It’s a cloudy afternoon in July in an interior area of Telangana’s Asifabad district, where all roads lead to Sarsala, a tiny village. Despite less than 200 families living here, the atmosphere is tense, as police pickets and barricades have been put up everywhere. The streets wear a deserted look even as the few children and women outside their homes are found gazing suspiciously at any unknown people.

Sarsala shot into the limelight last month, after violence broke out during an afforestation programme taken up by the state government. A video of the incident showed a mob armed with sticks, who even went on to attack a Forest Range Officer, Anitha, as she attempted to pacify them. The mob was led by TRS leader Koneru Krishna, the brother of Sirpur MLA Koneru Konappa, who was later booked and taken into police custody.

At the centre of the conflict is 20 hectares of land, located barely 2 km from the village. The Forest Department claims that the local residents had carried out the attack as they had a ‘mala fide intention’ to occupy Reserve Forest land. However, the villagers claim that they have been cultivating the land for decades and they had riparian rights over it.

Days after the attack, officials continued the afforestation programme and planted thousands of saplings at the contentious site, which is still being heavily guarded. The scars of the conflict are very much visible at the village as local residents express a fear of police picking up random people on the accusation of attacking forest officials.

But what happened at Sarsala was not a standalone incident. It was a flash-point. Though the violence on the forest officers was uncalled for, the violence came as a reflector to ongoing conflict between forest dwellers and the state government.

‘Jal, Jungle and Zameen’
‘Jal Jungle Zameen’ is a historical slogan, given by Komaram Bheem, a revered freedom fighter, when he led an uprising against the last Nizam of Hyderabad and exploitation of local landlords in the early 20th century.

However, with the state government seemingly clamping down on their rights, the slogan seems relevant even now to forest dwellers in the region.

‘Podu’ cultivation, a traditional farming practice of forest dwellers, including adivasis and non-tribal people, is finding itself going head-on against the state’s interest to conserve the forests, which has resulted in unrest in Telangana’s forests.

Podu is a form of farming that involves in shifting cultivation methods. This is traditionally practiced on the hill-slopes, mainly by central India tribes. While forest officials allege that farmers are illegally cultivating the lands, the locals claim that they’re traditional forest dwellers and have rights over forest lands.

Lakkam Rajakka, whose husband Mallesh, was picked up by police following the violence at Sarsala, tells #KhabarLive that her family was cultivating three acres of land for more than a decade and is now being allegedly harassed by forest department officials. Around 20 days ago, Mallesh attempted to kill himself by consuming poison as the forest officials didn’t let them cultivate what he says is his land.

“He went to the spot as something was happening there, just like other locals did. But later, after the incident happened, police took him away,” Rajakka says.

Thirty eight-year-old Buram Vinoda was recently discharged from the hospital after treatment and she says that she was attacked by forest officials. Her husband, Buram Pocham, was accused of attacking the Forest Range Officer Anitha, in the video. However, Vinoda tells #KhabarLive that FRO Anitha and other officials too have attacked and thrashed her.

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A village of farmers
Sarsala village which falls in Kagaznagar revenue division, is mainly composed of OBCs and tribes, who depend on agriculture for sustenance. When #KhabarLive visited the village, the hostility was palpable as several women suggested that this reporter could be a policeman in plain clothes, coming to pick up the men. A youth tells #KhabarLive that they’re scared to even come to the village fearing arrests.

“We have been cultivating the land for more than 20 years,” says Nayini Saroja, “Calling us trespassers is atrocious. Even CM KCR announced in a public meeting that he will solve the problem if we vote him to power. But nothing has been done for us.”

A few people show their land passbooks, stating that they’re being forced to leave even though they have a ‘patta’ (land document) for 2-3 acres of land.

