Rural issues
The unconstitutional bodies often perpetuate the social and caste structure by imposing social boycotts on marginalised communities that do not bend to their diktats.
A welcome board by a VDC at the entrance of Pipri village

Bussapur is a tiny village in Telangana’s Armoor sub-division situated just off National Highway 44, around 200 km from the state’s capital of Hyderabad. At first glance, nothing looks strange about the village. But underneath the garb of normalcy, Bussapur and many other villages in the region are witness to social boycotts by Village Development Committees (VDCs), which often act as extra-constitutional authorities.

Claiming to work for the development of the village, VDCs are constituted with representatives from each local community, following which elections for committee president, vice-president and treasurer take place. However, VDCs often end up perpetuating the continuation of social and caste structure in the village.

The case of Bussapur is unique because the VDC here has boycotted the highest elected representative of the village – the sarpanch.

It is a semi-cloudy day with sporadic rainfall in the first week of August, and lush green paddy fields can be seen in the distance as this reporter visits the house of Jakkula Mamatha, a Dalit woman who was the sarpanch of Bussapur from 2013 to 2019.

For more than a year and half, Mamatha and her family have been socially boycotted by the VDC in her village. This means that a diktat has been issued that no resident of Bussapur must be seen conducting any transaction with her family. Any violation of the boycott will result in a hefty fine ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 10,000.

“We even get milk, groceries and vegetables from outside the village. Nobody sells us anything and we too have stopped asking them,” Mamatha says, talking about how the boycott has become normalised.

Mamtha and Srinivas

Mamatha’s husband Srinivas says, “Now we are reaching out to farmers in other villages to hire tractors and cultivators. Even if we want to hire labourers for the farm, they are scared of fines and consequences.”

Mamatha’s family is not alone. Three other families in Bussapur are at the receiving end of a well-calculated move unleashed by the dominant Reddy caste in the village.

Linganna and Sayanna, two others who were boycotted by Bussapur's VDC 

Socially binding diktats

The boycotted families say that it began in January 2017 when certain members of the Reddy community, who are currently part of the VDC, approached them.

“During Independence, around 21 acres of land on the outskirts of the village was allotted to different families as ‘community land’ to be used for grazing and other common purposes. Ten and a half acres was in the name of the four families that are facing boycott now and the remaining was in the name of the Reddys. In 2017, they demanded that we transfer the entire land in our name to them,” Srinivas says.

While three families belong to the Mala and Madiga community categorised as Scheduled Castes, one family belongs to the Nayakpod community (ST).

Speaking to TNM, all the four families said that influential members of the Reddy community from the village held a meeting in the presence of other communities and ordered the four families to either agree to the terms of the VDC and write off their land, or be ready to face the consequences. As they didn’t agree they were boycotted, the families claim.

Maddikunta Sayanna, the farmer from the Nayakpod community who is facing the boycott, says, “We didn’t agree to their terms. The land belongs to all communities. How can they ask us to transfer it to merely one community?”

However, Bussapur is not the only village in the region where VDCs issue social diktats and function with such impunity.

A welcome board by a VDC at Chittapur

How VDCs became an ‘institution’

Observers from the region say that formats similar to the VDC have existed in the past in the form of ‘village elders’, but since the late 90s and the early 2000s, they have been given a more well-defined shape and form, which also allows them to wield more power.

Though the pooling of representatives from all communities sounds like an inclusive idea in principle, the ground reality is different as the terms and conditions are always set by the dominant castes, notes Gangaram K, a Backward Caste farmer from Bussapur.

“There are 200 BC and SC families but we get only four representatives, while 150 families from the dominant castes get 8 representatives,” he points out.

Being an activist hailing from the Dalit community, senior advocate and former Zilla Parishad Chairman Ganta Sadanandam has a lot to say about VDCs.

Sadanandam

Sitting in his office in Armoor town, Sadanandam says that one first needs to understand the socio-political economy of the region. Armoor is agriculturally well-off thanks to the Sriram Sagar irrigation project, and communities like the Reddys and Kapus, who traditionally held lands, managed to garner wealth and political power.

Communities with no land, mainly Dalits, began migrating to the Gulf countries.

The Gulf migration by Dalits and other marginalised castes ensured that they became better off financially. Sadanandam says that this threatened the social structure that was prevalent in these villages.

“By the early 2000s, the idea of ‘village elders’ took new form as the VDC. Today VDCs operate in such a way that there is nothing on paper. They are unconstitutional bodies that do not even spare MLAs if they don’t bend to their diktats,” he says.

