In a silent forest in Palvancha Mandal of Telangana, a rumbling excavator guided by a dozen forest guards charged an Adivasi settlement in Mallaram on February 23 and started ploughing through their fields accusing them of infringing forest land.
When residents tried to resist the action, around ten policemen came in and thrashed five women and four men, detained them in the forest vehicle and drove them away. They were, however, let go midway, but their confiscated mobile phones were not returned. Seven of them were admitted to the hospital.
In Chinturu Mandal of Andhra Pradesh, forest personnel razed 15 houses on February 12 that the Adivasis were trying to build out of desperation after living there in thatched huts for nearly two decades.
In another Adivasi settlement on February 14, forest personnel directed an excavator to plough through their crops in Burgampahad Mandal of Telangana and threatened the Adivasis to vacate the land and 'go back to where they came from', i.e. Chhattisgarh.
Everyday Harassments Of Adivasis
These are everyday incidents for an Adivasi living in these settlements, and a generation has grown up experiencing these transgressions over their lives by government agencies.
Though this has been continuing for years, the number of these 'attacks' have surged. One can gauge the impact by the fact that as recently as many as 48 such habitations have been attacked, as identified using GPS markers by The New Peace Process. The platform advocates for peace talks between the government, Maoists and citizens, convened by Shubranshu Choudhary, long-time journalist and activist from Chhattisgarh.
The Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who fled from Chhattisgarh to escape violence and settled in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh have been facing pushback from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana governments to move out of reserve forest areas in their dominion with accusations of encroachment and deforestation.
Retreating to Chhattisgarh is not viable as their native villages are still mired in conflict. The Chhattisgarh government has categorically refused to create a rehabilitation scheme for them by submitting in the state Assembly's budget session in March 2021 that no displacement has taken place; hence the question of rehabilitation simply doesn't arise.
After facing atrocities by government agencies – especially forest department burning their huts (which they stopped only after a court order), physically assaulting them, destroying their crops – for over a decade, they were allowed subsistence on humanitarian grounds and granted ration cards and voter ID cards. But none of these give them citizenship or domicile of any state but merely proof of temporary settlement. They don't have any document relating to Chhattisgarh as their villages are mostly under Maoist control and have little to no State penetration. Due to the lack of a survey, no certain number can be put to the displaced population. An estimated guess by local organisations and bureaucrats off the record was 50,000 at the time of Salwa Judum, which was more than a decade ago. Most of them are currently settled in around 300 villages in four districts bordering Chhattisgarh, two each in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Some also migrated to Odisha and Maharashtra as well.
Problems Faced By IDPs
The problem of IDPs is two-pronged. The first one is their Scheduled Tribe (ST) status in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The second is the rehabilitation of post-2005 displaced people, who were driven out primarily by the State-backed militia Salwa Judum.
People had been migrating (many displaced) before Salwa Judum as well. Some people moved to the southern side of the contiguous forest area, which they made cultivable by felling trees to build a hut and farming. They have been termed as voluntary migrants in some studies. Some fled to evade Naxal threats, and some because of repression by state security forces as early as the late 90s. Many of them stayed temporarily in local Adivasi villages.
When Salwa Judum started around 2005, violence escalated sharply in the region, and so did displacement. Militias accompanied by State forces began hounding villages and households which were perceived as Naxal supporters. Encounters between both armed groups became more frequent, and simultaneously the number of people getting caught between crossfire (literal and figurative) went up. Scores of houses and fields were set on fire to force them to abandon their villages and form strategic hamlets. Many were forcefully taken to Salwa Judum camps, which were essentially detention centres. Many others fled south as they had historical ties and employment relations with the local populace there. They also sought help from the people of their village who had moved out a few years ago and settled on the other side of the border.
Most of the displacement took place following the onset of Salwa Judum. In search of refuge, people followed the ones from their villages who had fled earlier on account of the Maoist menace and in many cases, they (re)established their hamlets together.
These people who crossed over to another side of the state border to find a life of relative peace before the cut-off date of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) – which is December 13, 2005, when the Bill was tabled in the parliament – qualify for in-situ rehabilitation under clause 3(1)(m) which states that people displaced from their land are to be granted alternative forest land in lieu of the land previously held by them, provided they are recognised as Scheduled Tribes in the respective state.
Discrepancy Over Status
The IDPs belong primarily to the Muria and Dorla subgroups of the Gond/Koya/Koitur tribe. The local Koyas call the people from Chhattisgarh Gutti/Gotthe Koya (it has numerous spellings in English) to indicate regional distinction but acknowledge them as Koya nonetheless. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh do not consider the IDPs as Scheduled Tribes, while they still reside in the Fifth Schedule area. Many IDPs have resettled within a radius of 50 km from their old village. They have ST status on the Chhattisgarh side of the border but not on the other side.
