Dr Mano Ranjan has been working at the Institute of Infectious Diseases situated on the Anantapur-Kadiri Road in Andhra Pradesh since 2009. This is the premier institute for the entire Rayalaseema region (southern Andhra Pradesh) for those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Dr Ranjan gets 25 new HIV/AIDS patients every day. "It is a ticking time bomb," he says.
Thirty percent of the cases are from hamlets in and around Kadiri, unarguably the HIV/AIDS capital of Andhra Pradesh. The hospital has 26,000 plus registered cases, 8,000 of whom are widows. It is shocking that most of the victims are in the age group of 25 to 40. Another 3,000 cases are children born most often to an HIV-positive parent.
"If we do not put in any efforts to stop this situation (the spread of HIV/AIDS), in the future, we will have a common population in Kadiri that is HIV positive, particularly among the widows and separated, and divorced women," says Dr Ranjan.
The solution, however, does not lie in mere awareness about safe sex practices. Unlike agrarian distress that leads to farmer suicides, like in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Telangana, Kadiri presents an even more complicated problem. It's one drought and unemployment leading to an HIV-AIDS scare.
Anantapur district of Andhra Pradesh sees the second lowest rainfall in India after Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, with an annual average rainfall of less than 600 mm. Only 10 percent of the drought-hit district is cultivated-area-under-irrigation (1 lakh out of 11 lakh hectares) but, the district is home to 90 percent small and marginal farmers (6.3 lakh out of 7 lakh).
With no agricultural work and no other means of employment, migration from Anantapur is the only way out. It is estimated that close to five lakh people, which comes to around 10 percent of Anantapur's population, have moved out, a majority of them in the last three years. The reason for that is that the last five years have seen successive severe droughts, reducing Anantapur to a bowl of dust.
What makes this exodus into a human tragedy is that the children are often left behind, some as young as five years old with hundreds of them being teenage girls. A survey by a group of seven NGOs in May revealed that over 1,000 children have been left behind by their parents in 26 hamlets, most of them in and around Kadiri. The emotional trauma of the young ones - having to fend for themselves, sleeping on an empty stomach and being deprived of a parent's love and affection - is unimaginable. Only a few have aged grandparents to look after them.
In Kadiri, both emotional and physical security are at risk. This is because vultures in the form of brokers and pimps are always on the look out for fresh prey. Poverty, deprivation, backwardness and low literacy (at 57 percent, Kadiri's literacy rate is lower than the national average) have made this area hugely vulnerable to trafficking over the years. A large number of women and children from Kadiri end up in brothels in Goa, Delhi and Kolkata.
"The girls - in homes where parents have migrated - are lured by brokers saying they will arrange a better job and better life for them. Eventually, they end up in a brothel," says Bhanuja, convenor of the AP Rythu Swarajya Vedika.
Perhaps that is why 15-year-old Lakshmi is worried and keeps the door to her one-room tenement shut at all times. Her two brothers, only three and five years old, have migrated with her parents to Kerala. Having neighbours around in Marava, a hamelt which is a 30-minute drive from Kadiri town is reassuring for Lakshmi, but once the sun sets, the darkness brings with it the fear of the known and the unknown.
"I have heard about brokers who lure young girls, and I feel scared hearing about it," says Lakshmi.
According to a 2014 survey done by Sthree, an organistaion which works on women issues, there were about 3,800 sex workers from Anantapur district, of which 1,600 were trafficked from the Kadiri mandal.
And it isn't like Kadiri and many other areas of Andhra Pradesh have burst on the scene only now. A study by Hyderabad-based NGO Prajwala in 2003 indicated that a minimum of 24 percent and a maximum of 85 percent in some cases, of women in prostitution in other cities, including metros, belong to Andhra Pradesh. Another research done by National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in the same period found that one in every four victims who were interviewed were trafficked from Andhra Pradesh. Dr Ranjan recalls visiting Kalighat and Sonagachi red light areas in Kolkata as part of his project and says girls from Kadiri are kept in a separate enclosure as they are considered more beautiful than others, and, therefore, command a premium.
In Kadiri, the author met 25-year-old Varalakshmi (name changed) who was lured by a broker ten years ago with the promise of a job and then taken to Delhi via Hyderabad. She was pushed into a brothel at GB Road, Delhi's red light area for five years. She finally managed to escape with the help of a Telugu security guard, who took pity on her.
"I went because of our poverty. It turned out to be for sex work. Customers would torture (me) demanding all sorts of things. Once, when I did not agree, they put chilli powder in my eyes," Varalakshmi breaks down relating her ordeal. Escaping from the den of exploitation has only made her life marginally better. Varalakshmi now lives alone, shunned by society, a reminder of the stigma of having been at a brothel.
The government, however, is in a state of denial. Kadiri MLA Chand Basha says sex-trafficking from his constituency is a thing of the past, saying those who desire a better life for the "sake of status" move out of Kadiri. The NGOs in the state try to keep vulnerable girls protected by ensuring community workers, many of who have been victims of sex abuse themselves, engage and counsel people in the villages that have high rates of migration.
There is little hope that things in Kadiri or other parts of Anantapur would change anytime soon. But India can ignore Kadiri at its own peril. It needs to save Kadiri to rescue itself and Andhra Pradesh's future. And it is not just about Kadiri because the trafficking racket targeting minors operates in the tri-junction of Kadiri in Anantapur, Madanapalle in Chittoor district and Rayachoti in Kadapa. Andhra Pradesh is at the crossroads of an HIV/AIDS epidemic, literally.