The heady scent of jasmines in bloom strikes you before you can see the fields of Nidamarru. Early in the morning, when plants are heavy with dew, thousands of hands reach over the flowering shrubs to pluck them for sale each day.

The village is one of many in Guntur district that contributes to Andhra Pradesh's status as the largest producer of loose flowers inside India. Since a lift irrigation scheme boosted production in Nidamarru eight years ago, flower cultivation has boomed. From 19 acres two generations ago, one-third of the village’s nearly 1,000 acres of fields now grow flowers. Thousands of labourers work in the fields around the year.

By this time next year, however, all cultivation could stop and construction might begin to replace these fields.

While bifurcating Andhra Pradesh last June, the Centre granted its former capital, Hyderabad, to the new state of Telangana. Left without an administrative headquarters, Andhra Pradesh has decided to create a new city, Amaravati, from scratch.

Nidamarru is one of 29 villages that will be transformed into the proposed metropolis. While most landowners in 23 villages have accepted the government's offer to voluntarily pool their land, the majority of owners in six villages, including Nidamarru, are holding out. The government has threatened to forcibly acquire their land if they do not give it up.

As buildings rise over Nidamarru's fields, it isn't just the flowers that will disappear. What will happen to the thousands of flower pickers?

The fate of workers

Nidamarru isn't the only village where workers stand to lose their livelihoods. An overwhelming number of agricultural workers in the Amravati capital city region do not own land. Of the 41,000 families dependent on agriculture, only around 12,000 families own land in the capital city area. Of the remaining 29,000 families, 11,000 were recommended for becoming beneficiaries for a government pension programme. That leaves 18,000 families in the lurch.

“There is no transparency in how these numbers were decided,” said Ch Baburao, a CPI (M) leader from Guntur. “Gram sabhas were not involved. The state formed village committees with only their TDP [Telugu Desam Party] members in it.”

There was no clarity, he said, on how the numbers had been brought down.

“Some people were removed on technical basis,” he said. “Families might not have made new ration cards after their children got married and moved to a separate house, so they are eligible only for one compensation. In some villages, they are rejecting people on a political basis.”

People are still not sure whether they are on the list for compensation. Only around 2,500 families have received the first round of compensation.

Even those 11,000 beneficiary families will get a significantly different package from those who own land.

Owners of patta lands ‒ plots backed by a legal document with the owner's name ‒ will get an annual compensation of Rs 30,000 or Rs 50,000 per acre, depending on the quality of their land for ten years. This amount will be revised upwards by 10% each year, which means their last annual cheque could be as much as Rs one lakh. They will get between 1,200-1,300 square yards of developed land in exchange for each acre.

Another category is assigned lands. These lands, generally unused, belong to the state government. Over time, the government distributed small parcels of land, no more than 2.5 acres, to the landless poor. Many of these landowners belong to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The government will give these landowners 1,000 square yards of developed land per acre.

The Andhra Pradesh government envisions these landowners as forming the core of the city. The state government has begun to offer three-month reskilling courses to help landowners make the transition from an agricultural to an urban life. These classes offer quick briefs on electrical maintenance, carpentry, masonry and other technical skills.

More imbalances

K Hemlatha, a resident of Tallayapalem, where the foundation stone for the capital will be laid, pointed out the gender imbalance in the compensation scheme.

“Only men get the cheques and only they will get the opportunities to learn new skills,” she said. “How can we do what they are teaching? The government might yet give something for ladies, but we don’t know what kind.”

Puli Dasu, a scheduled caste labourer who lives in Nidamarru, echoed these concerns.

“There is nothing for women because they think women’s work is to wash clothes, do housework,” he said. “This is a government fantasy. How will people who live off the land become plumbers? What can they learn in three months? These courses only have theory, no practicals. They will build a city divided by class.”

Though Dasu is a daily labourer who lives in an affected area, he is not eligible for the reskilling course as he is not a landowner. He does not even qualify for the government compensation for agricultural labourers in the region.