Nayini Saroja’s sister in-law Shyamala and her husband Shankar were arrested on the charges of attacking public servants. Doke Anand Rao, a farmer from a fisher community was also arrested in the attack case, and his wife and two children are awaiting his return. Doke Vasantha says, “We have been cultivating one acre of land since my father-in-law’s time. Our family was depending on podu cultivation, just like everyone else.”

Ramesh Sandam, another resident says, “We have been running after forest officials for more than 10 years, asking for land rights forms. They didn’t bother to give us these forms. How fair it is to take away our livelihood ? How can we survive?”

The first hit
On June 16, families belonging to the Kolam tribe were evicted from Kolam-Gondi hamlet and sent along with their belongings to the Vempalli forest depot in Kagaznagar on charges of destruction of forests by podu cultivation.

According to 2011 census, the population of Kolam tribe is less than 40,000 in all of Adilabad district.

With the help of activists and lawyers, the Adivasis moved court. The High Court at that time intervened and pulled up the state government. As the court sought proper rehabilitation of the Adivasis, the government shifted them to a welfare hostel building in Wankidi.

When #KhabarLive visited the temporary shelter that was given to Kolam families, they say that they were denied even basic facilities. Even the food being served to them is inadequate. In conversation with #KhabarLive, the families say that they will not go anywhere other than the place from where they were evicted.

Forty five-year-old Kova Bheem says that their only wish is to be back in their hamlet, where they survived on Podu cultivation and grazing livestock. Seventeen-year-old Poshiram meanwhile expresses helplessness, and says that their livestock must be dying back home.

What does the law say?
In 2006, the Centre passed the ‘Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act’, which protects the interests of tribal groups.

The Forests Rights Act enables a nuclear tribal family to claim up to 4 acres of land along with recognising diverse pre-existing rights over forest land. These include rights over occupied forest land and Minimum Forest Products and customary rights of tribals.

However, in February this year, the Supreme Court first ordered the eviction of 1.1 million forest dwelling families – and later stayed the eviction. The eviction was ordered on the basis of affidavits filed by state governments on the number of claims they had rejected under the Forest Rights Act.

The Centre is now planning to bring in amendments to the law, which is being criticised by forest dwellers and activists, who say that the proposed amendments will strip forest dwellers of their rights.

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The conflict in Kagaznagar is just another facet of the larger battle that forest dwellers in India are currently fighting to safeguard their rights.

‘Rights of forest dwellers denied’
Out of 70 mandals in combined Adilabad district as many as 38 fall in Scheduled V areas, for which the Constitution of India has given certain provisions that safeguard the interests of the tribes.

While forest officials say they’re on an afforestation drive near Sarasala falls in Kawal Tiger Reserve Forest activists allege that the claim is a mere pretext to evict forest dwellers.

Human Rights Forum Telangana state Vice President Athram Bhujang Rao says that successive governments are continuing to deny the rights of tribes. “The ongoing conflict between forest dwellers and forest officials is a failure of the government and its policies. It appears as if there is a conspiracy to evict Adivasis from their own homes in the name of conservation of forests,” he says.

“No forest has been destroyed by Adivasis, in fact most of the forests were destroyed in the name of development and mining operations. Government should free the land that is unlawfully in the hands of non-tribals in scheduled areas,” he adds.

As per a study conducted by Rights and Resource Initiative and Oxfam, in the state of Telangana, 2,11,973 individual forest rights claims were made over land spreading over 7.61 lakh acres. However, only 99,486 claims amounting to 3.31 lakh acres, which is 43.5% of total claims, were recognised.

Meanwhile, data available with the Tribal Welfare department stated that as of November 30, 2017, the total forest area in Telangana was 26,90,370 acres, of which they claimed that 2,94,693 acres or 10.95% of the total forest area was allegedly encroached.

The data said that 1,86,534 claims had been received to the extent of 11,01,319 acres. Out of these, it has addressed 94,215 claims, distributing 7,54,147 acres, of which 93,494 were to individuals while 721 were community claims.

