Telangana forest officer’s lynching further complicates ‘podu’ land issue

The boycott of survey work by the foresters as a mark of protest following the official's killing and their vociferous demand for arms while moving in forests is likely to add to the government's difficulties in resolving the conflict.

Hyderabad: The lynching of a forest official by Gutti Koya tribals in Telangana’s Bhadradri Kothagudem district four days ago appears to have further complicated the issue of podu lands, a bone of contention between the foresters and tribals.

The brutal killing of Forest Range Officer (FRO) Srinivasa Rao has dealt a blow to the state government’s ongoing efforts to resolve the long-pending issue as the forest officials are now opposed to any soft spot the government may have for those claiming rights over podu lands.

The FRO was hacked to death at a time when a state-wide survey is being undertaken to identify podu lands and the government is gearing up to hold village-level meetings to resolve over 4 lakh claims received from both tribals and non-tribals.

The boycott of survey work by the foresters as a mark of protest following the official’s killing and their vociferous demand for arms while moving in forests is likely to add to the government’s difficulties in resolving the conflict.

Analysts say the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) may find itself caught between podu land cultivators demanding ownership rights and the foresters who are against yielding any ground.

Podu is the practice of shifting cultivation on forest land by tribal and non-tribal forest dwellers. They raise crops on a piece of land in one season and move to different location the next season.

However, the practice led to encroachment of forest land and in recent years resulted in skirmishes between the podu cultivators and foresters undertaking plantation under the state government’s ‘Haritha Haram’ programme aimed at increasing green cover.

The tribals and other forest dwellers claim that plantation on podu lands violate their rights, guaranteed under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (RoFR Act).

Realising the need to settle the long-pending issue once for all, the state government last year decided to embark an exercise to receive applications from eligible beneficiaries claiming podu lands.

Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao had told the State Assembly that after the issue is settled, the government will not allow encroachment of even an inch of forest land.

The chief minister suggested that tribals involved in the podu cultivation within the forest should be provided with an alternative government land nearby for cultivation. If there is no government land available, they should be provided with land on the outer periphery of the forestland. He said they will also be provided with free water, power and houses.

Village committees were constituted as per ROFR Act to receive the claims. The government received 4.14 lakh claims in 2,845 gram panchayats for issue of ‘pattas’ (titles) under RoFR Act. According to minister for tribal welfare Satyavati Rathore, 68 per cent of the applicants are tribals and remaining 32 per cent are non-tribals.

The claims were made for 12.49 lakh acres of forest lands by tribal and non-tribal farmers. A survey was undertaken to identify the lands. Village-level committees of officials including those from forest were asked to hold ‘gram sabhas’ to settle the claims.

However, this was not the first time that such an exercise was undertaken. In the past, over 2.04 lakh claims were filed seeking rights over 6.90 lakh acres of forest land.

The tribal welfare department had processed 96,676 claims and approved farming rights over 3.08 lakh acres of forest land.

According to officials, 91,942 claims for podu rights, involving 3.27 lakh acres were not approved.

Adivasi Joint Action Committee has alleged that adivasis cultivating podu lands for decades are being driven out by the forest department. Forest officials are accused of snatching their lands every year.

The forest officials, however, argued that they are taking up plantation on forest lands. According to them, the RoFR Act applies only to those lands which were under cultivation before December 2005.

Some places in agency areas witnessed clashes during the last couple of years. Tribals claiming rights over podu lands tried to stop forest officials who went there to plant saplings.

FRO Srinivasa Rao was hacked to death by some members of Gutti Koya tribe when he was resisting their attempt to uproot the saplings planted by the forest department.

The local public representatives are under pressure from tribals to speak up for their rights and stop forest officials from taking over podu lands.

In 2020, a tribal legislator belonging to ruling TRS had gone to the extent of threatening a war. Rega Kantha Rao, who represents Pinapaka Assembly constituency in Khammam district, had asked the tribals not to allow forest officials to enter their villages and if they do detain them.

Earlier, BJP MP from Adilabad, Soyam Bapu Rao had asked tribals to beat up and drive away forest staff who take up plantation on podu lands and also uproot the saplings planted in podu lands under ‘Haritha Haram’.

With the Assembly elections scheduled to be held next year, the TRS government is coming under pressure from its own legislators to settle the claims at the earliest to ensure that the cultivators, especially tribals don’t turn against the ruling party.

The lynching of forest official has added to the government’s worries. Analysts say while trying to appease the tribals, the government can’t make the foresters unhappy.

The latest developments have provided ammunition to the opposition to launch an attack on TRS. BJP state president Bandi Sanjay Kumar blamed Chief Minister KCR for the FRO’s killing.

“Due to his inability to address podu land issue, KCR is totally responsible for the officer’s murder,” said the BJP leader, demanding that a murder case be booked against him.

“The chief minister had stated on the floor of the Assembly that he will grant podu land pattas and, if necessary, will meet with officials from each village to address the issue,” reminded Sanjay, a member of Parliament from Karimnagar.

The BJP leader alleged that the chief minister on one hand is saying that tribals can cultivate podu land while on the other he is sending forest officials to conduct raids in forests when cultivators are about to reap the harvests of crops they have sown.

State Congress chief A. Revanth Reddy too trained guns on saying failure of the state government in the allotment of the podu lands to the eligible tribal people was causing frequent rifts between the officials of Forest department and the tribals.

“The green fields of the state are being filled with the flood of the people due to the controversial issue of the podu lands and their non-allotment to the tribal people,” he said in an open letter to CM. The Congress leader demanded that the government announced guidelines to issue podu land pattas.

Forest minister A.Indrakaran Reddy, however, dismissed the allegations of opposition. “The chief minister is making a sincere effort to find a solution to the long-pending problem. The opposition parties are trying to derive political mileage from the issue,” he said.

Questions remain on whether KCR will succeed in solving the problem which could not be addressed by his predecessors in united Andhra Pradesh.

His task is complicated by the fact that December 13, 2005 was the cut-off date for giving ownership rights under RoFR Act.

Several tribals who occupied the forest lands in the last 17 years, are demanding ownership rights for the same.

There is no clarity on how the state government is going to address the issue in the case of non-tribals who are also cultivating podu lands.

Under RoFR Act, only tribals cultivating podu lands before December 13, 2005 can be given rights. It remains to be seen how tribals who started cultivation on such lands after 2005 and non-tribals will be given the rights.

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