The toll of a boycott

Close to the Sriram Sagar reservoir lies the Vaddera colony of Khanapur village. With the project submerging several villages, a settlement village called Maggidi came up between the colony and Khanapur.

Vaddera is one of the most backward communities in the state, which has been demanding ST status for a long time. Their colony, which is now stuck between two villages, has another unique story to tell.

The colony has around 100 families, who say they have been residing there for as long as they can remember. Most of them are farmers with a piece of land, which they claim they bought after working in Gulf countries and earning some money.

The locals here say that they are too far from Khanapur to be part of the VDC there, but at the same time they have faced repeated social boycotts from the VDC at Maggidi.

When TNM visited the colony, we learnt that the matter began in July when the Vadderas pooled in money and tried to lay a service road up to a bus stand situated nearby.

Narsanna, a farmer in his mid-30s, says, “As the existing mud road was an issue, we decided to renovate and make the bus stand area comfortable. However, a few could not digest the fact that we were laying our own road and turned it into a dispute, claiming that we encroached a piece of their land.”

The road that runs through the Vaddera colony

He adds, “Soon the matter was blown out of proportion and the Maggidi VDC announced a social boycott of our colony.”

The boycott had severe repercussions for the Vadderas as they were denied electricity, groceries, water supply, and could not even find agricultural work in the fields.

“They have all become one and we have become the other,” a Vaddera women claims.

Assertion a reason?

Linganna, the Khanapur vice-sarpanch who stays in the Vaddera colony, says, “Earlier we used to work as labourers for them but now some of us are living a decent life, and while several of us are into agriculture, they seem to be unable to digest our growth. The boycott is unwarranted.”

“We don’t want to fight. We want to have a cordial relationship like earlier, but they don’t want us to be assertive,” Linganna adds.

The community has filed a case against members of the VDC with the local police alleging social boycott and discrimination. After the police interfered, the VDC backed away and removed the social boycott.

A youngster who didn’t want to be named says, “It’s just a temporary calm, now that this dispute has happened a clear divide is there.”

In most such cases of highhandedness by the VDCs, the only option left for those facing boycott is to approach the police and the courts.

In Manthani village, a similar diktat was issued by the VDC when at least 120 Dalit families refused to give land for a temple. The matter went to court but none of the VDC members were arrested.

When TNM visited the village, the families said that though there was no social boycott imposed at present, the way they are treated is no better.

Ravi G, a former VDC member, says, “Until we filed a case, we were denied even transport facilities such as auto or tractor… owners were ordered not to give their vehicles on hire to us.”

The locals of Manthani

Dodging legal scrutiny

Sadanandam explains that VDCs often don’t face legal scrutiny as nothing is established on paper.

“Generally, cases are booked under sections of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which dictate an imprisonment of 3 to 5 years, making it easy for the accused to get bail from the police station itself,” he says.

In cases like that of the Vaddera colony, even the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act does not apply.

“While there have been no convictions, we managed to get compensation in some cases, including for the social boycott at Manthani. But again there is a complication, as only those named as complainants in the FIR got a compensation of Rs 1 lakh each,” Sadanandam adds.

The Dalit families in Manthani say that while they had initially gone to the police station with 120 names, the final FIR had only 13 complainants. The remaining people are yet to be compensated for the boycott that they were put through.

While repeated calls to Nizamabad Commissioner Karthikeya went unanswered, TNM spoke to National SC Commission member K Ramulu, who had visited some of these villages in the region when social boycotts were imposed.

“This issue has not come to the notice of the state government in a full-fledged manner. The Commission has reached out to the Chief Secretary and a letter was also sent. We are planning to hold a review meeting soon with regard to such social boycotts by ‘VDCs’ in the district,” Ramulu says.

“We will ensure that the government issues firm guidelines to district authorities to take necessary action whenever and wherever required. In our opinion, these bodies are unconstitutional and acting beyond the purview of the law. Even SC guidelines (on khap panchayats) state that no such bodies are allowed to take such actions or persecute people,” he adds.

When pointed out that there was no specific law to deal with such boycotts, he says, “It is true, there is no law. We are looking at the issue in a larger sense as there are similar bodies across the country. The Commission is working towards directing concerned states to draft a law to curb such activities.”

However, on the ground, locals continue to suffer. Sadanandam says that despite several cases against social boycotts being filed, it has not resulted in a single conviction. Even though the police and courts are able to intervene and undo the boycotts, true ‘normalcy’ is never really restored.

“Though the boycott has been revoked, there is not much interaction with people of other castes like earlier. The VDC says that everything is fine, but there is a silent friction,” P Srinivas, a local from Manthani, says.

Also read: Telangana’s Village Development Committees act like feudal landlords, perpetuate caste