For four years now, a tribal community in Chittoor has been agitating for their right over hundreds of acres of erstwhile forest land assigned to them by the government more than 40 years ago. More than 50 members of the Nakkala/Shikari tribe came to Vijayawada from their settlement in Marathipuram village, Yerpedu mandal of Chittoor district. They stayed here for a week, in spite of lack of proper shelter, food or sanitation, hoping to meet officials from the CMO, who in July had extended help to resolve their land issue within a month.
Dabba Parashunath, who was part of the group along his wife Sailu, says that around 112 families from his community have lost nearly 560 acres of land due to fraudulent land deals by upper caste farmers, who exploited the poverty and illiteracy of the tribals to acquire the land.
Two months after the officials said they would help, Parashunath says that the community continues to face threats from the upper caste landlords in their village, and there has been no change in the revenue department officialsâ stand on the issue.
âEarlier, ours was a nomadic tribe. Our occupation was hunting. Since the 1960s, our community has been based in Marathipuram. People would occasionally move to nearby places for livelihood, but we were based here. Sometime around the Emergency, our gun licenses were revoked. We were expected to find more mainstream jobs and give up hunting for livelihood,â says Parashunath.
How the land was reassigned
According to Parashunath, based on the Andhra Pradesh Co-Operative Societies Act, 1964, more than 500 acres of forest land was assigned to his community by the government in the 1970s, in order to form a Co-operative Joint Farming Society (CJFS).
The disputed land in Chintalapalem
âIn 1971, FMB (Field Measurement Book) sketches were drawn and data was collected by the revenue department. We received pattas in 1978, but we could not afford the capital needed for farming, so most of our community members continued to travel to nearby towns like Srikalahasti to sell beads and toys,â he says.
During this time, Parashunath and other members of his community say that their families started to lease out their land to upper caste farmers in the village. While most of the deals were done orally, they allege that by 1988, a few upper caste landlords managed to get their community membersâ fingerprints on some documents without explaining the contents to them, and with support from the revenue department officials, managed to get the land reassigned to themselves. The so-called âunregistered sales deedsâ were drawn without the consent or knowledge of their families, the Nakkala community claims.
âThese were assigned and CJFS lands that were wrongfully transferred to others by then Tehsildar Laxmi Narasaiah. He was later suspended because of involvement in a land scam case,â alleges Parashunath.
The government version
Yerpedu Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO) Rangaswamy says that the land assigned to the community in 1978 was around 223 acres, and not around 560 acres as Parashunath claims. âThe people who are agitating, their families were given land in 1978. They stayed for about 10 years. In 1988, they surrendered some land to the government and some to local farmers through oral transactions. They then moved away to Srikalahasti, Nellore, Venkatagiri and other places. They are a nomadic tribe, so they kept moving, they were not cultivating the land. Once they left, the land was reassigned to local landless poor farmers. When government land lies vacant, thatâs a natural process,â the official claims.
Rangaswamy says that the community has been agitating for the land since 2015-16, and insinuates that it is because of the recent changes in the region. âSince 2015, IIT and IISER have been set up here, the region has become an industrial hub. They must be hoping for something, since the land prices have gone up,â he says.
The collector meeting with the community during a Spandana program after CMO orders
When asked about the stipulated time period for which assigned land must remain unused before being reassigned by the government, Rangaswamy says, âItâs not about time period. Their Aadhaar cards, ration cards are all from Venkatagiri. The Venkatagiri tahsildar says they are getting all government benefits there.â
But Parashunath carries around his Aadhar card with a Marathipuram address in his pocket. âOnly our ration cards and voter cards are from Venkatagiri. Even then, we are getting our ration from Chintalapalem (panchayat under which Marathipuram falls) through biometric verification,â he says. He adds that they had started demanding their land back in 2006 itself, but couldnât afford legal fees and other expenses because of the communityâs financial situation. âThere was no electricity or any facility in Marathipuram, so we were forced to move to Venkatagiri temporarily. Later, when electricity was available at Marathipuram, and our financial situation was slightly improved, we moved back,â he says. He also alleges that the community has been trying to shift their ration and voter cards to Marathipuram, but the mandal officials have been obstructing this.
Parashunath and other members of his community have MGNREGA job cards issued from Chintalapalem. âIn 2017, we got job cards under the MGNREGA scheme, so the community stopped travelling often and began to live there more consistently. This caused insecurity among the local farmers who have been trying to attack us. Even before that, we filed a petition in the High Court in 2015. The hearing has been delayed, and paying the legal fees has been a burden on the community,â Parashunath explains.
Tribals threatened and attacked
According to the MRO, the 223 acres of land have been reassigned to around 70 local landless farmers. But the Nakkala community alleges that while that may be the case on paper, only a handful of powerful landlords have been cultivating most of the land, threatening the Nakkala community whenever theyâve tried to reclaim it. Parashunath and his community insists that they had been given a total of 560 acres of land. âThe revenue department still hasnât accounted for nearly 330 acres. That is our land too,â Parashunath says.
âIn 2015, when we tried to stop them from cultivating the land as the matter was sub judice, they booked a case on us. But after that, there were many instances where they have attacked us. We tried to file an SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities case, but no action has been taken against them,â says Parashunath. Members of the community allege that the upper caste farmers have abused them with casteist slurs, harassed women from the community, and have even brought petrol cans threatening to set fire to their homes.
In spite of repeated directions to the revenue department to look into the issue, the decision has continued to be against the community. After pursuing the Chief Ministerâs Office relentlessly in July this year, directions were issued to the Chittoor District Collector from the CMO to look into the issue.
âWe were told that the matter would be resolved in a month, but it has been two months already. Last month, we again asked them to stop cultivating our lands until the inquiry was done, but they threatened us with preventive detention,â said Parashunath.
Responding to the Collectorâs orders to look into the matter, the Yerpedu MRO said that the petitioners have been unable to produce documentary evidence to prove their right over the âdisputed siteâ. The MRO referred to orders given in 2015, stating that the petitioners of the Nakkala community have âno right over the piece of lands and should not enter the land and should not interfere with peaceful possession of the villagers of Chintalapalemâ.
MRO Rangaswamy said that an inquiry report has been submitted to the CMO. âWeâve been instructed to do an inquiry, not to return the lands. If the government hadnât reassigned the land, the POT (Prohibition of Transfers) Act could be applied and the land could be reclaimed. But the land has been in their (local farmersâ) possession for 30 years now, passbooks have been issued and theyâve been given the rights over the land. Now we canât cancel those and return the land to the tribals, it is impossible,â Rangaswamy claims.
After being denied permission to continue their protest at Vijayawada's Dharna chowk, the community members stayed in the city bus stand and railway station for 3 days and nights, before giving up on being forced to leave these spaces by the police. They are now awaiting the Praja Darbar meeting to be held at the Chief Minister's office, to bring their problems to the CM's notice again.