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February 22, 1998


Warangal belies fears of Naxal violence on polling day

J Sesha Sai in Warangal

A thunder of claps clashes with a cloud of dust as the helicopter touches down. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu grabs a microphone, reaches for the stars with a 'V' sign, and goes full blast on his 'sparkling' track record.

Suddenly a man darts towards the podium, holding a bottle in his hand. A petrol bomb? The chief minister breathes silence into the microphone. Shockwaves spread... Naidu is still dumbfounded. But two of his ministerial colleagues pounce on the man. Bundle him into a car. Zip into a hospital, saving his life.

Cotton farmer Mutyalapati Shivaiah, hailing from Markapur in Prakasam district, guzzled Methomyl 12.5 E last fortnight. His grouse: the insecticide failed to protect his crop, letting Spodoptera Litura feast on his hard work driven by crippling debts.

Nearly 400 km away, in Warangal district, Gundu Sambaiah storms a pesticide dealer in the town's Station Road. Kicks up a row. And gulps down the insecticide.

But survives, thanks to timely medical aid. Where is Sambaiah now, nearly a week after the misadventure? "He has gone back to his native Gavicherla, about 20 km away from Warangal," says pesticide dealer Srinivas Reddy on Saturday.

The bus was empty initially, but it soon begins brimming with dhoti-clad farmers, college students, loaded gunny bags, vegetable baskets and milk cans. Besides, there were party workers too, sporting badges featuring Chandrababu Naidu's photos.

Aren't they aware of the People's War Group Naxalites's poll boycott call? "The ban doesn't affect us," says a young Telugu Desam Party worker as if to puncture media claims that the ruling party has been at the receiving end of the Naxal fury because of encounter deaths. "The Naxals haven't come to our village."

Look out of the window... Banners and wall posters of the TDP's sitting MP M Chandulal, the Bharatiya Janata Party's Ch Janga Reddy -- who defeated P V Narasimha Rao from Hanamkonda in 1984 -- and the Congress's T Kalpana Devi (Narasimha Rao's son P V Ranga Rao is contesting the Hanamkonda assembly by-poll) hit one's eye as the bumpy bus breezes past villages. "No Naxals here too," one thinks aloud.

At Gavicherla, as one walks towards Sambaiah's house, party workers distribute voter identification slips among the villagers. Does the PWG tolerate this? Are the party workers asking for trouble?

"The Naxals steer clear of this area," says the BJP's Gavicherla unit secretary Yadaiah, guiding one to Sambaiah's place.

With the entire village in tow, one reaches the cotton farmer's hut. His two little sons, his daughter and son-in-law have been waiting outside the hut, awaiting the victim's arrival from the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial hospital in Warangal. "He will be discharged today," says his daughter.

Endless wait, but no sight of the farmer. And a few disappointed trudges bring one to the bus stand. A jeep screeches to a halt. "Is it safe to travel by this vehicle, knowing that Naxals target jeeps assuming that they are carrying policemen?" one asks.

The jeep-load bursts into laughter. "Come, come," says bank employee Mallesh. "They won't touch people like you and me."

Even if one votes, defying their boycott diktat? Another bout of sniggers. "I have been working in this area for nearly five years. I never faced any trouble from them. Nor did I hear of any such incident. If anything, they may try and help us. As for people who vote, they have been exercising their franchise since the late 1980s, when they started giving such boycott calls. No harm visited such villages."

At the MGM hospital, one searches high and low for Sambaiah. No trace of the farmer. Has be been discharged just now? No. The hospital records show that he was discharged on February 17. Where did he disappear along with his wife, leaving his innocent children clueless about their whereabouts?

"He is in dire straits," say his villagers. "He borrowed heavily. The crop has failed, and he has no money to clear his son-in-law's dowry dues. Nor the village moneylender's interest."

Asked if the entire money has been spent on the damaged cotton crop, a pesticide dealer says, "Even I grow cotton. The maximum you spend on an acre is around Rs 10,000. How can farmers like Sambaiah, who has just three acres, run up huge debts -- between Rs 60,000 and 100,000? Obviously, they must have borrowed money due to other personal problems."

