A project that is disrupting life of tribals

A project that is disrupting life of tribals
Highlights

Following the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in 2014, one of the first things that the newly elected TDP government did, was to step up works to construct irrigation dams and reservoirs across the state. This was mainly to make up for water loss, as the Krishna and Godavari rivers had to be shared with Telangana.

Following the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in 2014, one of the first things that the newly elected TDP government did, was to step up works to construct irrigation dams and reservoirs across the state. This was mainly to make up for water loss, as the Krishna and Godavari rivers had to be shared with Telangana.

One of the major irrigation projects presently underway is the Chintalapudi Lift Irrigation Scheme in West Godavari District. According to government statistics, the project is expected to create an ayacut of 2 lakh acres in 231 villages and provide drinking water to 6.65 lakh people in 165 villages. The Chintalapudi Lift Irrigation Scheme is part of the Polavaram project, another major multi-purpose irrigation project being constructed on the Godavari River, and spread across three states – Andhra, Odisha and Chhattisgarh.

The state’s own estimates say that the Polavaram project will displace more than three lakh ‘Adivasis’ or tribals in the area, and submerge close to 300 villages. Various environmentalists and social activists have called it a ‘disaster in the making’. The Chintalapudi Lift Irrigation Scheme (CLIS) was first conceived in 2008 as part of Jalayagnam, which was a pet project of former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, YS Rajasekhara Reddy.

YSR’s critics have alleged that the project was simply intended to make profits for construction conglomerates and contractor mafias on the pretext of giving irrigation water to dry lands. The project will lift water from the Godavari River near Tadipudi village in West Godavari District and pump it through the Main Canal into the 20 TMC capacity Jalleru reservoir and then supply water to West Godavari and Krishna Districts.

A total of 17,800 acres of land – 6,600 acres of forestland and 11,200 acres of revenue land – spread across 127 villages in four constituencies of West Godavari district – Polavaram, Chintalapudi, Gopalavaram and Denduluru - is being acquired for the project. 16 tribal villages are also being submerged in the process. The state has said that the process of land acquisition is being done through the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.

However, locals allege that the state has been violating every clause and provision which safeguards the rights of the people. In all, 70,000 people are expected to lose their livelihood entirely or partially, which includes land owning farmers, landless labourers, tenant farmers and people engaged in other rural occupations. In addition to the hardships being faced by the people due to the large-scale displacement, there is also a severe environmental impact as a result of this project. Roughly 6,600 acres of forestland may be lost, while less than 4,000 acres were shown for compensatory afforestation.

Violation of its own laws
Pragadavaram is a gram panchayat consisting of four revenue villages in Chintalapudi Mandal with a population of 15,000, of which, around 5,000 are Dalits. It is one of the 127 villages affected by CLIS, where a little less than 1,000 acres of agricultural (two-time crop) land is being acquired for the main and the branch canals. While 145 acres of the land being acquired is assigned land, the rest is patta land. Nearly 80% of the assigned landholders, whose land is being acquired for the project, are Dalits.

The villagers say that close to 5,000 agricultural labourers and 1,000 farmers will be affected, out of which, around 600 tenant farmers will lose their livelihood completely. Ramakrishna Reddy, who is an ex-sarpanch of the village and a displaced farmer says, “The market prices were fixed arbitrarily at the whims and fancies of the officials and the politicians without taking into consideration Section 26 of LARR 2013, which asks for a systematic evaluation of the market price.”

The villagers also allege that no one bothered to ask them if they were ready to part with their land. They claim that they got to know that their land is being acquired through a Preliminary Notification and not through the gram sabha, as the law mandates. Another farmer, Raghunatha Reddy says, “An acre of land in Kommugudem, which is three kilometers from the highway was given a compensation of Rs 21 lakh, while an acre of land in Yerraguntapalle, which is on the highway, was given a compensation of 12 lakhs.”

The villagers of Yerraguntapalle protested this “injustice” and went to the High Court to obtain a stay on the process. The larger landowners of the region, mostly belonging to the Reddy community, are ready to part with the land if given a fair compensation as per the law. However, the assigned land farmers and agricultural labourers can’t afford to do so. The villagers say that the state has been using the colonial ‘divide and rule’ policy as it is easy for them to deal with the individual resistance of a class rather than all affected classes resisting the project together.

