Ground Report: Elephants, cashews, and a bridge — Kurupam tribal constituency in Andhra cries for help

Wild elephants, middlemen, exploitation and official apathy dog voters in Andhra Pradesh's Kurupam ST constituency.

ByBhaskar Basava

Published Apr 17, 2024 | 3:00 PM Updated Apr 27, 2024 | 12:52 PM

Wildlife menace, inadequate infrastructure, and exploitation of farmers by middlemen are some of the issues the voters in Kurupam ST Assembly constituency face. (South First)

Allada Appamma was 60 when she died a horrible death. She had left her home at Kallikota village in Kurupam early on 6 May 2021 to tend to the cluster beans on her farm. Hours later, people took her trampled body home.

Her son Allada Kumaraswamy said she fell victim to a jumbo-sized problem that has been haunting the village for years.

Appamma was unaware of a wild elephant hiding among the foliage. It was too late for the frail woman when she saw death charging at her.

Death — like that of Appamma — by elephants is common in the villages of Kurupam. Yet, the people here would be disturbed if a regular visitor of the wild kind was not seen for days.

The tribesmen have a peculiar character. They display totems and embrace religious beliefs hoping to keep the wildlife at bay. Yet, a strange, unspoken camaraderie exists between them and the animals wreaking havoc.

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A missing elephant

A group of boys was playing a game of marbles at a junction in the village. Two bullock carts rattled in with idiophonic cowbells announcing their return in advance.

Hari, the missing elephant. (South First)

Hari, the missing elephant. (Supplied)

“Has Hari come today,” a bullocky shouted over the rattle. The boys promptly replied in the negative.

Hari, a tusker aged around 15, has been missing for the past few months. The stout elephant with short, sharp stump-like tusks was a fearful sight. However, the villagers never expected him to go missing.

The elephant was popular — notorious to be precise — for claiming 10 people and 30 heads of cattle, besides destroying crops on hundreds of acres, the villagers claimed.

An eerie feeling, a sense of loss wrapped in relief, has gripped the villagers ever since the elephant ambled away from sight. They expect him to appear unexpected, anytime, anywhere.

The reference to Hari was enough to arouse curiosity in an outsider. When asked, the boys pointed towards the village centre where the elders gathered for their daily exchange of news, plans, and gossip.

The children were too engrossed in their game.

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Wildlife menace

Elephant menace and the missing Hari were not the only topics of discussion even as the sun mellowed into a comfortable glow. Kallikota was preparing for the local temple festival. Above all, the elections were nearing.

The elders discussed the simultaneous 13 May Assembly election, issues they faced, solutions offered over the past five years, and promises unkept.

“Human-wildlife conflict is one of the major issues in at least three mandals and more than 25 panchayats,” one of them told South First. Others nodded in unanimous agreement.

Most men in the gathering were farmers.

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Plight of cashew farmers

Meanwhile, around 20,000 cashew farmers in the constituency, most of whom are from the Jatapu, Savara, and Konda-Dora tribal communities, complained of low prices for their produce and exploitation by middlemen.

The Savaras come under the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG),

Puvvala Peddanarayana has grown cashews on five acres at GM Valasa. Wrinkles on his face and sunken eyes spoke volumes about his hard life of 75 years.

Himaraka Apparao and Palaka Nookaraju, cashew farmers in Kurupam. (South First)

Himaraka Apparao and Palaka Nookaraju, cashew farmers in Kurupam. (South First)

“No trader could evaluate or put a price to out toil,” the farmer gently gestured with callus-hardened palm, as he took a break to speak to South First.

The septuagenarian has been among those exploited by middlemen. They could do nothing to help themselves and secure decent returns for their produce.

Peddanarayana said the land was handed down through generations.

Minimum Support Price (MSP) has been a dream for farmers like him. He was getting ₹88-99 for a kilogram of cashew nuts in the market 20 kilometers away.

“The middlemen say the MSP is ₹60-70 or ₹88-99. We quietly sell the produce, collect whatever they offer, and return home,” he painted a grim picture of cashew farmers.

His neighbour and farmer Himaraka Apparao agreed. The 47-year-old man said cashews were the main agriculture and the around 20,000 farmers sell their produce to middlemen in the neighbouring Parvathipuram constituency.

Shattered hopes

Apparao recalled a promise YSRCP candidate Pamula Pushpa Sreevani made in 2019: A cashew factory.

