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‘Thrilling to life threatening’- why Telangana’s forest rangers are demanding weapons

The killing of Srinivas Rao by tribals, have left them living in fear. Some have boycotted duty. Officers’ associations demand arms & CRPF presence in vulnerable areas to get back.

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Hyderabad: Telangana’s District Forest Officer Raja Ramana Reddy says that his job, of protecting the state’s forests, has gone from thrilling to life threatening. His comments come in the wake of the killing of his colleague Srinivasa Rao, allegedly by Guthikoya tribals Tuesday.

Following Rao’s death, the forest officers are demanding firearms to get back to their posts in the forest, especially for those who are serving in ‘vulnerable’ areas. They say that they are “very demoralised” and are “living in fear”.

Forest Associations, a few groups consisting of state officers of different ranks, have submitted a representation with a set of demands.

“How can we protect the forests when we cannot protect ourselves from such attacks? The forest land we’re protecting is worth hundreds of crores and only a few officers are protecting lakhs of acres of forest land. We join this service because we share great passion to protect mother earth. Our jobs from thrilling have gone to become life threatening,” Reddy told ThePrint.

While this is not the first such attack, it is the first fatal one since the state’s bifurcation in 2014.

Forest officials, in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, did carry arms. However, in the early nineties when the left extremist movement became strong in the state, there were incidents of weapons being snatched away from the officials by naxalites. Due to this the then Andhra Pradesh government asked forest officials to deposit their weapons with the police.

“The Forest Act does have provision where forest department officers are allowed to carry arms. But, in Telangana, we do not, especially since the surrender. States such as Maharashtra, Karnataka and even Andhra Pradesh [in vulnerable areas] allow their forest officers to carry arms,” Reddy claimed.

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Not the first attack

Although there have been violent clashes between the forest officials and tribals over ownership of lands in the forest area, this is the first such fatal attack, at least since the state was bifurcated in 2014.

Srinivasa Rao succumbed to injuries after he was brutally attacked by alleged Guthikoya tribals in state’s Khammam district over an issue of usage of forest land. The tribals, reportedly, were damaging freshly raised plantations in the forest area when Rao intervened, following which there was an attack.

Rao was a KVS Babu state gold medal recipient for forest protection in 2021.

Since 2019, there have been at least eight major incidents in which Telangana’s tribals have clashed with forest officials.

One of the most infamous was in June 2019 when forest range officer C. Anitha was brutally attacked by a mob allegedly led by Koneru Krishna Rao, a leader of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS).

From throwing chilli powder at the forest officials, pelting stones, attacking them with dogs, such violent attacks on forest officials have only increased. In March this year, a pregnant forest official faced a similar attack while on duty by women from a village.

“Rao’s incident is being looked at as a single incident, but it is not. If the situation is left like this, such instances can repeat. Our entire staff, especially new recruits are very scared, a few of them have even applied for a leave immediately and left. Women working in the department are complaining that their families are asking them to reconsider the job. They’re very scared to go back on the field, they’re angry and feel neglected by the government,” a senior forest official, on condition of anonymity, told ThePrint.

He added that many of the cadre, who attended Rao’s last rites, were “zoned out” thinking about their own safety.

On the other hand, there have also been incidents reported where the forest dwellers have fallen at the feet of the forest officers, begging them to not take away their lands.

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Forest officers’ demands

Forest Associations, a few groups consisting of state officers of different ranks, have also submitted a representation with a set of demands including equipping them with firearms,

The associations also demanded that a team of CRPF personnel be allotted for each range (area of forest) for the safety of forest officials working in the area. The officers, in their representation submitted to the Head of Forest Force, also noted that they will not return to field work duties until they’re assured security.

Speaking to ThePrint, Telangana Principal Chief Conservator of Forest and Head of Forest Force RM Dobriyal said that a proposal including the demands from forest officers’ associations will be submitted to the higher authorities in the state government. The proposal includes arming forest staff and setting up 30 forest police stations in the first phase.

“Discussions about providing firearms to forest staff have been going on. We will also submit a proposal about the same to the government. The next course of action will be decided then,” he said.

Forest officer Reddy said that they’re not going against any tribe.

“In fact we’re asking the government to improve the condition of the tribes in a socio-economic way. Settle the issue of claims in a transparent manner, make sure that there is good coordination between forest officials, revenue department and others who deal with the land. Forest is the nation’s wealth, and does not belong to just one party,” he said.

At the centre of the conflict

At the heart of the conflict are what are known as ‘Podu Lands’, which the tribals use for a form of slash-and-burn cultivation but which the government insists is forest land. The cultivation is a traditional farming practice common among central Indian tribes.

The ownership of these lands has been in question for decades and an issue, even in undivided Andhra Pradesh. However, Telangana government’s flagship afforestation program,  ‘Haritha Haram’. It has brought the forest lands under scanner.

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, passed in 2006, grants the forest dwellers legal rights over lands with terms and conditions pertaining to occupancy before a certain date.

There are about 4.14 lakh claims for land ownership by forest dwellers for over 12.49 lakh acres of forest land. The Chief Minister, KCR, had said claims for 11.50 lakh acres will be settled.

Caught up in a pool of unsettled claims are forest officials who say that the forest land is being encroached by the people of the village, while the dwellers claim that the piece of land (albeit in the forest) is theirs with their pending claim with the government.

“Not everyone who is practising cultivation or chopping down forests has submitted a claim. Many of them are unrecognised tribals, such as Gothikoyas [a tribe that migrated from Chattisgarh]. They do not have any rights in the state and are still encroaching the forests. There are non-tribals too who do that. They’re under the assumption that because the CM had promised settlement for 11 lakh acres, they might get a piece of land if they continue to stay in that area for a few years and file a claim,” Shiva Kumar, Kagaznagar Forest Range Officer, told ThePrint.

According to senior officials of the state forest department, there are about 66 lakh acres of identified forest land in the state and more than 8 lakh acres has been encroached. There are about 6,000 forest officials (of all ranks), in the Telangana State Forest Department, manning the 66 lakh acre area.

(Edited by Theres Sudeep)

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