Riding roughshod over tribal rights

Riding roughshod over tribal rights

The implementation of the notified national project ‘Polavaram’ by the Government of Andhra Pradesh has become a hot topic for discussion for all political parties seasoned as well new actors on the political stage.

The implementation of the notified national project ‘Polavaram’ by the Government of Andhra Pradesh has become a hot topic for discussion for all political parties seasoned as well new actors on the political stage. Unfortunately adivasis in lakhs from erstwhile Telangana’s agency tracts of Khammam district or East and West Godavari’s agency areas do not figure in the ongoing debate.

Polavaram debate ignores social costs, injustice to adivasis

Jungle law justice

  • About 9,250 acres of forest are going to be submerged in the reservoir
  • Also 10,000 acres of common property resources key to survival of tribals will go under water
  • No settlement of rights of several adivasis over forest and revenue lands
  • Thus they stand to lose compensation under the R&R Act
  • Those rehabilitated are deprived of access to common property resources
  • AP wrongly reports that forest rights claims under Forest Act 2006 already settled
  • In gross violation of FRA, AP transfers title deeds to Vana Samrakshana Samithis over 16,000 acres

Also it ceased to be matter of concern for the parties in Telangana after they saw transfer of the 325 tribal villages to AP as part of bifurcation Acts and pacts. It is sad that the tragedy of large-scale tribal displacement and concerns of people downstream of potential threats of poor dam safety are ignored in the narrowed show of success or failure of how much money is mobilised for the project. The whole political debate today is oblivious of the social costs, affected people, pending legal queries by courts and opposition of two neighbouring States.

Utter disregard of tribal laws
The Land Acquisition Authorities under Polavaram Project are not recognising the title deeds granted over forest lands held by adivasis in the submergence area for payment of either land to land or monetary compensation. Besides, none of the elected representatives takes up the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Authorities’ refusal to settle the rights of adivasis over the forest and revenue lands.

The non-tribal farmers and industrialists in the mainland are seeking benefits through sacrifices of poorest of the poor in the society. Tribals, native of the state or those from erstwhile Telangana, seem to have ceased to be people or voters anymore in the current debate.

The Polavaram Project will submerge 9 tribal mandals viz., Polavaram, Velerpadu, Kukunoor and Burgampad in West Godavari and Devipatnam, Chintoor, VR Puram, Kunavaram, and Bhadrachalam in East Godavari. About 9,252 acres of forest land including deemed forests and 10,000 acres of common property resources (CPRs) which are key to the survival of tribals are going to be submerged in the reservoir.

For instance, the report of Tahsildar, Polavaram Mandal (Roc 270/2004(R&R), states that about 660 acres of hill banjari lands are under occupation of tribals in 27 habitations covered by 10 gram panchayats (GPs) without any D Form Patta and now they are denied compensation.

The Government of AP has managed to secure forest clearance(Ref No 123/2005/FRA) for the Project in 2010 by furnishing false information that the forest rights claims over forest lands under Forest Rights Recognition Act (FRA) 2006 were already settled. But the fact remains that several individual and community claims submitted by tribals seeking entitlements are yet to be recognised by the adjudicating bodies under FRA.

Only 178 out of 840 individual claims were adjudicated in four villages in Polavaram mandal by the end of 2015. The ITDA, West Godavari, data shows high rejection rate of 79 per cent in Polavaram mandal. The tribals’ individual forest land claims in other forest interface villages in the mandal were totally disallowed at the instance of forest officials, depriving the tribals of the right even to seek compensation under the project.

The reasons for rejection are not yet communicated, stopping the aggrieved claimants to file appeals to the higher level committees for justice. Instead of recognising the community forest rights in favour of tribal community under FRA, the government has granted title deeds to several Vana Samrakshana Samithis (VSSs) in West Godavari.

For instance, community forest rights over 8,222 acres in Kondrukota, Thutigunta, Chegondapalli and Koruturu Gram Panchayats of Polavaram mandal were granted in favor of 9 VSSs. Similarly, over 8,617 acres of forest lands in Devipatnam Mandal in East Godavari are granted to VSSs.

The Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), Govt of India (Circular No 23011/2013), held in the year 2013 that the grant of Community Forestry Rights titles to VSS is illegal and it directed the authorities for its withdrawal and grant in the name of community. The rights of adivasis have to be settled in thousands of acres of forest lands in several villages in East and West Godavari districts.

Land acquisition officers of Rajahmundry, Kovvur, working under Polavaram Project admit that no acquisition proceedings were effected so far for acquisition of forest land titles granted under FRA in Polavaram Submergence Area, in response to a query by the author under RTI.

Without settling the rights of adivasis, the government is using coercive steps to relocate the tribals from their habitats in and around at project dam site. No forest dwelling STs shall be evicted or removed from the forest land under Section 4 of FRA pending finalization of their forest land claims.

The MoTA gave a conditional clearance to the Government of AP for R&R project under the Polavaram Project that the government shall provide land to tribals in lieu of the land acquired from them in the command area and preferably within the Scheduled Area if the command area and Scheduled Area are co-terminus.

The Minster for Water Resources, GoI, answered an unstarred question of Palvai Goverdhan Reddy in Rajya Sabha in 2014 that the AP government is following its R&R Policy 2005 (GO Ms No 68) and shall acquire land in the project benefited area for rehabilitation of oustees.

Violating its policy and promises, the AP government is providing lands to affected tribals in the Scheduled Area only, affecting other tribals dependent on the CPRs and lands in their villages. Of 325 revenue villages transferred from Telangana to residuary Andhra Pradesh only 193 will come under the submergence of Polavaram Project and the rest are intended to provide rehabilitation to the displaced tribals.

The rehabilitation and resettlement in the tribal villages will invariably create large-scale social conflicts among the existing tribals and the relocated displaced tribals in sharing their CPRs and other resources for their livelihood. Both the land acquisition and rehabilitation project is implemented without obtaining free informed consent of Gramsabha and Mandal Praja Parishad under the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Area(PESA) Act and Land Acquisition Laws.

The High Court of AP has stayed (WP No 33452/2015) the land acquisition in Kondamodalu gram panchayat in East Godavari district on a ground that officials cooked up gram sabha resolutions in the name of community. The Government of AP Policy 2005 recognises that the issue of displacement must be handled with utmost care human touch and forethought in respect of tribals, however it failed to implement on the ground. All responsible elected representatives need to avert a great disaster in the region that is neighbouring already highly disturbed Dandakaranya.

By Dr Palla Trinadha Rao

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