The sense of desperation felt in many of Anantapur district’s drought-affected villages doesn’t seem to hang as heavy in the air of Kanumukkala. Palm trees line the well-kept streets and rendered brick houses outnumber basic mud huts.
Alivelamma’s three-roomed house feels remarkably private and quiet. It has a tall fence and the gate is kept closed even though there are no animals to escape.
Alivelamma predominantly goes about her housework in a very autonomous fashion but there is a small group of women who come to her home regularly to drink tea and catch up on village gossip. Although she may not live as collectively and socially as some of the villages other women, for Alivelamma this level of socializing represents a dramatic change from her far more solitary younger years. She attributes her increased sociability to her membership in the Adisakthi women’s thrift cooperative. “Before joining the cooperative 18 years ago, I didn’t know the meaning of respect. I didn’t have the manners to talk with people and I would always fight with everyone. I was not confident about what I was talking about and I just didn’t know how to behave in the community. After mingling with other people in the cooperative and going to meetings, I have learned how to be myself around others and how to communicate with others. I am much more social now”.
There is obvious respect and affection between Alivelamma and her husband and they seem to be a really cohesive team. A warm smile is exchanged as he hands her the fish he has gutted so that she can cook it for our lunch or the milk he has extracted for her expertly brewed chai. Together they have raised three children who are now adults. Her daughter, 25, lives in a house a few doors down the street with her husband and two children. Her two sons, one 20 years old and one 22, both live at home with her. They completed their education up to 10th class and have since been helping on the family’s farm and doing some daily wage labour, when it’s available.
Pulling on a frayed section of her sari, Alivelamma expresses concern about her eldest son. “I am worried about Narendra because he has no skills. My younger son knows driving, can fix tyre punctures and has machines for spraying fertilizer, but Narendra only knows daily wage work. He has no skills for the future”. It is clear that this has been occupying Alivelamma’s mind for a while. When asked what kind of skills she would like him to have, she is quick to reply. “I want him to have two or three cows for milking and a bullock cart which he can hire out”. The concern I raise over the initial costs of buying the cows and bullock cart is swiftly quashed. “One of the cows that I bought with a loan from the Cooperative died recently but luckily I had it insured. When I receive the insurance money I will buy two more cows for my son to look after. If he puts money aside from the milk sales then he can slowly get around to buying a cart”.
Alivelamma attributes much of her current knowledge and awareness to Adisakthi Cooperative. “Before the Cooperative I was completely naive. I didn’t know anything about anything. I didn’t even know about the next village.” With a laugh she exclaims, “Now I know everything! I have even learned to sign my name” she proudly remarks. It is these interpersonal and social impacts that she speaks about with the most enthusiasm and gratitude. However, the critical role that the financial aspect of the Cooperative has played in her life is also highlighted. “When my family was really struggling I wanted to buy a cow for milk sales but we had no money to buy one. If the Timbaktu people didn’t come to my house and convince me to join the Cooperative, I would have had to keep asking outsiders who would keep telling me they don’t have any money either. They would just make me keep asking and I would never get the loan”.
Along with milk sales, the sale of crops grown on the family’s three acres of land, is their main source of income. During her 18 years as a member of Adisakthi Cooperative, Alivelamma has taken eight loans. She used the first to buy a cow and the others have been predominantly used to cover the expenses of maintaining the farm. Her most recent loan of Rs. 35,000 is her largest. Since taking the loan seven months ago she has managed to pay back Rs. 15,000 and is confident about her ability to pay back the remaining Rs. 20,000 with milk and crop sales along with some labour on other people’s land.
Thanks to these loans and her husband’s agricultural intuition, they are able to produce a reliable four-monthly harvest. While many of the surrounding fields house only insects and red dust, Alivelamma’s bears healthy crops of corn, chili and drumstick. She proudly shows off their crops, explaining how they are grown and harvested. When we see her husband in the field he eagerly shows the newly installed pump that transports the little water left in the well to the thirsty crops. In the relentless drought, these crops offer the hope that Alivelamma and her family can live a life that is about more than mere survival.
Back at the house, Alivelamma’s usual expression of concentration and determination is interrupted by a child-like grin as she eagerly shows me her collection of beautiful saris. Long colourful ribbons of sequins, beads and floral patterns are excitedly tossed over a pile of rice sacks while a fragrant fish curry bubbles away behind us. Her coy, introverted demeanor is momentarily replaced with something resembling self-worthiness, confidence and even cheekiness as she chuckles, “I have accessed every facility available in the Timbaktu Collective and am part of various activities – the livelihood program, the organic farming program, the women’s cooperative…all of them! Timbaktu has been really useful in my life”.