As the Telangana government has been pushing to reclaim land belonging to its forest department for afforestation, Adivasis say that they are losing their agricultural land.

A recent face off between Forest officials and Adivasis in Kothagudem By arrangement
news Forests Sunday, August 02, 2020 - 16:51

Mohan Rao, a Koya tribal farmer from Telangana, says that he has been cultivating land in the same area, near Satyanarayanapuram village in Bhadradri Kothagudem district’s Chandrugonda mandal, for the last 25 years. Like him, many in his village have been tilling the soil for over two decades. But that has now changed, with a renewed drive by the Forest Department to reclaim forest land from ‘encroachments’.

Around 80 adivasis from the village have alleged that forest officials were trying to take over 200 acres of land, on which they have been farming for over two decades. The issue is contentious as the tribal people do not have documents and they say that repeated applications to officials were never considered seriously.

"In 2001, forest officials started filing cases on us alleging that we were encroaching their lands. Later, we gave multiple applications to revenue authorities and Project Officers at Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA), but we were never heard," Mohan Rao said 

According to Mohan Rao, several farmers in the region are unable to cultivate on the lands as they failed to produce documents. 

"We don't have any alternative other than cultivating this land. Now, forest, revenue and police want us to step out of the land. This year, they didn't let us cultivate. Most of us are now being forced to walk over 25 km to nearby towns and other villages for daily wages to survive," he said.

The row is far from new. Known as the ‘podu’ lands controversy, the Telangana government has been aggressively pushing to reclaim land belonging to its forest department, citing that it would be used for afforestation under its flagship Haritha Haram scheme. However, adivasi farmers say that their ‘podu’ (agricultural) land is being seized by the state in this process. Several of them allege that they are being threatened with cases and consequences if they tried to resist.

Last year, the incident had gained national attention after a Forest Range Officer, Ch Anitha, was attacked by a mob in June when the government tried to carry out an afforestation programme. The conflict has continued brewing even in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Earlier this week, around 120 Adivasi farmers from Guttagudem in Mulakalapalli mandal of Kothagudem district had a face off with forest officials and police who showed up to carry out afforestation. 

According to farmers, around 500 acres of podu land has been cultivated by them since 1998 and most of them subsequently got land right forms, while the claims of some others are pending. 

‘Laws being violated’

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2005 guarantees to protect the interests of tribals. The Act categorically allows nuclear tribal families to claim up to four acres of land to cultivate while giving them rights to minor forest produce.

Adivasis are alleging that this law is being violated by the forest officials. Uke Ravi, an Adivasi farmer and activist of Adivasi Sena claimed that forest authorities were trying to take away their lands, even though most of them had documents.

Speaking to TNM Ravi said, "Of the 120 farmers who protested, most of us have valid documents and many of us were even beneficiaries of the state’s Rythu Bandhu schemes. Even as the claims of others are pending, forest officials are clamping down on us. They have taken over 100 acres and they’re not letting us  cultivate our land. It seems that they want us to be landless soon."

According to Ravi, several even got compensation for their land when they were taken away for constructing the Sri Rama Lift Irrigation Project. 

Farmers have also gone to the High Court against the forest officials' attempts to take the land alleging violation of Forest Rights Act and Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013. 

After hearing their case, the HC directed officials not to take over lands where farmers have valid documents while directing the concerned ITDA Project officer and officials to address the claims of farmers speedily. 

However, farmers claim that forest officials have disregarded the HC’s orders and are going ahead with afforestation in their lands. 

One farmer that TNM spoke to, said that forest and police officials were threatening to foist cases against them. He said, "They're scaring us. Forest and police officials are coming in the morning and picking up farmers. Then, they are clearing our crops (cotton) with tractors and planting trees."

Uke Ravi said that local forest officials have disregarded even their resolution in the Gram Sabha as per provisions of the PESA (Panchayats Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act.  

However, officials from the Forest department claim that they are only reclaiming lands which were encroached recently, with the help of Google’s satellite imagery.

Govt denies allegations

Speaking to TNM, Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) PV Raja Rao said, "Forest officials don't have the authority to touch the lands which have valid documents as per the Forest Rights Act. Severe action will be taken against anyone who goes beyond the Act. At the same time, if a concerned forest official fails to protect the department’s land when someone is trying to encroach or cultivate, even without any documents, there will be action against them for inefficiency."

The CCF further claimed that there are many cases where people other than tribals are trying to encroach fertile forest lands by using them as ‘shields’.

Kothagudem District Forest Officer (DFO) Ranjith Nayak also stated that allegations of attacks and encroachments by forest officials are false. Responding to claims of Guttagudem farmers, he said, "There were no pattas (documents) for the lands wherever we have carried out the plantation drive. The other thing is that though most of them have lands with valid documents elsewhere, they have encroached over 200 acres of forest department land."

Referring to the particular instance, the DFO said, "It was them, who attacked forest officials by tying them to a tree. We have filed case of assault and attempt to murder."

The officer when asked about the petition in HC said that they are only taking up plantation drives in encroached lands and not in the lands that have valid documents.

When TNM reached out to the Project Officer (PO) at the ITDA Bhadrachalam, he said that there were no pending claims over documents in the two villages.

"There are no pending claims in these two villages (Satyanarayanapuram and Guttagudem) are concerned, in contrast to claims being made. There are some lands for which farmers have ‘pattas’ as per Forest Rights Act and forest officials are well aware of such lands as we have given them details with longitude and latitude. Forest officials are not touching those lands. If there are any complaints against forest officials taking up plantation drives in such lands, we will conduct an enquiry," PO P Gowtham said

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