The residents of Chittiramavaram, a small village ten kilometres away from Telangana’s Kothagudem city, say they have been cultivating a plot of around 50 acres near the village for half a century. Among them is Gogula Lakshmi, who grew millets and vegetables in a two-acre plot within this area.
In February 2021, Lakshmi and the others had begun to prepare their fields to plant jowar, when the police arrived with forest officials. The police told the cultivators that the land belonged to the forest department, and that according to the law, they were encroachers.
As Lakshmi and other women from the village began to protest, a member of the police struck her head with a lathi, she told Scroll.in. She fainted from the blow. The police rounded up around 20 of her neighbours and relatives and charged them with assault, trespassing on government property, and obstructing government servants from doing their duty. The cultivators could not plant their crop.
A year and a half later, Lakshmi still suffers from bouts of nausea, dizziness and fainting. The accused residents of the village continue to fight the cases against them in Kothagudem’s sessions court.
Lakshmi’s family is one of thousands that have for decades been cultivating similar lands, adjacent to the fringes of the state’s forests. Locally, she and the others are referred to as “podu” cultivators. Traditionally, podu cultivators cleared one patch of forest land, farmed it, then moved to another, while the first plot of land rested. They then returned to the first plot, while the second rested. Lakshmi’s husband’s forefathers practiced this form of cultivation. By Lakshmi’s generation, however, most cultivators restricted themselves to one patch, usually growing labour-intensive food crops – but the term “podu cultivation” has remained in use.
On paper, much of this land belongs to the forest department. But this does not imply that all of it was at some point forested. In India, forest department land has, along with dense forest, also historically included tracts of grassland, as well as degraded forest. Many podu cultivators, such as Gogula Lakshmi, say that these unforested lands are the kinds of lands that they have been using, and that therefore they never felled trees to cultivate their crops.
Nevertheless, since the 1970s, they began to find themselves in conflict with the state as the forest department sought to claim these lands. The villagers showed me documents pertaining to these conflicts, including affidavits that residents filed stating that they had been using the land, and requesting that it be assigned to them, as well as letters from the forest department summoning them to hearings in the matter.
The conflict has intensified since 2015, after the state’s chief minister, K Chandrashekar Rao, launched an ambitious afforestation programme, named Telanganaku Haritha Haram, or a Green Garland for Telangana. The state claims that it is the third-largest afforestation programme in the world, ranking only behind afforestation initiatives in China and Brazil.
Government data suggests that the programme has seen significant success. In 2021, Babul Supriyo, the union minister for environment, forests and climate change, informed the Rajya Sabha that Telangana had achieved the second-highest expansion of its green cover of all the states in the year 2019-’21, ranking only behind Andhra Pradesh. Telangana contributed to 25% of the overall increase in forest cover across India that year, again ranking only behind Andhra Pradesh.
But these numbers conceal deep-rooted flaws in conception and execution of the afforestation programme. For one, as Gogula Lakshmi’s story indicates, the state has allegedly been evicting people from lands over which the people claim to have rights.
And Chittiramavaram’s story is far from unique – similar accounts of podu cultivators protesting against land being taken over, and suffering police brutality, have been reported from across the state.
In June 2020, the police detained 14 Adivasi farmers and an activist who were protesting attempts to take over cultivated land in an incident in Lakshmidevipally mandal, in Bhadradri Kothagudem district. In April 2021, in Chintaguppa village in the same district, the forest department attempted to take over 27 hectares of forest land used for seasonal podu cultivation. A group of women allegedly tied the District Field Officer to a tree, the News Minute reported. In August 2021, in Yellanna Nagar in Khammam district, the police detained 21 Adivasi, Dalit and Other Backward Class women after they allegedly threw stones at forest department officials who had visited for an afforestation programme. In Bhupalpally district in September 2021, a podu farmer allegedly attacked, and attempted to set on fire, a forest official who had come to inspect a Haritha Haram site.
But the flaws in Haritha Haram do not only pertain to the rights of traditional cultivators.
Contrary to the widespread assumption that planting trees is good for the environment, research from the last decade suggests that while there are several benefits to the measure, it falls short when it comes to climate change mitigation. That is, this work suggests that increasing forest cover alone is not enough to enhance carbon sequestration, or the capture and storage of carbon from the atmosphere.
“The general understanding is that forests sequester carbon,” said Supriyo Chakraborty, a recently retired geoscientist from the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, who has conducted research on carbon sequestration in the Kaziranga National Park. He added, referring to mass afforestation, “But there are many aspects to consider before undertaking such a big project.” These factors include the sequestration capacities of different species of trees and of ecosystems.
