothing more than an unjustified desire to seize Hyderabad's wealth for themselves. But the students at Osmania are mostly from rural, low-caste backgrounds, and their anger at the affluent urbanites partaking of Hyderabad's expensive nightlife is genuine. The Telangana crisis has not come out of thin air: it has a deep basis in an increasing divide in Andhra Pradesh between urban growth based on technology and real estate - "Brand Hyderabad" - and increasing deprivation in the drought-prone countryside.

Telangana, which radiates out from Hyderabad, sits on the Deccan Plateau, its flat landscape marked by black volcanic rocks. In colonial times it was part of Hyderabad state and was ruled by local kings known as Nizams, who themselves were under the control of an official appointed by the British Empire. The last Nizam, Osman Ali Khan, was the wealthiest man in the world, but he was also incompetent and repressive, and in 1946, his peasants began a communist-led rebellion against him. Two years later, while trying to avoid joining either India or Pakistan, the Nizam was deposed by Indian troops. The peasant rebellion continued against the new Indian government, to be crushed in 1951. Five years later - after a hunger strike by a local leader who died demanding a new state for all Telugu-speaking people - Andhra Pradesh was created by merging the Nizam's territories with neighbouring areas that were previously part of Madras state. The new state combined three disparate regions. There was coastal Andhra, which looked out to the Bay of Bengal and was relatively well-off; there was poorer Rayalaseema, landlocked except for a small corner touching the sea; and there was Telangana - literally "land of the Telugu speakers" - landlocked, rebellious, cosmopolitan and the poorest of the three. The merger only accentuated the differences. People from coastal Andhra rose to dominant positions in politics and business, and from 1969 to 1970, the state witnessed a violent agitation for a separate Telangana. This was followed, from the 1970s onward, by left-wing armed movements engaged in a class war that drew sustenance from the inequality evident in the countryside, particularly in Telangana, where the Maoists were dominant.

By the turn of the century, however, these failed agitations had begun to look insignificant, marginalised by the highly publicised transformation of Hyderabad from an elegant but old-fashioned city into a global metropolis that hosted companies like Microsoft, Dell and Google and served as the headquarters of Satyam, the fourth-largest software company in India. The man responsible for these changes was N Chandrababu Naidu, the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh from 1995 to 2004, and the leader of the Telugu Desam party. Naidu was from Rayalaseema, but his domestic support came from wealthy farmers and businessmen from coastal Andhra. Internationally, he found allies in the West - at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and Britain's Department for International Development. Naidu also took on the Maoists, alternating between initiating talks and escalating security operations against them; by the end of his tenure, he had put them on the defensive. The pacification of the countryside and the booming of Hyderabad, a section of which Naidu renamed Cyberabad, was in keeping with his vision of making Andhra Pradesh modern. In the late 1990s, he had hired the American consulting firm McKinsey to prepare a policy paper called Andhra Vision 2020. The paper recommended a significantly smaller role for the government; the winding down of projects for the poor, especially in rural areas; and generous incentives for private businesses. 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".

