Podu cultivation is a traditional way of “shifting agriculture” in forests being practiced from ages and generation to generation. Lakhs of forest dwellers are solely dependent on this type of agriculture for their livelihood. The plight of lakhs of podu farmers in the state of Telangana is becoming precarious. The dismay and panic faced by them is very miserable. They are moving around the revenue and forest departments as the local authorities of these departments are preventing them from entering their farmlands. The authorities are forcibly evicting them from their lands which they have been cultivating for decades. Every day newspapers carry reports that not only forest officials but also the police are troubling them in many forms such as intimidating, resorting to lathi charge, arrests, imposing innumerable criminal cases including arrests under sections of attempt to murder.
Concerned by many incidents of attacks on the right to life of tribal and non-tribal poor in the forest area, the organization for Protection of Democratic Rights [OPDR] in Telangana State constituted a fact-finding committee under the convenorship of a renowned democrat, former M.P., Mr. Solipeta Ramachandra Reddy. The vice president and general secretary of OPDR and Secretaries of concerned districts and the State General secretary and Associate secretary of the Telangana state rural poor Association [GPS] were the other members of the committee
The committee visited Asifabad, Adilabad, Mahbubabad, Khammam and Bhadrachalam districts from 4-08-21 to 7-08-21. During these visits, the committee held meetings with about 250 farmers in places like Sarkapalli, Pangidi [Asifabad], Utnoor [Adilabad] and Enkooru [khammam] ranging from small thandas [hamlets] to medium towns. The committee met Cultivators and their representatives from several villages of different mandals, interviewed them and collected information on various issues concerned with their life and livelihood.
The cultivators submitted to the committee, several memoranda, evidences and documents signaling to their ownership over the land they have been cultivating. After examining the ground realities, the committee has come to certain conclusions. A detailed report of the committee and the demands of cultivators were submitted to the concerned Commissionerate offices, demanding immediate steps for redressal of the grievances of lakhs of cultivators. The situation and agitations of podu cultivators need and call for the attention and support of people in large numbers. I am here with providing the observations and conclusions of the committee in brief.
Conclusions of the committee in brief are:
- The tribal and non-tribal poor living in the Telangana Forest region are facing a serious land problem and podu cultivation is the most important source of livelihood for them. The committee has observed -in all the areas it has visited-that people have been living on podu cultivation for many generations and decades.
- The desire to get permanent rights over the lands which they are cultivating, is very strong, deep and widespread among the people. Lakhs of poor peasants applied for pattas [ownership documents] Under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, the tribal welfare department, had processed 96,676 claims and approved farming rights over 3.08 lakh acres of forest land in the state and issued RoFR pattas. These claims were from the 2.04 lakh-odd claimants, seeking rights to podu lands that cover 6.90 lakh acres which were being cultivated since at least four or five decades by their families. Among 4,248 claims from 2018, only 2,401 claims were found eligible by the authorities . 27,990 claims were made for 98,745 acres. Many battles are fought for settlement of these claims but not yet solved.
- During the 2018 Assembly elections and other election campaigns in the state, the state government promised to solve the problems of the cultivators and issue them the rights. The promise has not been implemented. On the contrary, a tirade of warnings, intimidations and atrocities by forest officials are unleashed. Police raids on cultivators became a common sight here. Establishing check posts and increasing the number of armed forces, in the name of forest protection are increased.
- Tens of cases against hundreds of people were booked. Terrorizing people became the order of the day in these areas. Erecting fences and digging trenches around podu lands, claiming them as forest and preventing cultivation in these lands, trampling the standing crops overnight with tractors and bulldozers became the rule of governance in these areas. When people resist it and try to continue agriculture in their lands, they are being arrested under charges of criminal offences.
- The state government’s schemes such as Haritha Haram [ growing trees for reforestation], Palle Velugu [village development programs] and setting up of food processing units etc., are being carried out in various areas and in practice they are depriving the farmers of their rights on their lands.
- More over the steps taken by government in the name of various welfare schemes are causing illusions rather than benefitting the people. They are also perpetuating divisions among the people based on caste, creed, region, religion, tribal, non-tribal and inter-tribal differences. These are raked up time to time in an attempt to divide the people who stand united and demand their rights.
- People are becoming victims to the lack of coordination between the various departments of the Central and State governments, regarding the boundaries of revenue and forest lands. The contradictory orders issued by these departments are aimed to deprive the people of their land and show an increase in the area of forests.
- Non recognition of previous documents given to some cultivators by the previous state governments and improper distribution of new pass books now is very rampant. It has become a routine for the authorities not to accept the old records or documents suggesting possession over lands, and changing boundaries of forest and cultivable lands from time to time, under the guise of surveys, resurveys or remeasurement of lands.
