The morning of January 6, claim tribal farmers in Chinna Jaggampeta in Andhra's Visakhapatnam district, dawned with a shocking theft.
The adivasis in the village allege that the local Mandal Revenue Officer (MRO), along with several armed policemen and labourers arrived at the village, bundled them into the police vans, and 'stole' their paddy crop that was nearing harvest.
The village, situated in Nathavaram mandal, consists of around 40 to 50 families, who predominantly grow paddy, cashew, coconut and palm.
The farmers alleged that the move was at the behest of a local political leader, who had been eyeing the land for a long time.
According to reports, the villagers had developed a unique cooperative system, where no one owns any single plot of land, and the entire produce is shared equally after harvest.
"This year, we had a good crop. We produce about 30 bags from each acre and every family gets around six bags of rice and this is our only source of livelihood. The festive mood was just setting in, as the harvest time was nearing. And the authorities came down and destroyed our crop...The next day, we found our lush green fields turned a barren tract," a villager told The Hindu.
They alleged that the paddy was mercilessly cut till late in the night, and transported via tractors to several locations including a large chunk that had been dumped outside the MRO's office.
On Wednesday, a fact-finding team which consisted of members from Rythu Swarajya Vedika (RSV), National Alliance of Peopleās Movements (NAPM) and Dalita Samanvaya Committee, along with some media outlets, visited the village.
Locals who spoke to the team, claimed that 22 acres of land were part of the civil dispute, and a case was already in court.
It started when Ankam Reddy Nookaraju, a local politician, obtained a sale agreement and procured a 'pattadar' pass book around two to three decades ago.
"The land was being cultivated by tribals for as long as they can remember. Around 20 to 30 years ago, one of the local landlords, with connections to the Congress, obtained the 'pattadar' pass book, through certain illegitimate means. Following that, the tribals had backed off for a little while, until the next generation got educated, and they realised that they have a right over the land too," reports Kiran Vissa, one of the members of the fact-finding team.
A few years ago, the adivasis had challenged the 'patta' itself under the land reform act, on the grounds that they were the cultivators of the land, and the 'owner' of the land hadn't even set foot in the area for several years.
The locals allege that the landlord was trying to drive them away before the civil dispute case reached its conclusion. He fears that he will lose the land, they claim, as he does not have a strong defense to retain ownership of the land.
"They allege that, by the time the final hearing of the case comes up, he wants to establish that the villagers were not cultivating or 'in possession' of the land, so he will win the case. He has also allegedly said that he has paid several lakh to the local revenue officials to put them in his pocket, while threatening the tribals," Kiran adds.
On December 21, 2016, the Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO), issued an order stating that the land was disputed, and he was not able to determine who had a right over it.
"As part of the order, he also stated that the crop had to be confiscated. However, not a single villager was given the order, which was itself printed in English. No Telugu copy was made available," Kiran says.
Following the order, local activists got wind of the issue, and challenged it in the Hyderabad High Court.
"The case was coming up for hearing on January 6, the same day that the policemen descended on the village. It was no coincidence," says Kiran.
Though a temporary order was passed at around 4pm on the same day by the HC, to maintain status quo, the removal of the crop allegedly went on till late in the night that day.
"While the advocate rushed and conveyed the order to the MRO, he claimed that he did not receive it from his side, through government channels, so he could not officially stop the work," Kiran adds.
As of now, the tribals have begun a hunger strike at Nathavaram, which is the mandal headquarters.
Their demands include, that their case pending in the Joint Collector court of Vishakhapatnam since 2014 be adjudicated immediately, that the Narsipatanam RDO Korada Suyararao be suspended, and an enquiry on the issue be conducted.
They also demanded a return of their paddy crop, presently rotting in front of the MRO office, and cancellation of the RDO order dated December 21.