Thousands were forced to migrate when violence suddenly escalated in Chhattisgarh around 2004-05 in the conflict between Maoist guerrillas and Indian state. No one exactly knows how many thousands migrated.
It was a popular military strategy known as Strategic hamleting: Dry the water if you want to catch the fish. India has earlier tried it in places like Mizoram. British had tried it in Malaya and the Americans in Vietnam.
15 years on, these Internally Displaced People ( IDPs) are still living in forests between Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh ( now also Telangana). Many of these settlements were broken and burnt by police and forest officials from Andhra Pradesh in efforts to push them back to Chhattisgarh many times but the IDPs came back to the same places after a while. Their home in Chhattisgarh is still under worse kind of fire.
After the Congress government came to power in Chhattisgarh state in last November some of these IDPs visited the state capital for the first time. Under the banner of The new Peace process, 300 of them cycled 300 km from Bastar to capital Raipur to request the new government to think about their rehabilitation.
While cycling they also discussed Forest Rights Act and discovered that there is a clause in FRA called In Situ rehabilitation which allows them to request for an alternative land somewhere else against the land they were forced to leave before 2005.
Most of them still do not want to go back home. Original villages are mostly in the deep jungle, many miles away from the main road. Maoists still have considerable control in those villages so they do not want to take a chance. If there is an option for land right in a safer place, they might think.
But Adivasis do everything their way. Can we do a Pen Pandum first, they asked us. Pen is God and Pandum is festival in their Gondi language. Every Adivasi village has a village God. And they used to take their Gods to their festivals. So can they do it again?
Can there be a Pen Pandum of all our displaced village Gods and we will also discuss our rehabilitation, was the suggestion. Village Gods often meet in similar pandums in this Adivasi region but that has not happened in displaced villages for the past 15 years. People have met sometimes but Gods haven’t.
So we are planning a Pen Pandum of displaced village Gods on 12th and 13th of June in Konta at the bank of river Shabari. Konta is at crossroads of states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and Chhattisgarh. IDPs will come with their Gods and we will also fill the forms for Forest Rights.
They will also come with their costumes and drums. There will be lots of singing, dancing all night. After the violence, drums have also stopped here and pandums are a rarity especially with the displaced population. The state does not even know their exact number forget doing much about them. They have just ordered a survey to know their exact number.
We understand that there are around 5000 displaced families and around 30,000 people living in around 248 settlements in the forests between these states and they do not have access to basic facilities. They are not treated as normal citizens where they live. They get lower wages. Most have no documents to prove their citizenship.
What was discovered during the evening meetings of Cycle Yatra is that Forest Rights Act has a clause no 3.1.M which talks of In Situ rehabilitation. So if you were forcefully displaced from the forest land you lived till 2005 then you can ask for alternative land. But this has never been used in India, though the Forest Rights Act is in use from 2006.
Ideally, the IDPs hope that all the state governments concerned here will get together and give land rights of the land IDPs are cultivating in any of the states against the land they possessed before 2005. Central government need to play a major role in bringing all the players together.
We have been playing these games with these forest-dwelling people from a long time. They have moved 50 or 100 kilometres from where they lived when violence escalated. But in their new place where they have cut some forest to do farming they have been told that it is a new state called Telangana or Andhra Pradesh and according to the schedules of this state they are not Adivasi and can not apply for Forest Rights.
These are the poorest people of our country. They live in no man’s land. They also don’t vote. Most of them don’t have ration cards and voting cards. They get fewer wages than other Adivasis with those privileges from the states.
We should and can help these most hapless people amongst us. We still have no money to arrange this Pen Pandum and you can help. Let’s hope that governments will use the Forest Rights Act to also reverse this historic injustice meted out to some of our most simple and honest citizens.
About the author: Shubhranshu Choudhary is a journalist and is part of The new peace process in Central India. He also heads CGnet Swara (Voice of Chattisgarh).
To reach Konta, the venue for Pen Pandum, Rajahmundry is the nearest airport. You can also use Vijaywada and Raipur airports. The nearest railheads are Rajahmundry, Khammam and Vishakhapatnam. If one is willing, they can visit Shabari Gandhi Ashramam at Chatti village, East Godavari district and phone numbers are 8602007333/8333/444.