The government plans to give those it classifies as agricultural labourers an annual pension of Rs 30,000 per family broken down into monthly cheques of Rs 2,500. As Dasu works in a quarry near Nidamarru and supplements his income with tree cutting, the government does not count him as one of those displaced. He earns Rs 350 each day. His wife is a midwife in a medical college in Mangalagiri.

“There is some pride that the capital is coming up on our ground, but it will also bring problems,” Dasu said. “We do not know if our houses will remain or if we will have to move.”

Landless in the lurch

As of now, the government seems to have no concrete plans for agricultural labourers. The average daily wage of an agricultural labourer in this area ranges from Rs 200-Rs 300 per day for men and Rs 150-Rs 250 for women. Assuming there are at least three or four working members in a family dependent on agriculture, this annual compensation of Rs 30,000 could be less than what one family earns in a month.

Even this paltry sum looks uncertain.

M Sharada is a flower picker in Nidamarru. She has not yet been approached to register for government compensation. She earns around Rs 300 daily, working in two fields a day. Her first priority is to get to the flower fields as the flowers must reach Vijayawada by the time markets open in the morning.

Her work begins each morning at 5.30 am and goes on until 9 am. After that, the rythus – either landowners or tenant farmers – take the loose flowers to the Vijayawada market where they are either strung into garlands or taken further off. These flowers can go as far as Hyderabad and Bangalore, said K Srinivasa Rao, who owns land in Nidamarru.

Once her morning work is done, Sharada moves on to another field, sometimes to pick cotton or chillis.

When the construction of the new capital begins, and the fields disappear, workers like Sharada will have no choice but to migrate.

“Migrant workers here are already leaving for their native places outside the capital area,” she said. “They are trying to search for employment and settle there. If we also go to a new place, will locals allow us in? If they do not agree to mingle with us, what can we do?”

P Lakshmi is a tenant farmer in Nidamarru. She rents half an acre of land for Rs 35,000 each year and earns enough to employ ten labourers and sustain her family through the year. She put it another way. “Right now, there is a labour shortage for us in Nidamarru,” she said. “If the government takes our land, then there is no shortage of kulis [workers] because there is no land to work on. People will go to other places – but there might not be enough work for them.”

P Lakshmi

Waiting for a better deal

In opposing the capital, the landless find themselves in unusual solidarity with the landowners of Nidamarru. This is partly because of the immense potential locked into cultivating flowers.

One of the most successful landowners in Nidamarru is 55-year-old B Jeyamma, who owns 30 acres of land, earned mostly through her profits in growing flowers. She began cultivation 40 years ago, at a time when flowers sold for only 10 paise per kilo. Her fortunes changed in 1995, when she planted kanakambaram, or crossandra, on her three acres of land. That year, she got a profit of Rs three lakhs, with which she bought eight more acres of land and gradually expanded her holding to its present size.

She now rents out most of her land annually to tenants at Rs one lakh per acre and cultivates only three acres on her own.

“The government cannot compensate me for what I earn,” she said. “I nurtured these lands with my hard work. What will I do without my fields?”

Srinivasa Rao, who owns 0.14 acres of land from which he claims he earns an annual profit of Rs one lakh, plans to wait as long as he can.

“If we give our land on rent, we get only Rs 15,000 annually,” he said. “On our own, we earn up to Rs one lakh with which we educate our children. We are able to marry our daughters easily. Now the government is saying it will give only Rs 30,000 to farmers. How will we maintain our families?”

But the land owners might have to pay a price for holding out. Those whose lands are acquired will not get the same compensation package as those who voluntarily give up their land for pooling. They might end up with 2.5 times the revenue price of their land (the value determined by the Revenue Department), instead of more valuable developed land in the new city and a fixed pension amount for ten years.

“Chandrababu Naidu is not taking our land, but our hearts,” said Rao. “If we feel ill, we come to the land to feel its freshness, we come here to forget our family difficulties. Where will we go to in a city?”

“At the time of the bhumi pujan, my wife broke her hand,” he added, laughing. “Perhaps that might be a bad omen – for Chandrababu Naidu, not me.”

This is the second part in a series about Andhra Pradesh's new capital city project.