It doesn't take long after entering rural Telangana to see the effects of Naidu's policies. A week after I had attended the statehood rally, I returned to Armoor on a bus from Hyderabad, the malls, condominiums and private engineering colleges giving way to women sowing rice, humped bulls ploughing muddy furrows, and farmers spraying pesticides. The land was gently undulating, filled with palm trees, cacti and rocks. It looked picturesque, but I was entering the site of a vast suicide epidemic that stretched through Telangana, westward across the state border into the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra (which, not coincidentally, has its own statehood demands) and north into Chattisgarh, where Maoist squads are locked in battle with a repressive state 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. Naidu was voted out in 2004, replaced by an ostensibly more progressive Congress chief minister who had promised to create new irrigation projects. But the only visible difference was the presence of posters advertising suicide helplines on the backs of buses. In Armoor, there was no sign of prosperity other than two white mansions rising out of the flat scrubland. They belonged to seed dealers, middlemen who both supplied seeds and purchased crops, activities once managed by government agencies until Naidu implemented the McKinsey reforms. The seed dealers had become powerful and affluent under the new arrangement, but not without friction. Both buildings, I discovered as I drew closer, 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 Devaram, a wiry, abrasive man who was an organiser with a local Maoist group that has abandoned armed struggle for traditional electoral politics. Devaram had grown up an "untouchable" in a nearby village. By the time he was 10, he was working in the fields as a labourer for 18 to 20 hours a day, and he 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 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 generous price. 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. After the farmers harvested the seeds, however, he refused to pay. The other dealer had deliberately sold red sorghum at a low price, bringing down the rate. The farmers, who found themselves without money to buy material for the autumn crop, the most important one of the year, began hunger strikes and started demonstrating outside the district collector's office. Finally, one June morning, around 10,000 farmers gathered in Armoor. They converged on one dealer's mansion, having set fire to three government jeeps on the way. 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 after meeting Devaram, I travelled to Hasakothur, the village from where some of the rampaging farmers had come. There I met Gopeti Rajeshwar, a stocky man with cropped hair who had taken part in the protests. He was adamant that the actual burning of the mansions had been carried out by thugs hired by the rival dealers. (When I asked the dealers about this later, they too blamed each other more than the farmers.) Rajeshwar said that he had chosen to grow red sorghum because of the price offered and because it required relatively little water, which was one of his biggest concerns. We walked in the late afternoon heat through fields of soybeans, wheat and turmeric, past a teenage boy carefully tapping toddy from a palm tree, and stopped in front of a depression overgrown with weeds. "That's a water tank," Rajeshwar said. "It's been dry for 10 years." Like most of his fellow farmers, he depended on an electrical pump called a borewell to access the groundwater. Borewells are expensive, around 50,000 rupees (Dh3,995) each; the firms that dig the necessary holes charge 150 rupees (Dh11) per foot, and often make a dozen exploratory attempts, each 250 feet deep, before hitting water. Most farmers take loans from moneylenders to finance their borewells; Rajeshwar had avoided debt by working in construction in Dubai for two years; after paying 50,000 rupees to the middleman who had set him up with the job, he had just enough to buy a borewell. Our conversation continued as we walked back to the village square, where an emaciated older man interrupted us, saying: "He's not telling you how bad things really are." Rajeshwar laughed. "There's no point going into too many details," he said. The man, a tailor named Janardan, had worked in Saudi Arabia for five years. In 2007, he sent his son to Dubai after paying a middleman 80,000 rupees (Dh 6,393) to get him a job there. With a year of the high interest charged by a private moneylender, he was now 100,000 rupees in debt. I asked Janardan how much money he made as a tailor. He looked sourly at Rajeshwar: "They never have any money for new clothes," he said. "My wife makes 500 rupees (Dh40) 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 in Telangana, where irrigation tanks and canals have been silted over and the aquifers are being depleted by the overuse of borewells, is one of the major grievances cited by those demanding a separate state. Meanwhile, the debt incurred by farmers, the volatility of crop prices created by the speculation of seed dealers, and the absence of government support has created a situation in which the 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 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 who are too insecure and transient to even think of forming unions. Today, even Mahbubnagar sends two-thirds of its adult population, nearly a million people, to work elsewhere, mostly as construction labourers. Telangana is not alone in experiencing such deprivation - the Rayalaseema region, for example, shares many of its characteristics and challenges. If Telangana has become a movement, it is in part because of 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 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 the city constantly reminded me that appearances were deceptive: that Maytas was simply Satyam spelt backwards, a double of sorts for the more famous company, and that the boom had been about real estate, not software. Indeed, just before admitting to his role in the Satyam fraud, Raju Senior had tried to push through the acquisition of the Maytas companies by Satyam, apparently because he knew that Maytas projects would stall and he hoped to pass the losses on to his 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 75-acre 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 thirties, with a small paunch and dark circles around his eyes. He was born in Ananthapur district in coastal Andhra, 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, an Indian company, sent him to work for its software division in the United States. He lived there for a decade, mostly in Edison, New Jersey. He made money, got married to a woman from coastal Andhra and, soon after he became an American citizen, moved back to India 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. "And you don't feel hampered not having an Indian passport while living here?" I asked. "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 8.5 million rupees (Dh679,325). It was a two-storied 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. (Elsewhere on the same property, an 85-acre "Special Economic Zone" had been set up with tax breaks and exemptions from labour laws that were intended to encourage the creation of manufacturing jobs. But all Maytas had done there was dig a vast pit in the ground.) A couple of the other Maytas Hill County owners came over when they saw Siva. There was a woman in 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 - 3 trillion rupees (Dh240 million) routed through an offshore account in Mauritius - and they were afraid that the government would seize Maytas Hill County. The development's hopeful residents believed that if they moved in before then they would have a better chance of holding onto their properties. 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 56-acre 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. Even though the Maytas Hill County owners and the Telangana supporters could not be more different, it is easy now to see how similar their motivations are: both groups want to live with people like themselves and take possession of what they believe to be theirs. 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.

Siddhartha Deb is a fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute and teaches creative writing at the New School. He is working on a nonfiction book about contemporary India.