A Deputy Chief Minister and Minister for Tribal Welfare in the YS Jagan Mohan Reddy Cabinet from 8 June 2019 to 7 April 2022, she is once again in the fray, seeking a hat-trick win.

The promised cashew factory, however, has not come up.

“A cashew factory would have helped farmers to sell their produce at the MSP based on current demand, thereby preventing losses. Due to the low income from farming, many in the villages have joined MNREGA works to make both ends meet,” he noted.

Peddanarayana could not suppress a satirical chuckle. Much older than Apparao, he had heard the same promise during several past elections.

“Politicians make several promises, but nothing becomes reality,” he spoke from his experience even as the younger man fell silent.

They said holding back the produce expecting a better price was not an option. “Ultimately, the same middlemen will be buying from us. We cannot sell in some other constituency, since the price will be the same,” Peddanarayana explained.

Both farmers said they were dependent on rain for farming.

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Future imperfect

The future looked like the sepia-tinted simmering summer landscape for cashew farmers Palaka Gauri Sri and her husband Palaka Nookaraju.

Palaka Gauri Sri and her husband Palaka Nookaraju. (South First)

Palaka Gauri Sri and her husband Palaka Nookaraju. (South First)

Shortage of water, scant rainfall, and prolonged fog have affected the yield.

Despite a high demand for cashews in the market, they were being paid around ₹100 per kilogram. The couple claimed that the MSP should ideally be between ₹150 and ₹200.

Gauri Sri also highlighted that central and state financial incentives for farmers, totalling around ₹13,500 rupees (with the state contributing ₹7,500 and the center ₹6,000), have not been deposited this year.

In previous years, she received only around ₹5,500 to ₹7,500.

Shopkeeper Gambele Govindh has procured three huge bags, approximately 85 kilograms, of cashew. He told South First that he procured them since some farmers could not go as far as Parvathipuram.

Govindh further said that he bought the cashews for ₹two rupees below the MSP.

“I call up three to five middlemen in Parvathipuram to check the MSP,” he explained how the price was fixed.

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No dearth of claims  

An official with the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) said that MSP for cashews was not fixed since it was a non-perishable product that could be sold anytime according to market prices.

However, he mentioned that earlier attempts to establish processing units for cashews were unsuccessful as they turned out to be low-profit models.

The ITDA official’s statement contradicted the NDA government’s claim about the success of Van Dhan Vikas Kendras. The Kedras were supposed to offer MSP to gatherers of forest produce, add value, and market them through tribal groups and clusters.

He further added that state-level agencies like Velugu Society and the Girijan Co-operative Corporation Limited were overseeing the sale of produce for an MSP.

Farmers, however, have not seen any representatives of state agencies in their villages.

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Compensation: The missing half

A teenage girl was waiting for this correspondent at the far end of the Kallikota village.

Six families displaced by the Thotapalli reservoir project were housed in a community hall. (South First)

Six families displaced by the Thotapalli reservoir project were housed in a community hall. (South First)

The village has been home to several people displaced by the Thotapalli reservoir project completed in 2015.

When asked about elephants, her face sank. Her father was one among the victims.

Boddana Narayana Rao, a villager, said the girl’s family received only ₹2.5 lakh in compensation out of the ₹5 lakh announced.

Six families, including the girl’s, were sharing a government-owned community hall with cracked walls and the sun peeping through the roof. Bedsheets formed the walls of the “home” of each family in the hall.

Narayana Rao said the families, too, were not offered fair compensation for giving up their homes for the Thotapalli reservoir project. However, they were provided only six cents each and ₹60,000 rupees in compensation. No aid was offered to construct houses.

Adding to their woes were wild elephants roaming the area.

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Jumbo problem

“In Kallikota and the surrounding 25 villages, everything changes at night,” Narayana Rao continued. “Elephants destroyed crops that were to be harvested in two days, causing a loss of ₹1 lakh.”

Allada Kumaraswamy and his neighbouring farmers posed for a picture. (South First)

Allada Kumaraswamy and his neighbours. (South First)

Another farmer chipped in: “We lost around ₹50,000 to ₹1,00,000 depending on the crop on an acre. The unscientific compensation for crop loss is from ₹8,000 – ₹25,000. Many of us are not even receiving ₹9,100 for tomatoes per acre as compensation.”

Narayana Rao expressed anger at political party representatives who had visited the area. “When asked about the elephant issue, they offered empty promises,” he said.

