The Koya tribes of Thottipampu have slowly lost their lands to non-tribal moneylenders and landlords, reducing their status to that of laborers in their own fields.

Two women walk in a field, their backs to the camera Image for representation: Picxy
news Opinion Thursday, October 29, 2020 - 15:46
Written by  Palla Trinadha Rao

Potta Dasaradh is distressed. He says that his grandfather, Mallappa, was the original owner of 5.26 acres situated at Nagupalli village in a Scheduled Area in Telangana, where tribal people live. However, the land has been in occupation of non-tribals in spite of an order that was passed in his favor by the Special Deputy Collector, Tribal Welfare, Bhadrachalam, and a direction from the Polvancha Sub-Collector to Dammapeta mandal Tahsildar in 2015 to hand the land back to him.

His story is not uncommon. Despite the epochal Land Transfer Regulations (LTR) and orders of the government to protect their interests, restoration of tribal land remains a mirage in a predominantly Koya tribe village, Thottipampu, situated in Dammapeta mandal in Bhadradri kothagudem district in Telangana.

Thottipampu is a scheduled village notified under the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution of India. The LTR, 1963 as amended by 1 of 70 prohibits the transfer of lands not only between tribal persons and non-tribals but also among non-tribals in the Scheduled Areas.

Thottipampu: A case study

The situation in Thottipampu is an ideal case to examine the nature of the approach by revenue officials towards the protection of tribal land rights. The Koya Tribes have slowly lost their lands to non-tribal moneylenders and landlords, reducing their status to that of laborers in their own fields.

The tribal inhabitants of Thottipampu have been fighting for the retrieval of their land, nearly 70 acres worth, since 1975 through legal means. Despite this, for many like Potta Dasaradh, who even got official orders, the 5.26 acres that his grandfather owned is yet to be handed back to him. According to him, non-tribals engaged in grabbing their land whenever their ancestors failed to repay their debts to them.

Although tribal families could succeed in several rounds of litigation in designated courts, the local Tahsildar never made any attempt to implement the court’s orders, the residents of Thottipampu allege. For instance, Kanithi Venkappa from the village filed an appeal in 2006 before the Additional Agent to Government, (Project Officer, ITDA, Bhadrachalam) challenging an order issued in favor of non-tribals over a land of 6.26 guntas (40 guntas make up an acre).

The ITDA Project Officer accepted his appeal in June 2008, directing the Tahsildar of Dammapeta to hand over the land to a tribal appellant by evicting non-tribal people. The unsuccessful non-tribal person then challenged the order before the Telangana government, which upheld the earlier order that was passed, in March 2014. However, the order was not enforced, resulting in the non-tribal person later approaching the High Court and stalling the proceedings.

Similar are the woes in the case of Bandaru Korraju, another tribal person, whose name stood in the revenue records as ‘pattadar’ (title deed holder) for 7.38 acres and also orders issued in his favor by the ITDA PO in February 2009, and subsequently by the state government in March 2018. There are around a dozen such cases from this village like that of Potta Yariappa, Karam Venkateswararao, Karam Krishnaiah, Bandaru Lakshmayya, Potta Vasantharao and Karam Apparao, who have been waiting for justice for decades now.

Indifferent attitude of revenue officials

Notwithstanding the seemingly good intentions of the LTR and orders passed in favor of tribal people for restoration of alienated lands from the illegal possession of non-tribals, the willful disobedience of the orders of higher authorities paved the way for non-tribals to secure directions from the High court to stall the implementation of orders.

On the other hand, non-tribals continue to benefit through collusion with those involved in the very mechanisms to ensure justice to tribal people. Revenue officials who are the custodians of tribal lands in the Scheduled Areas have become the principal perpetrators instrumental to the paupersiation of tribal people, by making them landless.

Delay in disposal of LTR cases and implementation of orders

What is most disturbing is that there has been an abnormal delay in disposal of tribal land cases in the courts. This problem is further aggravated by the non-implementation of orders issued in favor of tribal people by revenue officials. As per the orders of the government in 2008, LTR cases at the level of Special Deputy Collector, Tribal Welfare, shall be disposed off within six months, while those with Appellate courts were to be disposed within two months.

However, this rarely happens. As of March 2015, Agency Courts in Telangana decided 31,135 cases covering an extent of 1,05,361 acres in favour of tribal persons. However, the enforcing machinery set up under the LTR could only restore 81,829 acres to tribal people pertaining to 22,695 cases which shows the tardy implementation of orders issued in favor of tribal people.

The Koneru Land Committee constituted by the government on tribal land issues in 2005 felt that “the restoration orders in most of the cases are pending for decades. The progress is negligible and tardy to say the least, because of the resistance or apprehension of resistance from the non-tribals.”

It may mentioned here, the Supreme Court of India in 2018 held that “in all pending cases where stay against proceedings of a civil or criminal trial is operating, the same will come to an end on expiry of six months, unless extended by the courts including High Court. Thus, even legally, non-tribals can not take shelter under the stay orders granted long ago and continue occupying tribal lands.

LTR requires more teeth

In fact, non-tribals are liable for punishment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend to Rs 2,000 for the crime, if they continue to be in possession of land after an order of eviction was passed against them, or acquire land in contravention of the LTR in the Scheduled Areas.

Revenue officials never invoke this provision to penalise non-tribals for reasons best known to themselves. On the other hand, the underprivileged tribal people are not able to withstand the force of a strong nexus between the non-tribals and revenue staff, to occupy their lands.

Thottipampu is a case study of how laws and orders issued with good intentions may still not be able to percolate down to the very people they are supposed to benefit. With this in mind, an argument can be made to amend Section 6A of LTR, 1978, to provide penal punishment for enforcing officers who fail to implement orders issued in favor of tribal people and the provisions of LTR in the Scheduled Area.

Otherwise, the woes of tribal people, like the residents of Thottipampu, to retain or recover their own lands will not cease. They continue to unjustly suffer land deprivation, resulting in dispossessions of different kinds.

The writer is a lawyer and an activist working for tribals rights for more than three decades. Views expressed are the author’s own.