Podu lands row between Adivasis and Forest Dept resurfaces in Telangana

Adivasi farmers have alleged that Forest Department officials were violating their cultivation rights.
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A year after a female Forest Range Officer was attacked during a scuffle over a government afforestation programme in Asifabad district, another conflict appears to have resurfaced in Telangana between forest-dwelling Adivasis and Forest Department officials over podu (agriculture) lands. As many as 14 Adivasi farmers, along with an Adivasi rights activist, have been booked for allegedly obstructing forest officials from discharging their duties and confronting them, in Bhadradri Kothagudem district.

The alleged stand-off between Adivasi farmers and forest officials took place on Tuesday morning, when the latter sought to plough 19 hectares of land to carry out a plantation drive as part of the Telangana Haritha Haram in Lakshmidevipally mandal. Telangana Haritha Haram is the state government’s flagship programme to plant trees on a large scale.

The Forest Department claimed that the plantation drive was taking up their afforestation drive in lands allegedly belonging to the Department. However, the Adivasi farmers alleged that the officials were using their podu lands and violating their cultivation rights.

The Adivasis in pockets of Adilabad, Khammam and Warangal districts argue that the government's flagship programme violates their rights, guaranteed under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

However, forest officials from the Kinnerasani Wildlife Division alleged that Vasam Ramakrishna Dora, convenor of the Adivasi Joint Action Committee, had gathered the tribal residents and stopped officials from ploughing the land on Tuesday. 

Naresh, a Deputy Range Officer, in his complaint to the Lakshmidevipally police, alleged that Vasam led as many as 25 people against him and his staff. He also alleged that they had been forced to leave the area.

The police have registered cases under Sections 143 (punishment for unlawful assembly), 447 (punishment for criminal trespass), 186 (omitting assistance to public servant ) read with Sections 109 (abetting for offence) and 149 (offence by a member of assembly with common intent) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

“The afforestation drive is being taken up in our podu lands, on which hundreds of Adivasi families are surviving. Forest officials are, in fact, planning to acquire our lands each year bit-by-bit,” alleged Vasam Ramakrishna.

Ramakrishna said that forest officials had scant regard for the Forest Rights Act.

“When we told the Forest Department to not take over Adivasis lands, they filed cases on us. We were only seeking to ensure the Forest Rights Act is implemented,” he told TNM.

However, senior officials from the Forest Department in Bhadradri Kothagudem denied allegations of encroachment.

Kothagudem District Forest Officer (DFO) L Ranjith Nayak told TNM that the Department was only using land belonging to the government. 

“We don't trespass into any private land of persons who have legal right over it. The lands in which there was cultivation before December 2005 can only be granted to the rightful dwellers as per the ROFR Act,” he said.

According to the DFO, there are as many as 4,000 pending claims for podu lands in Kothagudem district. “We are not touching any lands that have pending claims against them. We are assuring that no tribal, who has legal right over a parcel of land, should be affected,” he said.

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