Tatikal is a village of a little over 3,000 people, some 140km (85 miles) east of the city of Hyderabad, one of India’s boom towns and the capital of Andhra Pradesh state.
It is located just off a shiny new highway heading out from Hyderabad to the east coast. But as trucks roar down the highway, laden with cargo and headed out from Hyderabad to the ports, Tatikal has been left out of the region’s economic success. Part of Nalgonda district – one of the poorest in the state – the village and the surrounding area has experienced drought over the past eight years.
With their farms drying up, many of the men and women of the village have been forced to migrate to other areas in search of work. In the worst instances, some of them have taken their lives.
Poverty and debt have driven more than 150 farmers to commit suicide in this district in the past five years, officials say. Unofficial estimates place the figure far higher. Not surprisingly, Nalgonda is one of 200 districts across India which have been picked for the launch of India’s landmark Rural Employment Guarantee programme.
Our fields were completely parched after successive droughts
Narsi Reddy, 30
On Thursday, Tatikal’s village council is going to meet to decide what projects they wish to take up under the plan.
Top of the list is a canal to channel water into their parched fields from a nearby dam, and improving a road to the next village.
Under the new programme, village councils vote on the projects and then villagers can apply to work on them, in exchange for wages.
"They have the power to decide and then to execute the project," explains Raghavendra Rao, the local government official who will monitor and supervise the programme in this village.
The mood in the village is decidedly upbeat.
"I am ready to work, in fact I want to work," says 18-year-old Moduga Manamma, who also studies in a nearby school. "I don’t want handouts." Moduga and her three sisters will be applying for work under the programme which guarantees 100 days of paid work to every household in the village.
Food for work — Nalgonda is also one of 150 districts out of the 200 selected that had been covered by an earlier programme, the food-for-work scheme which has had varying degrees of success.
I am a farmer, not a labourer. But what choice did we have?
Ramalingaiah Chintapalli, 54
Seen by many as a precursor to the rural jobs programme, villagers were given a mix of cash and rations in exchange for work – including building canals and roads.
Over the past two years, many villagers in Tatikal helped build a new reservoir under the scheme. "We have hardly had any rain in the past eight years," says Narsi Reddy, 30, a local farmer.
"Our fields were completely parched after successive droughts."
Narsi Reddy and many of the villagers moved out to nearby towns where they worked as labourers on construction projects.
"I am a farmer, not a labourer. But what choice did we have?" asks Ramalingaiah Chintapalli, 54. But both men were happy to work on the reservoir project which they saw as directly linked to their future.
"It has raised the ground water level in our village and we now have water for our cattle and fields," says Mr Reddy.
Suthamma faced debt collectors after her husband’s death
For the past 15 years, no rice has been grown in Tatikal.
But now the reservoir supports a rice field of 40 acres, which has yielded 90,000 kilos of rice over the past year.
It has left Mr Chintapalli, who worked on the project with his wife, a happy man.
"For the first time in years I was able to cultivate my land. I grew 2,500 kilos of rice," he says.
This is in addition to the 10,000 rupees ($226) they earned for their work – the only money they made all year. ‘Only hope’ –For some, the food-for-work scheme and the forthcoming jobs programme are a ticket out of a desperate situation. M Suthamma was widowed a few years ago when her husband swallowed a bottle of pesticide and took his life after being unable to meet heavy debts. "The debt collectors turned up at my door," recalls Suthamma, 50. She was left with a dependent son and a daughter. "If I hadn’t been able to work on the reservoir we would have starved," she says. "Unlike others, I couldn’t leave my children and travel long distances to work." Now she is looking forward to handing in her application to work under the rural jobs programme."It’s good that the government is going to offer us work. I need it desperately. "It’s our only hope."