Hyderabad: There is a sharp contrast in the visuals of two videos, but they are the result of the same underlying problem.
In one, local tribals can be seen falling at the feet of forest officials, while in the other more dramatic video, a group of tribal women, with dogs in tow, are charging at another set of forest officials. Both surfaced from Telangana’s Mahabubabad district in July.
The friction, in both cases, was allegedly caused by officials stopping the tribals from cultivating crops on land that the forest department believes belong to the government.
Both instances, however, are just the latest in a conflict that has been brewing since 2019.
The most high-profile of the incidents came in June 2019, when forest range officer C. Anitha was brutally attacked by a mob, including tribal community members, which was allegedly led by Koneru Krishna Rao, a leader of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS).
In all, since 2019, there have been at least eight such major incidents in which the state’s tribals have clashed with forest officials.
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 with even previous regimes of undivided Andhra Pradesh, but what has made it worse is the current Telangana government’s push to increase its green cover and promote biodiversity through its flagship afforestation programme, ‘Haritha Haram’.
Under Haritha Haram, which was launched in 2015, the state forest department has undertaken a massive tree plantation drive, which aims to increase the state’s green cover to at least 33 per cent.
According to A. Shankaran, an officer on special duty with the Telangana Wildlife Department, in the last six phases, a total of 2.2 billion saplings have been planted in the state, of which 1.6 crore trees have been planted outside forests and 608.1 million inside them.
This year the drive began on 1 July, and the state has targeted planting 199.1 million saplings.
Government officials have, however, faced a backlash from forest dwellers, who have claimed ownership of some land.
Forest officials claim that the protesting tribals have “encroached” on the lands and are illegally cultivating on it.
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.
ThePrint reached Telangana Principal Chief Conservator of Forests R. Sobha over email but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
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Encroachers or rightful owners? What is the law?
Tribals and activists have told ThePrint that one of the problems is that the Telangana government has allegedly not implemented the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, passed in 2006, which grants the forest dwellers legal rights over lands.
According to the Act, the recognition and vesting of forest rights to the forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and to other traditional forest dwellers shall be subject to the condition that such tribes or other traditional forest dwellers had occupied forest land before the 13th day of December, 2005.
Dr Palla Trinadha Rao, an advocate and activist, told ThePrint that the Telangana government has not recognised the land rights of forest dwellers under the Forest Rights Act 2006. He alleged that several of them are now being displaced from recognised lands for the state government’s afforestation programme.
According to the government’s data, the state’s Tribal Welfare Minister Satyavathi Rathod, had in March sanctioned 94,774 pattas (land documents) for Podu Lands to eligible tribals under the forest act. This covers around 3.03 lakh acre under the forest act since 2008. About 1.84 lakh claims were received, pertaining to 6.31 lakh acres, since the enactment of Act in 2005, the minister had then said. Simply put, the ‘claims’ are a way for the forest dwellers to file documents with the state government claiming ownership of the land.
According to the minister, another 27,990 claims for forest act pattas have been filed since 2018, seeking ownership of 98,745 acres. Of this, 2,401 claims pertaining to 4,248 acres were found eligible and 9,976 claims pertaining to 40,780 acres were found ineligible by the District Level Committee (DLC) — a body involved in processing the applications. About 15,558 claims pertaining to 53,565 acres are still pending before DLCs, Rathod had said in March.
But according to Vasam Ramakrishna Dora, an activist based in Bhadradri Kothagudem district who is also the convenor of the Adivasi Joint Action Committee, the pending claims could easily be over triple the state government’s records.
“There have been instances when tribals have gone to Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) to submit their applications and the officials have even refused to accept the application,” he alleged. “This has been happening over the last year. If the claim fails the eligibility criteria, they can reject it but why even refuse to take an application?”
According to a study by Rights and Resource Initiative and Oxfam, in 2016, about 2,11,973 individual forest rights claims were made over land spreading over 7.61 lakh acres in Telangana, of which only 9,486 claims amounting to 3.31 lakh acres of land (44 per cent of claims) were recognised.
The way out
Rao points out that the only possible solution to this ongoing conflict is clear demarcation of forest land through a detailed state-wide survey.
Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao, or KCR as he is known, had in 2019, blamed the previous the Congress regime (before bifurcation) saying that they had kept several claims pending and assured that the issue would be sorted soon.
He made a similar assurance in March this year, saying that the government would strike a balance to sort out the Podu Lands issue and also ensure conservation of forests at the same time. Two weeks ago, he had made another such assurance.
Rao said that the government now needs to act quickly. “Unless the state government acts and makes this the utmost priority, this (conflicts) will keep continuing,” he said. “And it is evident that the KCR government is not serious about this — there are only assurances, no implementation.”
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
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