- The officers are harassing people by calling for evidence of ownership documents which do not exist and not admitting the evidence provided by the farmers. What more proof can they show than being present on the field and growing crops for decades? Will it not be clear if open enquiry is conducted in gram sabhas regarding who is the real farmer?
- The government’s policy all the more is complicating the matters by unnecessary procrastination and litigation instead of solving the problem. This attitude lacks the wisdom required to understand that this is the life problem of lakhs of people. Except resorting to stubborn arguments and harsh measures, the officials are not trying to solve the problem.
It has come to our notice that tribal, non-tribal and poor people living in the forest areas of the state have repeatedly pleaded with the local authorities about their problems, met them several times but all went in vain. Even in cases of court judgments in their favor, justice has not been done to people.
It is said that collectors have been given the power to solve these problems, but we think that the issues will not be solved at the bureaucratic level. A true political will is required to address these problems. The problem of podu lands has to be viewed as a part and result of the prevailing feudal land relations. This is an integral element of the thirst for land of crores of landless cultivators and not different from the desire and demand of land to the tiller.
We regret to state that the official practices adopted so far have been instrumental in increasing the agony of cultivators, rather than rendering justice by granting them rights and issuing pattas for the land they have been cultivating for generations. The 2006 Act, which was much publicized as the law that recognizes the rights of tribal people, also continues to violate the rights of the forest dwellers. Any law or a condition which shows a little tilt to favor common man is interpreted adversely and implemented to the disadvantage of people. The laws in favor of big landlords, corporate houses and big capitalists are implemented enthusiastically in letter and spirit which invariably deprive the common people of their justified desires and demands.
The fertile cultivated lands of the agency area are the result of decades of hard work of toiling masses. They are being occupied by the ‘State’ in the name of forest. and many a time forest lands are reallotted to corporates, multinationals and major factories. The destruction of life of thousands of common cultivators is being paved as a way of development of big bourgeoise. The central and state governments are facilitators of this tragic and inhuman transformation.
The forest dwellers when they oppose this type of damage caused to them, are branded as illegal occupants, criminals, anti-social, anti-environmental and anti-development groups. In fact, for centuries, they have been protectors of the forest. Their culture treats the forest as their mother. The forest is the source of their livelihood. They are the dear children in nature’s lap.
We should not damage the life structure of adivasis in the name of progress or modern life or by enforcing government laws. They should not be vacated from their lands. Their natural rights should not be denied. Here we briefly enumerate the demands of people which require immediate redressal
Demands of the people.
- The oppression, violent practices and atrocities of forest, police and revenue officials against tribal and non-tribal people in the agency and other places must be stopped. All illegal cases filed with false accusations against them must be lifted.
- In the name of reserve forest, or under any other pretext lands under cultivation of poor farmers should not be taken away by the forest department, the standing crops should not be destroyed. Erecting fencing and digging trenches around podu lands should be stopped.
- The rights of the cultivators must be protected, Podu should be recognized as their natural right, their way of life. Rights over lands and pattas [ownership documents] should be issued to the people cultivating the podu lands.
- All the natural rights of the inhabitants, who use wild resources, including agriculture, as a source of their living, must be protected, and laws in the name of environment and forest protection must be subdue to it.
- Pattas should be issued to all poor people living in agency areas for many years, without discrimination against tribal or non-tribal slots. Land to the tiller is the democratic right of the people
- In the case of agriculture, the state government should implement the promises made to the people on various election occasions immediately.
- Many urban poor people in nearby forest areas are facing problem of housing plots and government should make arrangements for their housing
- The state government should demand the Centre so that the state has absolute rights over the forests of the state. The state should oppose central laws that are contrary to the interests of forest areas and forest dwellers in the state. The state government should take all necessary steps to protect the people from such laws.
Quick action must be taken to ward off people’s plight and improve their lives. Otherwise, every June and July [beginning of rainy season] is becoming an annual threat and creating a mayhem in the lives of poor people who live on forests as their source of livelihood. They stand day and night in guard of their cultivated lands fearing the forest and police departments which act in unison to drive them away from their agricultural fields.
The government has become the biggest nightmare in the life of lakhs of people in agency areas. The government has become the largest land grabber to them. The State is the cruelest feudal landlord snatching away their life and their right to life. Thousands are jailed every year. They are bound by false litigation to pitiably roam around police stations and courts for decades together depriving them of their time to work and earn daily wages. This untold misery imposed on lakhs of poor peasants is coined as rule of law. Then justice can’t be sufficiently explained. In such a situation people have all the right to pursue their concerns in the way they deem fit. They have the right to solve their problems to their satisfaction.
Dr. S. Jatin Kumar is vice president of the Organization for Protection of Democratic Rights -OPDR-Telangaana state and recently worked as member of the Fact Finding Committee constituted to study the grievances of people carrying out podu cultivation and consequences due to violation of their rights He has earlier contributed articles to counter currents