The travesty is such that at one level the government trumpets that it had corrected ‘historical injustice’ prevailing for centuries on forest tribes and, on the other, sends in forest, police and paramilitary forces to repress the very same tribes who were demanding their due rights over their natural habitats.
Back in 2006, when Parliament passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, aka the Forest Rights Act (FRA), millions of forest-dwellers, who believed that their inherent and democratic rights over the forests were finally going to be restored, are yet to taste the fruits of the legislation.
The divide between the locals and the forest department is apparent as the government failed to take confidence building measures among the tribal communities that the law (FRA) ensures them retaining individual or community ownership rights over the forest land.
Though the LWE Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs stipulates implementation of distribution of titles, none of the LWE-affected States, including Telangana and Andhra Pradesh is serious about the provisions of both FRA and Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA that give tribal communities the right over Minor Forest Produce (MFP).
Referring to the drop of forest cover to the extent of 281 sq km in the state in the last four years, the forest department comes up with an argument that ‘encroachment’ is the prime reason behind the disappearance of vast tracts of country’s forests.
It is also alleged that in many places the forest department is misguiding tribal communities by spreading misinformation about the scope of the Act to discourage them from claiming community rights over the forests. The misinformation includes that community rights will only be provided to those villagers who have formed Vana Samrakshana Samithi (VSS), a joint forest management programme of the State.
The fact sheet of granting of rights to tribes indicates awful figures. Of the 4.11 lakh tribal community people applied for the grant of rights over land to the extent of nearly 10 lakh acres in Telangana districts, the government gave away pattas for 3.11 lakh acres to 1.69 lakh applicants, it is learnt.
When asked about the arrest of youths, especially teenagers, in Cherla mandal of Khammam district, Kothagudem OSD Joel Davis said, “These gullible youths have either fallen prey to the Maoists’ lures such as guns or other means like family disturbances.” It may be a fact that tribes belonging to Chhattisgarh State who were denied rights under FRA have been joining the Maoist groups but it was not case with Khammam district, he added.
Referring to the distorted demarcation of forestland that has been creating hiccups in the administration, the Conservator of Forests, Khammam, B Anand Mohan said that despite their efforts the number of non-tribal people occupying the forestland is high.
All India Agricultural Workers Union (AIAWU) state general secretary B Venkat accused that the government, which is denying the land rights of tribes, is pushing them to take up extremism. “If they get land and rights over minor forest produce, why would they join the Maoists,” he questioned.
CPI-ML New Democracy Khammam district secretary Potu Ranga Rao said that despite the hue and cry raised by the Left Parties demanding justice to the tribes, the State government led by the TRS, which promised three acres to the families of SCs and STs before the elections, chose to maintain a stoic silence.
Moreover, the government was trying to evict the tribals by the forest officials in the name of Haritha Haram, a massive afforestation programme, he said criticising the forest wing’s highhandedness against the Podu cultivators.