South First met Allada Kumaraswamy, whose mother Allada Appamma was killed by an elephant.

“We visited political party offices, forest offices, and banks for two years,” the 40-year-old man said. “But we only received only ₹2.5 lakh in compensation out of the promised ₹5 lakh,” he added.

His neighbours said that whenever animals caused any damage, officials visited the village, took pictures, and left. The compensation did not come, they claimed.

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Cross-border issue

A member of the elephant monitoring team said an elephant corridor was being discussed, but no concrete steps have been taken.

A herd of elephants in the village. (Supplied)

A herd of elephants in the village. (Supplied)

He explained that such initiatives would require action at the state government level, and it may even involve the use of kumkis to chase elephant herds from the area to the designated corridor.

According to forest officials in Kurupam, a herd of around eight elephants (consisting of one male and seven females, out of which three are calves) migrated to the Kurupam constituency from neighbouring Odisha in search of food and shelter in end-2018.

The elephant monitoring team’s efforts to drive elephants back to Odisha failed. It even resulted in the death of one elephant.

Three elephants were later electrocuted, and as many calves were born.

The team attributed the elephants’ migration to the degraded forest cover in Odisha, forcing them to seek foraging grounds in the Andhra-Odisha Border (AOB), particularly in Kurupam and neighbouring constituencies.

K. Samba Murthy, a Kurupam-based activist and a CPI(M) member, recalled the death of the elephants. He suspected that Hari, too, might have faced a fate.

Murthy reported the case of the missing elephant to forest grievance officials and submitted a memorandum to the district collector, seeking Hari’s status. He has not received an update.

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Missing bridge between word and deed

Murthy and others also raised concerns about the lack of transportation facilities. The single-lane road, they said, was always congested since lorries from Odisha and Chhattisgarh took the route. Besides, they have to cross three railway tracks to reach Parvathipuram.

Children crossing the bamboo bridge. (South First)

Children crossing the bamboo bridge. (South First)

Furthermore, they highlighted the long-standing demand to complete the Purnapadu-Labesu bridge across the Nagavali River.

The construction, which started in 2006, has remained incomplete.

Incidentally, MLA Srivani had promised to complete the bridge by June 2020. A few pillars now stand like scarecrows.

The Purnapadu-Labesu bridge was meant to connect the villages within the constituency.

Villagers said they often cross the river in improvised boats or take alternative round-about routes.

Meanwhile, some residents of Gotivada and adjacent villages took the matter into their own hands and constructed a bamboo bridge across a canal from Vattigadda reservoir after repeated requests to the government went unheeded.

Children now take the makeshift bridge to school and back.

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Political pulse

Kurupam is a Scheduled Tribe reserved constituency situated in the Parvathipuram Manyam district of Andhra Pradesh. It falls under the Araku (ST) Lok Sabha constituency.

Since 2014, the constituency has been represented by Sreevani. She was the youngest woman deputy chief minister in the state.

Kurupam 2024. (Click to enlarge)

Kurupam, 2024. (Click to enlarge)

Sreevani was married into a Kshatriya family, who historically represented the Nagur (ST) reserved constituency in the Vizianagaram district.

In 2019, Sreevani faced charges of tampering with the caste certificate and that she did not belong to the ST category.

In February 2022 when the Appellate Authority, under the directions of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, certified that she belonged to the Konda Dora caste falling under the ST category.

Sreevani is seeking a third consecutive term, having won by margins of around 19,000 and 26,000 votes in 2014 and 2019, respectively.

She is now campaigning on the works undergoing for the construction tribal engineering college in Kurupam on 105 acres at an estimated cost of ₹153 crore, a tribal university, and an international greenfield airport at Bhogapuram.

Her rival, Toyyaka Jagadeshwari, was a former Congress Mandal Leader, now contesting as the TDP candidate. She expressed hope that the anti-incumbency sentiment would work in her favour.

Women voters (99,034) outnumber their male counterparts (94,050). Of the 1,93,123 voters, 39 are transgenders. Tribesmen and Other Backward Class (OBC) communities, including Koppula Velama and Turpu Kapu, are dominant in the constituency.

The voters appeared not to evaluate Sreevani’s performance between 2014 and 2019 since the YSRCP was then in the opposition. Sreevani’s performance during her second might factor in the upcoming elections.

(Edited by Majnu Babu).