Three Forest Department officials tasked with the afforestation of forest lands under the Telangana government’s Haritha Haram programme were allegedly assaulted by local villagers in Bhadradri Kothagudem district. The incident was reported on Monday at Chintaguppa village in Dummugudem Mandal, where ‘podu’ lands were being cleared as part of afforestation work.
The Forest Department officials said they were trying to retrieve 27 hectares of forest land used for seasonal cultivation by Adivasi communities. Tensions between Forest Department officials and Adivasi communities had been brewing for a while with locals demanding patta (land deeds) for cultivating the lands.
According to a senior official in the Forest Department, on Monday, the District Field Officer had visited the locality for inspection and was first surrounded by a group of women who tied him to a tree using a rope. Then two other officers were called in as backup and were also beaten and briefly detained by the local women, the official further added. The trio was released after senior forest officers rushed to the spot to reason with the community.
The assault on the officers comes days after an agitation, on April 10, by Adivasi farmers from Kondapalli village in Kumrambheem Asifabad district. They were demanding that the state government issue pattas for the lands being cultivated. The Adivasi farmers said they had been cultivating forest lands under the Forest Rights Act for decades but were now being denied access.
The Forest Department, however, claimed that the Haritha Haram plantation drive was being conducted in lands belonging to the department.
The Adivasis in pockets of Adilabad, Khammam and Warangal districts argued 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.
In March, Adivasi communities of Bhadrachalam in Khammam district protested at the Integrated Adivasi Development Agency (ITDA) office, against Forest Department excesses and demanded pattas be issued for the lands being cultivated.
The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) MLA for Pinapaka, Rega Kantha Rao had been vocal against Forest Department officials for stopping Adivasi communities from farming on forest lands. In a Facebook post made in December, the leader allegedly called upon TRS party workers and Adivasis to drive away Forest Department officials if they obstructed the use of podu lands for cultivation.
The New Indian Express reported that senior Forest Department officials accused the TRS MLA of holding meetings with the Adivasi communities and instigating them against the Forest Department.
However, Swargam Srinivas, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (P&V) told TNM that he is unaware of any such instigation on the ground by any local leaders. He said, "This probably happened due to misunderstanding between the locals and the officials, a detailed report is still awaited. The instruction from the state government is very clear. No podu land being cultivated must be affected and that no one should be displaced due to our programme.”
The growing tension between forest officials and Adivasis first came to light in June 2018, when then Kagaznagar Forest Range Officer (FRO) Anitha was beaten up by a mob armed with sticks, as the department tried to carry out an afforestation drive. A video of the incident, which showed Anitha being thrashed, had gone viral. TRS leader Koneru Krishna, the brother of Sirpur MLA Koneru Konappa, was arrested at the time for leading the mob.