The same data shows that the total number of individual and community claims rejected stands at 82,572 for an extent of 3,02,577 acres. At the time, 9,747 claims were pending, related to 8,595 acres.

As far as the study by Rights and Resource Initiative and Oxfam is concerned, it claimed that the state is witnessing poor implementation of Individual Forest Rights with high rates of rejection stressing that Forest Department is ignoring the rights of Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG).

Dr Palla Trinadha Rao, an advocate and rights activist who contributed to the study, tells #KhabarLive that the conflict is shaping up as the government is ‘failing to determine the tribal rights’ over the lands.

He says, “The government has to determine the rights of tribals under the Recognition of Forest Rights Act, but instead, the government has started its flagship plantation drive, Haritha Haram, even in recognised lands. This is creating a conflict. The second thing is that in certain cases they have rejected the pattas at different levels.”

Trinadha Rao also says that 82,000 claims by tribal farmers for the extent of 2.87 lakh acres were rejected without giving a reason; that enables the claimant to file an appeal at respective levels as per the provisions in the Forest Rights Act.

What forest officials say? 
#KhabarLive also managed to speak to Anitha, the FRO who was attacked at Sarsala, at her residence in Kowtha (K) village in Bazarhathnoor mandal. Since the incident, a counter complaint was filed by local residents, and the FRO has been booked under SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 2014 along with her colleagues. She has also been given security by the state government.

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When asked about where trouble began, she says, “I didn’t bend down to the politicians. I have done my job as per the rules, which is why they have targeted me.” Anitha says some politicians have developed a grudge against her.

The noted Kolam-Gondi Adivasi evictions, where the High Court pulled up the government for undignified treatment, was also led by Anitha.

When asked about the claims of villagers, she says, “There are only a few rightful and genuine podu cultivators, to whom we have not objected. However, several non tribes are involved in illegal cultivation in a bid to encroach forest land.”

Anitha believes that a comprehensive policy which deals with the illegal cultivation is required: “In many cases, it is not tribals who are wrongfully claiming the forest lands, but OBC/BC farmers with active support from politicians.”

Government’s balancing act?
However, it seems that the government is playing a balancing act, at least where perceptions are concerned. On the one hand, the government apparatus is taking up plantation drives in contentious lands, while on the other hand, it is assuring Adivasis and other forest dwellers that they will get their land rights. Additionally, there is also nuance in the claim made by many officials in government circles that non-tribals were cultivating the land.

Noting that Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) were being excluded from individual rights, the Rights and Resource Initiative and Oxfam report adds, “The individual forest land claims of OTFD within the Scheduled Area of Telangana were rejected on the ground that no government is permitted to assign land in favour of non-tribals in the Scheduled Areas. This is in accordance to the provisions of AP Scheduled Area Land Transfer Regulations. However, the OTFD individual claims are allowed in the plain areas.”

Ahead of the Telangana Assembly elections in December last year, the TRS in its manifesto had said, “Land disputes of tribal and non-tribal lands in forest areas will be amicably addressed and ownership rights will be conferred. Disputes with reference to Podu (agriculture) Lands will also be addressed as early as possible. They will be given benefits on par with other farmers.”

However, it seems that they have not walked the talk. In fact, tribal activists say that the government may use stray incidents of attacks on forest officials to further its plans of evicting forest dwellers and trampling their land rights.

Speaking to reporters shortly after the violence at Sarsala, Allola Indrakaran Reddy, Minister for Forests, Environment, Housing and Endowments, and Law, condemned the incident and said that attacks on officials would not be tolerated, and stern action would be taken against those found guilty.

However, he was quick to add, “Chief Minister KCR has taken cognizance of the issue. He has made a clear assurance to prevent such untoward incidents and also said that he would talk to the concerned Collectors and Revenue, Forest officials to find a solution with regard to the problem of podu cultivation.”

#KhabarLive has also reached out to Telangana’s Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) PK Jha for a response. This report will be updated if and when he replies. #KhabarLive