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Not The Promised Land: In North Telangana, Gulf Migrants And Farmers Stare At A Bleak Future

The prime promises of the Telangana statehood movement—jobs and financial stability—still elude people in North Telangana

Photo: Anisha Reddy
A Trial of Losses: Both Seenu and his father Rajashekhar moved to Saudi Arabia from Ramadugu Mandal, Karimnagar in search of jobs and passed away there Photo: Anisha Reddy
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It was 2019. Months before a lethal virus snatched away over five lakh lives in the country. These were the deaths that were accounted for by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in official documents. But some like Sankapaka Ramalu, who died in Saudi Arabia where he had gone in search of a job, only live on in their families’ memories. Ramalu’s remains have still not been returned to his wife, Lakshmi and son, Harish, who live in a cramped one-bedroom house in Nagireddipur village in Karimnagar district of Telangana. Harish has his own family of two but little means to support them. “We know he has died…but how will our conscience be clear until we see his remains?” asks Lakshmi, her eyes welling up.

Ramalu was one of the roughly half-a-million people in North Telangana who have been forced to move to different parts of the Gulf, including Riyadh, Dubai, Sharjah, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Muscat and Oman, in the past two decades. For these migrants, moving away from home has often entailed seeking refuge in unsafe work environments, being saddled with heavy loans, and in some cases, even death. Reports compiled by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) estimate that on an average, 15 Indian immigrants die every day in six Gulf countries—Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. MEA data says that 33,988 Indians have died in the Gulf since 2014. Telangana accounts for a large chunk of these deaths. However, successive governments have failed to address the needs of gulf migrants in the region, activists say.

The one-room house in Karimnagar where Seenu’s brother and mother live
The one-room house in Karimnagar where Seenu’s brother and mother live Photo: Anisha Reddy
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Gulf of Despair

Brothers Seenu and Ragalla Sampath went to Saudi Arabia together four years ago, following the lead of their late father, Rajashekhar. Their dimly-hit home in Ramadugu Mandal of Karimnagar district has one small fan, which is of little use to fight the scorching heat of the region. Karimnagar always records the hottest temperatures in Telangana. For Ragalla Sampath however, his home seems more incomplete now without his pillars of support, his brother and father—both of whom died in Saudi after suffering a heart attack. Seenu was just 23 when he died, Sampath recalls. “He didn’t have any previous medical conditions. He died due to the stress and torture he was put through over there,” he says, fixing their portraits hanging on the wall.

The trend of working in the Gulf began in the early 1980s. Although agriculture has been the primary occupation here, large-scale famines and poor rains affected farming activity for several seasons in a row. “Without work, we couldn’t earn money to buy food. So when we heard that moving to the Gulf was a better option, we thought…at least we can send back money to our families back home,” Harish says.

Seenu, who was working as a ‘‘mission operator’’ in Saudi, was lured by private agents in the region who often promise rural families living in dire conditions that life in the Gulf is more promising. “These agents tell people in villages that they can get better employment opportunities in the Gulf. Even if these people are educated, they have been struggling to secure jobs in Telangana,” says Buthkuri Kanta, District President of Pravasi Mitra Labour Union.

Guthpuri Bokaiah holds up a photo of his son who died by suicide in Saudi Arabia
Guthpuri Bokaiah holds up a photo of his son who died by suicide in Saudi Arabia Photo: Anisha Reddy
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Jobs, water and financial stability—these were the three prime promises made during the Telangana statehood movement led by the former chief minister of the state, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao (KCR)—one of the icons of the Telangana movement. However, Kanta says that Gulf migrants and the youth in Telangana have failed to secure employment opportunities here in over a decade since the state’s formation.

Those who move to the Gulf work as construction labourers, electricians, plumbers or domestic workers. To buy a one-way flight ticket, they take hefty loans to pay agents but their meagre salaries don’t help them to repay the loans. “Also, if someone is working as a construction worker and they sustain injuries at the site, they are not given medical insurance or proper treatment facilities there,” Kanta says. While some injuries are sustained in accidents, others are caused by intentional physical torture and abuse, she points out.

Although agriculture has been the primary occupation here, famines and poor rains affected farming activity for several seasons.

Kanta last met Sampath’s family during Seenu’s funeral ceremony. Seated on the same porch where she had sat then, she assures Sampath that things will get better soon. “We met Chief Minister Revanth Reddy last week. He has assured us of help,” Kanta says. But Sampath does not look hopeful.

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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has recorded a steady rise and now maintains a stronghold in the North Telangana constituencies of Nizamabad, Adilabad and Karimnagar—notably, several areas of these constituencies have been communally sensitive in the past. Apart from a strong ground-level party cadre, most Gulf migrants sided with the BJP in the last general elections amid anger against BRS and its failed promises. “But successive governments at the centre and the state have not responded to our plight adequately,” says Sampath.

Just then, a three-wheeler campaign vehicle, plastered with images of incumbent MP Bandi Sanjay Kumar, blasts messages through its megaphone. ‘‘BJP built the Ram mandir…” blares the megaphone.

