There is a distinct feature about the Rekhapalli reserve forest, it is the silence. The silence about the Godavari that flows through the forest, through the valleys of the Papikondalu, intercepted only by the siren from the tourist boats. About the numbing heat, and the dryness of it. About the people living in the forest. About their rights. About lives. Silence because of the slowness of it all.
But the construction of the dam is happening very fast. And once the dam is built at Polavaram in West Godavari district, there will be more silence in this forest. 10,000 acres of forest land and a good part of the Papikondalu Wildlife Sanctuary will be submerged. No more sirens then.
What about the voices of the people living in this forest, along the river, in the valleys, and on the hills? 631 square kilometres of Schedule 5 area will be submerged. Almost exclusively inhabited by tribal people — the Koyas in the valleys and the Kondareddys on the hills. They did break the silence. But the state government claims it did not hear any noises. At least that is what it told the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on July 28, 2010.
Tribal people in this country have been neglected for a very long time. They have been silent for they had their forest. Armed insurgents came first. The army and the police came next, looking for the insurgents. But they still remained silent amidst the violence, for they still had their forest; access was restricted but, at least, the forest was still there.
Next came mining corporations to nibble away their forests and hills. And then dams, which wanted to swallow their forests in whole. They couldn't let themselves be silent any more.
According to the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA), the state has to first recognise the rights of the people dependent on the forest and only then can it seek ‘consent’ from the gram sabhas to clear the forest for any purpose. About 48% of the population which would be displaced due to the project is tribal. And the first step towards the recognition and vesting of their rights has been in abeyance ever since.
A land claims list
Permission for the clearance of the forest was given on July 28, 2010. The MoEF asked the state government about the status of the implementation of the FRA. The state government replied saying ‘no claims were made’.
Claims here are of two kinds: one, an individual patta for the land under ‘podu' cultivation, and two, a collective patta for the entire village for their dependence on the forest for their livelihood.
When in October 2010, the MoEF received complaints that 13 villages from Vararachandrapuram (VR puram), Kukkunoor and Chinturu mandals have indeed made claims, Jairam Ramesh wrote a letter to the state government, on November 22, 2010. K Rosaiah was the CM. There was silence.
On January 25, 2011, Jairam Ramesh wrote another letter to the next CM Kiran Kumar Reddy. Again, there was silence. Finally, on February 2, the MoEF decided to send their own designated official to visit the mandals and make spot-assessment of the claims. But this time it was the turn of the MoEF to remain silent.
A visit to the Mandal Revenue Office at VR puram reveals the veracity of the claims. A full list of the claims along with the claim numbers are shown to you. They are a result of a proper survey and satellite mapping.
“The officials came and surveyed our lands 3 years ago. They said they will give us pattas. Nothing happened since then,” said Katakala Venkateswarareddy from Kotarugommu village - a village famous for locking up the MRO and the survey officials in the PHC in 2012 - VR puram mandal. His name features along with many others in the list of claimants from the village.
Kadala Nagireddy from the same village said, “They took some of us to Nellipaka in Ettipaka mandal to show us land for compensation. That is beedu (uncultivable) land. Even if they build us a house there how will we survive? Here we have the forest which gives us everything we need.”
In Pochavaram village of the same mandal, Valla Ramakrishnareddy laments, “I heard that they will compensate land for land upto 2 acres only and pay 1,50,000 rupees per acre for the remaining. But they haven't taken us to Nellipaka or another place for land to land compensation.”
At Jeediguppa, Kadala Kondareddy, another claimant, repeated the same story. “Here we have people, from whom the government wants to buy land to compensate us, from Nellipaka and Tellavarigudem who are visiting us and asking us to quickly agree and relocate so that they can collect their compensation from the government. They want to sell it because it is beedu land,” he pointed.
Some more silence
When contacted, the MRO said that the “claims, around 282, have only now been forwarded to the Divisional Level Committee (DLC) for Polavaram on March 24, 2017”. He blames forest officials for the inordinate delay. “Around 300 claims at the Sub Divisional Level Committee (SDLC) are still waiting for a clearance from the forest officials. But till now they haven't responded. I have even lodged a complaint with the PO, ITDA.” The forest department is silent mimicking the forest.
Gandhibabu, from Agricultural and Social Development Society (ASDS), an NGO based in Rekhapalli, has been working on this issue for more than a decade. He is of the opinion that the government is behaving in an extremely violent manner.
“In Pochavaram, for instance, they have given patta to a few tribals but took them away immediately on the basis that the area was declared as part of the Papikondalu Wildlife Santuary. The villagers were told lies that the collector would personally hand them the patta. Also, if you can give permission for tourism then why not for livelihoods of these innocent tribal people? When it comes to the luxury of the rich all these rules won’t apply? This is the form of everyday violence and hypocrisy they are facing,” he says.
Responding to the MRO’s complaint about the attitude of the forest officials, Gandhibabu asked, “If survey and satellite mapping has been done, it means the permission has come from the DLC. Then how can forest officials block it? Doesn't make sense.”
The project would take a long time to complete. “At least 10 years,” says Gandhibabu. “The 1,981 crores relegated by the Centre is peanuts. To just lift the water and pump it to Visakhapatnam itself would cost 2000 crores. Moreover, the new state has no money.”
And until then, these six mandals — they have been transferred to AP from Telangana — and the tribals living there will have to wait. Wait in silence. Neither the villagers nor the MRO nor Mr. Gandhibabu are optimistic.
This is clearly reflected in Mohanreddy’s eyes. A resident of Jeediguppa village who works with the ASDS and showed me around the place, he said, “Our people are too uneducated to understand why the water would go to urban residents of Visakhapatnam and not them, or why more industries would be floated by drowning our villages or why the state should become number one in ease of doing business on our dead bodies. All we are asking is to implement what you have written yourself in your own law. If you cannot do that we don't know what to say.”
They are silent because they don't know what to say. And the state is silent because they don't want to say.