adivasi cotton
Tribals with the cotton crop that was destroyed by forest officials. The tribals do not possess documents to claim ownership of the lands though they have been tilling them for generations. The Forest Rights Act 2005 protects their right over these lands. But tribals allege their rights have remained on paper and largely observed in breach. Mulakalapalli village in Bhadradri Kothagudem District. Crop on over 70 acres was destroyed.

Bhadrachalam: A dawn of the new state of Telangana doesn’t seem to have done justice to the tribal cause. Activists aver the situation has only worsened. The State governments ‘Haritha Haram’ scheme to bring more areas under green cover seems to have affected them directly.

The tribal activists aver the laws like the Forest Rights Act 2005 which was brought into force in 2006 have failed. The tribals who practiced slash and burn (this is called podu land) method of cultivation have over the years largely given it up. The act allows for providing rights on up to 10 acres of land under cultivation until 2005. The united AP government which claimed it would provide rights over 10 lakh acres gave documents for only 4.5 lakh acres over a period of four years. The tribals had claimed rights over 25 lakh acres. The activists now allege even these documents are being regularly rejected by the Telangana forest department officials.

“The forest department tried to take over our land though we have documents. As per the VSS (vana samarakshana samithi, land given to tribals for agriculture without documentary rights) and Forest Rights Act we are entitled for 75 percent of the income from plantations. The forest department denies us any income,” says K. Kameshwar Rao, resident of Ramachandrunipeta of Dummigudem mandal.

Agriculture in the area is rain fed and the tribals are not allowed to drill borewells on VSS land. “Lack of assured water supply makes us vulnerable to the vagaries of monsoon. The ITDA (Integrated tribal development agency) should dig bore wells to help us. We don’t get rythu bandhu amount (The TRS govt provides Rs 8,000 per acre input money to owners of land) for such lands,” says Yirapa Ramana of the same village.

  1. Venkateshwarlu, another resident of Ramachandrunipeta says, validity of land documents given after 2006 is being rejected by the Telangana government officials. No pattas (documents of land) were given in the last four years. 14 people were arrested from our village. Non tribals also take our land on lease and do commercial plantation. Lack of proper irrigation facility forces us to lease the land to non tribal outsiders.”

The villages lack bus facility though the area has well laid roads. The bus facility seems to have stopped to cut losses citing lack of passengers to cut costs for the state transport body. “Kids in our village have to go by private autos to higher schools adding to our costs,” says K. Muthaiah, who has completed his B.A in English from Hyderabad. He says he has taken a break from studies and is trying to earn to pursue his M.B.A.

“The people had high expectations from the Telangana government. They had participated with gusto in the statehood struggle. 11 lakh acres of podu land being cultivated by tribals has to be regularized in Telangana. But over the last four years the state government has not taken any steps for this. But now ahead of polls KCR (the caretaker CM, K. Chandrasekhar Rao) is promising to solve the podu land issue,” says K. Ranga Reddy, state secretary of AIKMS (All India Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan), affiliated to CPI(ML) New democracy.

Tribal areas in the country have been theatres of conflict for decades now. At 10.4 crore, tribes account for 8.6 percent of the country’s population as per 2011 census. The forests they largely inhabit account for 25 percent of the land area. With the government owning 95 percent of the forests any policy made on them has a direct bearing on this vulnerable section.

Telangana is the only south Indian state with tribal population of 9.34 percent as per 2011 Census. With the tribes lacking any documentation for claims over lands enjoyed by them for generations they have been at the receiving end. Laws made for their welfare seem to be only observed in breach. The Koneru Ranga Rao committee headed by the cabinet minister in the united AP government in 2006, said that 48 percent of the tribal lands have been alienated to non-tribals despite the Land Transfer Regulation Act 1 of 1970.

Activists allege the podu lands are being taken over for planting commercial plantations (under the Haritha Haram scheme). They allege many of their activists and people are being incarcerated. They assert the lands tilled by tribals and non-tribals accounts for only two percent of the forest land. They blame the indiscriminate open cast mines, bauxite mining done for commercial purposes for reduction in green cover.

The Dummugudem project, which is sought by the people, is expected to irrigate four lakh acres of land and useful for both tribals and non-tribals is being neglected. It will irrigate lands in Khammam and Bhadradri-Kothagudem districts. Canals are being re-laid again and again and plans changed after governments change to benefit contractors and line the pockets of politicians, Mr Reddy says.

“The Polavaram project which will submerge seven mandals and displace nearly 2 lakh people is being pursued on a war footing. While half of them are tribals the others belong to land less SC and BC castes and rear their cattle. It has been given status of a national project. Though experts have given several alternatives to reduce the submerged land they have fallen on deaf ears,” Mr Reddy added.

Explaining the high handedness of the forest staff, V. Sreenu, a tribal activist of AIKMS, from Mukamadi village of Mulakalapalli mandal says, “The people here have been tilling this land from the year 2000. Now in 2018 they are trying to evict them in the name of ‘Haritha Haram’. We had to work for years to make the land cultivable. The corrupt forest department staff is trying to plant trees on this land and claim expenses from the government in the name of clearing the forest for plantation. The villagers had already spent Rs 20,000 for planting BT cotton which was plucked away. Though we planted the crop again the yield has reduced adding to our losses.”

The tribal activists also seem to have stood by the landless dalits living in the village from the 1990s. “The forest staff tried to evict us invoking the 1/70 Act (The act bars non tribals from owing lands in designated tribal areas). The AIKMS activists stood by us,” says P. Ram Babu from Mukamadi village. The AIKMS activists allege while tribal rights are not protected the government’s attempts to drive a wedge between poor people was stopped. “Why can’t they provide three acre land to the dalit families as promised by the TRS government if they are sincere,” they reasoned.

“A contiguous tribal state from Srikakulam to Adilabad, a long pending demand, should be considered to protect the interests of tribals. Even the tribal representatives hardly speak about their issues in the current states. Self-rule in letter and spirit as per the 5th schedule should be given to these areas,” reasons Mr Reddy hinting at a solution for the tribals woes.

Ram Mohan G is a freelance journalist

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