Asked if he too has incurred a loss, the dealer says, "No, if one adopts scientific methods, you can get a good yield. The illiterate farmers compete with their neighbours, assuming that higher the pesticide used greater would be the output. As a result, the pest develops resistance. This year the problem was particularly bad to due to bad weather -- the pest had reproduced rapidly as the sky was overcast for considerable time last year -- and drought."

"The yield came tumbling down from 16 quintals per acre to one or two this year," says another pesticide dealer. "This would not have happened if the farmer had scientific guidance. The government is to blame for all this."

Crop failure, however, was the last straw in the case of the poor farmers who were already reeling under the burden of repeated price hikes -- among other things the state government had effected steep tariff hikes -- and personal miseries. "Even the middle class takes years to recover from the mindboggling expenditure incurred on daughter's marriage," says a banker. "One can imagine the farmer's plight if nature suddenly snatches even his bread."

Similar circumstances drove G Illaih of Gorragunta, five km from Warangal, to take the extreme step. "He was so proud that he did not share his problems with us," says wife Saroja, wondering how she would pay off the debts and take care of her two little sons and a daughter. Their eldest daughter had been married off, but even her dowry dues have to be cleared.

Yet this is not the first time that the state has witnessed such suicides by farmers. In 1987-88, about 100 cotton growers killed themselves in Guntur and Prakasam districts.

This year, as many as 200 farmers have already perished. However, not everyone is so weak-hearted. "Why should I die? Incurring a loss is quite common in farming," says Tallapalli Yakaih, 35, who was smart enough to devote a portion of his 2-acre land to maize. The cotton crop failed. But maize saved him from starvation and frustration.

But the disaster has left even Yakaiah disillusioned, and the slightest provocation to enough for him to launch a diatribe against political parties. "Why should we vote?" he asks. "Nobody should vote. No political party helps us anyway."

Has the reaction been inspired by the Naxal threat? "We have never seen Naxals, and their poll boycott call does not affect us," say both Yakaiah and his brother Srinivas.

But the political parties grumble that they were unable to campaign freely. "In Parkal, several TDP leaders were beaten up," says Telugu Yuvatha's local unit secretary T Chander. "But the police are using surrendered Naxalites to instill confidence among the voters."

Even the police agree that the party candidates could not go beyond the mandal headquarters. "Their supporters campaigned stealthily," says DSP G Sudheer.

Another police official V Venkateshwarlu says that voting percentages have been going up despite the boycott call. "Perhaps people feel like rebelling when they are cornered."

With police encounters depleting the cadres, the PWG militants seem unable to add more teeth to their threat. "Each of the PWG dalam, comprising 10 to 15 members, cover an area of about 30 to 40 km," says sub-inspector C R N Reddy. "How much can they cover?"

Despite such brave words, the Naxalites unleashed their fury at several places in the district. At Pulukurti village, about 25 km from Warangal, the Naxals attacked a polling station on Saturday night and took away ballot boxes, delaying Sunday's polling by an hour.

At Narmeta, nearly 30 km from Warangal, they blasted a culvert. However, luckily, no one was injured.

At Lingalaghanpur, near Parkal, the police had to resort to firing when the Naxals tried to snatch away ballot boxes. No casualties have been reported. The polling resumed a little later. However, polling was countermanded in DC Thanda in Wardhanpur constituency, where the rival parties tried to indulge in poll malpractices.

Such stray incidents do not seem to affect the morale of the people who are said to be voting rather fearlessly. With nearly 3,000 armed police personnel and 90 companies of CRPF, nine of BSF and 40 of the AP Special Force being posted all over the district the poll was reported to be smooth, barring the stray incident of course. Warangal district Special Branch official Ayappu Reddy says, No untoward incident affecting the poll has been reported."

Several villagers, arriving at the Warangal bus stand from various corners of the district, confirmed this. Even this correspondent, who visited a couple of villages, saw good crowds at polling stations.

Asked if the Naxalites had prevented him from voting, Salman, a teacher, says, "All these politicians are Naxals. They terrorise the people by letting loose their goons, and do nothing for them. We need a dictator, not Naxals, not leaders!"

Elections '98

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