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“They [politicians] don’t even come to our house to ask us our problems,” laments Guthpuri Bokaiah, a family member of another Gulf migrant. “We don’t get swayed by their temple politics,” he says, referring to the consecration ceremony of the new Ram temple in Ayodhya. “We want a roof over our head and food to eat, first.” His son, Ramesh, was 25 when he died by suicide in Saudi Arabia. Their family, along with others in the village, allege that they haven’t received compensation from the government. Nor have they been recipients of welfare schemes like the 2BHK housing scheme of the KCR government. The family has a pending loan of Rs 2 lakh.

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Sugarcane and Turmeric Farmers

On either side of NH-44 and NH-63 leading up to Nizamabad district lay vast swathes of turmeric and sugarcane crops that are grown on over 60,000 acres in the district. Apart from the issues of Gulf migrants, the electoral landscape of North Telangana is dominated by the concerns of the farmers who grow these crops.

Multiple sugar factories: Nizam Sugar Factory, Trident Sugars Ltd, Muthyampet Sugar Factory and other similar factories in Bodhan, Metpalli and Medak, many of which are located in Nizamabad, about 170 km from Hyderabad, were responsible for crushing activities. According to Telangana’s Directorate of Sugarcane Report, the state stands eighth in the country in sugarcane yield (tonnes per hectare) and 13th in the country in annual production, with more than two million tonnes per year.

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When these factories were running, villages in the region were buzzing with activity; farmers came to town with sugarcane for crushing and went back with money and essential commodities they had bought.

However, the 77-year-old Nizam Sugar Factory, founded by the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad—the largest in Asia at the time it was set up—was shut down in 2015, leaving hundreds of farmers and their families on the streets. The downfall began when in the erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh, the then Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government sold 51 percent stake to a private company that named it Nizam Deccan Sugars Ltd. The company was liquidated in 2017 after the management was unable to run it.

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“Over 4,000 sugarcane farmers used to depend on this sugar factory...Some farmers have given up on agriculture and tried to find jobs in the Gulf.”

While all three major political parties in the state—the BJP, the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) and the Congress—have since then promised to reopen the factories, they continue to remain closed, leaving farmers with the only option of transporting their sugarcane to private industries at hefty costs.

“Over 4,000 sugarcane farmers used to depend on this sugar factory,” says Akula Papaiah, a farmer leader who has been engaged in the struggle for reopening sugar factories at Bodhan and Sarangapur. Papaiah says that the factory would have provided jobs to not just farmers, but also to those who were working in small shops and businesses around the area. “Some farmers have also given up on agriculture and tried to find jobs in the Gulf,” says Papaiah, who is also a CPI (ML)-New Democracy leader.

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The Congress party under Chief Minister Revanth Reddy has set up a ten-member high-level committee to put forward recommendations about the revival of the factory. The committee is expected to submit a comprehensive report to the chief minister in a month. “The government announced that the factory would be functional by September this year and also sanctioned Rs 43 crore for its revival. This is a small step but we are wary of trusting anyone,” says Papaiah. Another long-standing demand of Telangana’s farmers has been to set up the National Turmeric Board (NTB) in Nizamabad, one of the largest turmeric-producing regions of India.

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During the 2014 general elections, BRS leader K Chandrashekar Rao’s daughter K Kavitha, who contested the Lok Sabha elections from Nizamabad, had promised to fight for setting up the NTB but failed to do so. In protest, about 180 turmeric (and jowar) farmers decided to contest as independent candidates in the subsequent elections. The BJP’s Arvind Dharmapuri even signed a bond assuring turmeric farmers that he would quit if the NTB was not announced ‘‘five days’’ after his election. That year, K Kavitha lost the election to Dharmapuri in Nizamabad by over 70,000 votes.

However, after he won, Dharmapuri too failed to bring attention to the turmeric board issue and was met with resistance from farmers whenever he visited villages. The BJP MP has often made controversial remarks. In March 2024, he said that the word ‘‘secular’’ should be removed from the Constitution. In a viral video released the same month, he was heard saying that people will go to hell if they don’t support the BJP after benefitting from schemes implemented by PM Narendra Modi’s government.

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Farmers, however, do not mention these remarks even in passing when asked about their opposition to the BJP. For them, the NTB and the parties’ failure to fulfill their promise are priority. The difference the support of these turmeric farmers make during elections has been highlighted by subsequent attempts on the part of the central and state governments to appease the community.

Prior to the Telangana assembly elections last year, PM Modi’s announcement of an NTB in two public meetings in Mahabubnagar and Nizamabad made it seem like the farmers’ long-term demand was finally going to be fulfilled. But farmers ask why the central government waited for elections to make these promises. Although the government notified the establishment of the NTB via a notification dated October 4, 2023, farmers still do not have any clarity about where the board would be set up and what the budget would be.

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Anisha Reddy in North Telangana

(This appeared in print as Not The Promised Land)

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