The FRA acknowledges this issue as a colonial-era drawback, and the Act was aimed at bridging these gaps. However, it continues to remain inadequate, leaving the future of IDPs suspended in limbo.
As per Andhra Pradesh and Telangana government, GuttiKoyas do not have ST status in their jurisdiction, but the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order, 1950 declares Gutta Koya and Kottu Koya as STs in Andhra Pradesh. It is contended by local Adivasi political and activist groups that the Order refers to Gutti Koya, but due to anglicised misspelling, they are being deprived of their rights.
The FRA encompasses not only STs but other traditional forest-dwelling communities as well. But they are required to produce a proof of residence of three generations (each generation is counted as 25 years) before the cut-off date, which makes it 75 years. The Indian state itself is yet to celebrate its 75th anniversary. The demand for British-era proof is not only perverse but a mockery of promises of forest rights and jal, jangal, jameen. It should also be noted that a significant portion of the land in southern Chhattisgarh remains unsurveyed. Most of the tribals have no land record/patta, and many people are yet to receive any form of government identification.
The ones who were displaced after the cut-off date have two swords hanging over their heads. Even after obtaining ST status, post-cut-off date IDPs won't be granted patta.
Why Are IDPs Forced Out Of Forests?
The stand of the governments of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana to force the IDPs out of the forest is that they have been felling trees to such an extent that it is hurting the green cover. The State of Forest report of 2017 states that forested area in Telangana increased 565 sq km as compared to 2015 but claims that these areas of increased green cover were outside recorded forest areas, attributing the rise to schemes like Haritha Haram. The argument, however, falls flat as the 2019 report shows that forest cover increased by 0.8 per cent while green cover outside the recorded forest areas decreased by 155 sq km. The government doesn't have any data on the number of saplings that have survived which were planted under Haritha Haram.
These settlements are termed as temporary habitations and not counted as revenue villages, which relieves the government of the responsibility of providing basic amenities to them such as clean drinking water, sanitation, road connectivity, electrification, education and health services. The state governments say that building such infrastructure will disturb the ecological balance. On the contrary, mines inside these reserve forests are connected by smooth tarmac roads ensuring hassle-free transportation.
While some settlements have handpumps set up with help from NGOs and religious groups, many IDPs still don't have access to clean drinking water as the government won't allow handpumps to be installed. They use indigenous methods of water filtration, which becomes even more difficult during rains due to dirty surface runoff water. This has resulted in children dying of typhoid and frequent kidney failure cases among adults. It could be understood as a case of structural violence inflicted by the state on these people. The state not only did abandon these people but its apparatuses undertook every effort to put them to the sword drowning their screams in the silence of the forest.
What Is Government Doing?
Until now, forest department officials patrol these settlements, intermittently uprooting the crops and planting saplings to capture land back from the IDPs. In November 2021, the Telangana government launched a drone-based afforestation project named Hara Bhara, which projects the government in good light for integrating novel technology to increase forest cover but is essentially an ecofascist move to drive the IDPs out of the forest by ruining their farmland while stripping them of the physical sense of affliction of violence.
In June 2019, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST) had asked Chhattisgarh to identify how many people had been displaced and asked Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra and Odisha governments to cooperate with them. It also asked the Chhattisgarh government to accept applications for initiating in-situ rehabilitation under 3(1)(m) of FRA.
The NCST issued fresh notices to all states in January 2022. After nearly three years, except for hollow assurances, neither the Chhattisgarh government has taken any steps to start the survey nor any of the 500 applications for in-situ rehabilitation has been processed.
A Presidential Order can make things a little less difficult for these people, but that requires compassion and will, which goes missing when it comes to tribal rights.
A survey of 260 villages undertaken by Choudhary identified 6721 families. In hopes of help from the Central government, Choudhary and Adivasi organisations are organising a Dandakaranya to Delhi motorcycle yatra to press for their rehabilitation, which has a precedent such as in the case of Brus of Mizoram and Kashmiri Hindus.
The young generation of IDPs is torn between state borders, while the governments on each side have disowned them. One is Chhattisgarh, with Hindi as the dominant language, where they are eligible to get reservation benefits in education and employment but neither have a home there or would be welcome there, is what they say. The other is Andhra Pradesh or Telangana, with Telugu as the dominant language, where their parents live and work. They have assimilated with the local populace to quite an extent by adopting names with Telugu characteristics. But they are sent off to study in government hostels in Chhattisgarh because of their entitlement as STs there.
They continue to speak Koya among themselves and juggle between Telugu and Hindi. The term Gutti Koya continues to serve an alienating function, plunging them in the throes of emerging identities. In the face of statelessness, their present and future seem in limbo.
Also Read: Migrated Tribals In Deep Slumber, Face Eviction From Telangana & Andhra Pradesh After Decades