Labanu, a Dalit farmer who owns an acre of assigned land, says, “There is no Preliminary Notification issued for my survey number. Yet, my land is being dug. Many survey numbers of assigned lands for which Preliminary Notification was issued were removed from the Draft Notification. Officials who come here tell us that assigned lands will only get ‘ex-gratia’ of Rs 1-2 lakh, while only patta lands are eligible for compensation as per LARR 2013.”

To back their words, the assigned land farmers showed both the notifications to this reporter, where they clearly marked the discrepancy. The LARR 2013 and the state’s Government Order 259 (issued in 2016), clearly state that assigned lands shall have equal rights on par with patta lands. Dispelling the government’s claims of following the law, the villagers allege that the state has been buying land from individual landowners and getting rid of the agricultural labourers and tenant farmers without paying them any compensation.

When the villagers confronted the Deputy Collector who visited the village to oversee the acquisition process, they were told that ‘Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy (R&R) of the LARR 2013 act is not applicable.’ “The responsibility of the state is to put the violators of law behind bars. Who do we complain to, when it is the state that is perpetrating such injustice and violating its own laws?” asks Santa Kumari, an agricultural labourer, who in all likelihood will become a migrant labourer in some nearby town or city if this project becomes a reality.

Land being acquired without settling forest rights:
The issues of tribals are even worse. 84 Nayakpod families in Gangineedupalem of T Narsapurm mandal have been cultivating 124 acres of forestland close to their village for than 40 years. The tribals consider this, common land, though each family farms on 1-1.5 acres. The division of these lands is not hard and fast, and they help each other apart from farming on their own marked land.

With no wells around and completely dependent on rain, the tribals grow cotton and maize in these 124 acres. Activists allege that efforts have been on in full swing to slowly divest the rights of the tribals on the forestlands since the 1990s. The 124 acres were first brought under the Community Forest Department and then under the Joint Forest Management, which means that both the tribals and the Forest Department are equal stakeholders in the forestland.

The rights of the tribals were further eroded with the establishment of Vana Samrakshana Samitis (VSS) by the Forest Department, which allegedly grants the forest department the rights on the land, while the tribals become mere ‘employees’ of the department. However, with the coming into force of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) in 2006, things have been a little better for the tribals. They were given community rights over the land when their collective claims were recognised.

However, in this case, tribals say that applications for individual claims of land were rejected on the condition that ‘they didn’t meet the cut-off date’.
The tribals have various documents as proof including FIR copies registered by the police which were before the cut-off date. These 124 acres of forestland are all set to be acquired for the Main Canal of Chintalapudi Lift Irrigation scheme.

The FRA, 2006 and LARR, 2013 rules clearly state that forestland cannot be acquired without first settling the claims, either individual or collective. This example is just the tip of the iceberg while the reality is that thousands of acres of forest land are being diverted to the irrigation department without settling the claims of the tribals and other forest dwellers as mandated by the law.

Land Scams and Frauds?
In Thatiramudigudem and 81 other tribal villages in the Scheduled V Areas of Jeelugumilli and Bhuttayagudem mandals, some of which are supposed to be submerged for the Jalleru reservoir, the land acquisition process has allegedly led to a variety of scams. The tribals allege that many non-tribals have been creating fake pass books and getting their name registered in ‘adangal’ records using their proximity to revenue and police officials. This has helped the non-tribals claim bank loans while tribals could never get bank loans as the land was not recorded in their name officially.

There were claims that records were burnt by the officials themselves to facilitate the changing of records in favour of the non-tribals. The tribals recounted a similar instance happening in December 1997, when records of D forum pattas were burnt by the VRO (Village Revenue Officer). Following this, the tribals went to court and have obtained a stay on the process. The LARR 2013 mandates for land to be shown to the tribals in the R&R policy. However, the tribals say that no such effort was made by the state. The author is an independent journalist (The article first appeared online portal www.thenewsminute.com)

By Rahul Maganti

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