This is the second story in a two-part series. You can read the first part here: MGNREGA helps Andhra village end droughts, brings migrants home
Andhra Pradesh’s Rayalaseema region is riven by gangs. Most of them were formed by upper caste men who wanted to perpetuate their supremacy.
Villages, blocks, towns, the entire region of four districts – the gangs battle for money, for prestige, for huge contracts. Gang members often come from weaker sections of society. When things go wrong, they take the heat. They are expendable.
Even by the standards of the region, Bandlapalli village has an especially bloody history. In 1995, 14 villagers, from different castes, fell victim to gang wars. In 2006, there were 26 ‘rowdy sheeters’ – repeat offenders – in the village, a big number for such a small hamlet.
In 1998 and 1999, the then transport minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR, now the chief minister of Telangana), came here to broker peace between two warring groups.
KCR was in charge of Anantapur district, and he was concerned that violence was hampering the government’s development efforts. The minister invited the local bosses to the community centre and hosted a lunch for them. He extracted a promise from them: we will let bygones be bygones.
“The effort was appreciated, but the ordinary villagers were still hesitant to deal with either side, fearing attacks from the other,” recalls Veera Siva Reddy, a villager. “There were no guns. Just attacks with sickles and axes, in broad daylight.”
To make things worse, the region was also perennially drought-prone, forcing families to move to far away cities in search of security and livelihood.
Velpula Narayana Reddy remembers the efforts of elders and local leaders to bring peace to the village. They tried everything, he says. “A well-liked and neutral man was appointed sarpanch for four or five terms. The two groups respected him, but the bloodshed continued,” Reddy says.
What really proved a blessing for the village was the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) in 2006, says Reddy, who became sarpanch after the earlier guy retired. From being a perennially drought-prone area, Today Bandlapalli is a prosperous, self-sustaining village that has found new sources of employment, brought migrants home and banished droughts, thanks to a small investment of ₹9.33 crore under MGNREGA.
“The leaders were alive [to the possibilities] but no one paid them any attention,” says Mareddy Mahendra Reddy. “The programme brought awareness of life… value of life.”
Tatireddy Chandrasekhar Reddy worked as an educator and LIC agent. He remembers the police authorities being pleasantly surprised at the changes.
This year the village elected Pittu Venkata Narayanamma sarpanch, the first woman to hold the position. Narayanamma’s story neatly mirrors the story of the village. On August 28, 1986, her husband Veera Siva Reddy and two others were brutally murdered over a gang dispute. The villagers still remember that incident.
“Now we only fight elections,” Narayanamma says.
“Once results are declared, everyone cooperates.”
She gestures around her. “See: People of all parties are here around me. Our party affiliations are only for elections.”
Today when a VIP or official comes calling, everyone lines up to meet them as one. “We don’t have differences and ego issues,” says Gangireddy Siva.
The people are also united in articulating their needs. Right now what they they need is a lift irrigation scheme or a facility to store rainwater.
Jayapal, the NREGA field assistant, says: “What were issues two decades ago are non-issues now.