The farmers from the Adivasi community in Agency/Scheduled areas in Telangana have been staging protests over the last few days, against the attempts by forest departments officials to establish plantations in 'podu' land.
Podu is a traditional system of cultivation inculcated by tribes in India, where different areas of forests are cleared by burning each year to provide space for crops. The word comes from the Telugu language. Podu is a form of shifting cultivation using slash-and-burn techniques.
On Wednesday, February 10, when the forest department officials were levelling one of the podu lands in Lakshmidevi Palli and Annapureddypalli mandals in Bhadradri Kothagudem district, hundreds of tribals were joined by the left parties to protest against the move, reported News Click.
Recently, similar protests, for the same reason, were held in Line Thanda at Gudur Mandal in Mahabubabad district in the state. A tribal woman named Banoth Parvathi attempted suicide by consuming pesticide and jumping into a well when the forest department officials tried to forcefully remove the protesting Adivasis from the area where they were levelling the podu lands. However, the woman was rescued by other local farmers and moved to a nearby government hospital.
The sources said that the forest officials reached Line Thanda on Tuesday, February 9, with official orders to reclaim about 63 acres of forest land and dig a trench around it to mark their territory. But after learning about this, scores of podu farmers reached the spot and started protesting saying that they have been cultivating in these lands for the last 80 years.
The villagers claimed that they have also been receiving the State government's Rythu Bandhu benefits. The key objective of the Rythu Bandhu scheme is to prevent farmers from taking personal loans at high-interest rates and rescue them from financial pitfalls. Under the scheme, farmers directly get financial support twice a year, i.e. during the two main harvest seasons.
Among others, Bhukya Veerabhadram, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader from Khammam district alleged that the Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao has failed to keep up his electoral promise to resolve the long due 'podu land' issue in the state.
"Tribal organisations have been demanding the state government to constitute a committee of officials, experts and tribal organisations to resolve and distribute land titles to Adivasis under the Forest Rights Act, 2006," said Bhukya Veerabhadram.
However, the officials have been attempting plantations on the land forcefully in the name of the Telangana Ku Haritha Haram scheme which is aimed at increasing the forest cover in the state, he added.
Many incidents of disputes and violence have been reported since 2015 between Adivasi farmers and the forest department amid Haritha Haram plantation drives. They have held protests against harassment and forceful evictions by forest officials in Karepalli, Kamepalli Julurupadu, Enkoor, Konijerla and Sattupalli mandals in Khammam district.
The state government aims to plant 230 crore saplings across the state to increase its forest cover from present 24% to 33% under Haritha Haram scheme. As per the government figures, 182 crore saplings were planted over the last five years. The plantations have been taking place during the monsoon season every year.
When the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or Forest Rights Act (FRA) was enacted, there were about 25 lakh acres of forest land under the cultivation by Adivasis in the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh, according to tribal organisations.
At the end of July 2020 (which is a last available data), while the government received 1,86,679 claims including (1,83,252 individual claims and 3,427 community claims), land titles have been distributed for only 93,639 claims in Telangana, as per the data released by the ministry of tribal affairs.
Between January 2017 and July 2020, only 145 new podu land claims were given land titles under FRA in the state.
"Thousands of tribes are yet to apply for land titles in the state due to a wide range of reasons such as harassment from forest authorities and their vulnerable living conditions," said R Sree Ram Naik, general secretary of the Telangana Girijana Sangham. In several cases, the authorities have not allotted land as claimed by the tribals, he added.
He also said, "A round table conference will be conducted on the issue by the tribal organisations, and begin statewide protests demanding the distribution of land titles."
The tribals alleged that plantation on podu lands violated their rights, guaranteed under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
The forest officials, however, argue that they took up a plantation on government lands, and the Forest Rights Act apply only to those lands which were under cultivation before December 2005.
When The Logical Indian contacted a senior official from the forest department of Telangana state, he denied commenting on the issue citing it was a matter to be decided by the state government.
However, other sources in the department said that the Chief Minister of the state, in a recent meeting at Nagarjuna Sagar dam, said the government would take a firm decision to resolve the podu land issue soon.
"He (CM) said the government is really concerned about the Adivasis issue with respect to podu land. He assured that he will soon visit various districts and review the issues personally. He said that a policy will be chalked out soon that will permanently solve the issue of podu lands," said a source who wished to remain anonymous.
The source further added, "The forest department is not disturbing the land where there are crops sown by the tribals for many years now, as per the rules. But they are cracking down on new encroachments of the forest land."
He said that as the rainfall was bounty in many areas in the state during monsoons, the cultivation wass being enhanced by the tribals.
"In some areas, the tribals have even encroached forest land to grow crops. To crackdown on encroachments, the forest department officials are surveying the forest land and are digging trenches to mark a boundary. They are also planting trees," he further added.