Soils also play an important role in the carbon sequestration process. If soil organic matter is unusually high, it may act as a significant source of carbon as it decomposes, thereby reducing the carbon sequestration potential of an ecosystem. Chakraborty also noted that the sequestration process can also vary depending on the time period one considers. Some plants, such as wild grasses, may sequester more carbon during the growing season, he explained, but in other seasons they may emit significant carbon, resulting in a net emission of carbon.
According to the National Forest Policy of 1988, one-third of the area of each state should have tree cover. In 2014, Telangana had only 24% tree cover.
“The basic premise of Haritha Haram was to take up extensive plantation outside the notified forest areas to make the forest cover of 33%,” said Vinay Kumar, additional principal conservator of forests in Telangana, who oversees Haritha Haram. Essentially, he was drawing a distinction between forest land – that is, land held by the forest department, which need not always be forested – and forested land, which need not always fall under the forest department.
According to a document that a forest department official shared with me, since 2015, under Haritha Haram, the state has planted 171 crore trees outside forest lands and 21 crore trees on forest land, and rejuvenated 51 crore existing trees on forest land.
It is a massive interdepartmental scheme, one of several state-led schemes for mass afforestation that began around the time, including in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.
Though the scheme is entirely run by the state, more than half of its funding comes from the Centre. Around 50% comes from the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme – since tree plantation is a source of employment, the state can budget salaries of workers and other expenses under the scheme. Another 17% comes from the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority, which receives funds from industries and other enterprises when a state diverts forest land for them. The rest of the funds are drawn from various state departments.
Apart from direct funding, the Centre also indirectly pushes states to increase their green cover using ecological fiscal transfers, a financial instrument through which the Centre allots a greater share of tax revenue to states than they might otherwise have received, depending on how much forest cover they have.
The Centre has also been urging states to secure financing from abroad. In January, for instance, the Niti Aayog encouraged Telangana to seek financing from countries such as Switzerland, which are bound by international obligations to fund carbon offsets – that is, money that one country pays to another to compensate for carbon that the former emits into the atmosphere, and which the latter spends on carbon sequestration projects, such as tree plantation.
State afforestation schemes tend to have a bad reputation – seedlings and saplings, which are planted with much fanfare, are often not native to landscapes where they are planted and do not survive beyond a few years. At the national level, multiple reports, including from the Comptroller and Auditor General, have shown that compensatory afforestation funds are often misused or diverted to fund jeeps, laptops and other office supplies.
By that standard, Telangana’s afforestation data suggests that Haritha Haram is successful.
The state has also adopted several relatively novel practices – it has, for instance, created a network of local nurseries, each called a Palle Pragathi Vanam, which provide saplings for land under the scheme. Unlike most plantation programmes, afforestation is managed at the local level, rather than through central plans – according to Vinay Kumar, this allows those on the ground to grow native trees, rather than fast-growing exotic species, such as eucalyptus, often used in plantations elsewhere in the country.
The state has gone as far as to amend its Municipal Corporation Act and the Panchayat Raj Act to legally enforce the new green cover that is coming up across the state: the District Collector now has the power to remove elected officials, such as the sarpanch and municipal corporation head, if they do not maintain a minimum 80% survival rate of Haritha Haram plantations in the areas they oversee.
“That is the coercive method which has made survival of seedlings planted possible,” said Vinay Kumar. In forested areas, the survival rate of seedlings is 95%, Kumar said. The overall survival rate outside forest land is lower, at between 70% and 80%.
A total of 53 departments are participating in the scheme, which is spearheaded by the forest department. Their participation is crucial. In the seven years since the scheme was launched, the state has planted a little less than half the Haritha Haram saplings on land held by the forest department. The rest of the plantations are on land held by the other 52 departments. (Conflicts with podu cultivators, however, have largely been restricted to forest department lands – other lands were typically in possession of departments before they were given over for plantations.)
This level of government involvement has been possible only because of support from the highest offices, as I learnt from speaking to four officials across different levels in the forest department. This support is also apparent from government documents: the first talking point about strategy in a forest department summary of the scheme dated June 7, 2022, which a senior forest official shared with me, states, “There is a strong political will to implement the programme in the State.”
Indeed, the chief minister has frequently spoken of Haritha Haram being his dream for Telangana. As RM Dobriyal, principal chief conservator of forests in Telangana, told me, Rao is personally interested in the outcome of the scheme, and monitors every update that is made to it. Dobriyal added that before the launch of Haritha Haram, the state afforested an average of about 120 hectares a year – now it covers between 6,000 and 7,000 hectares a year.
Many government staffers that I met believe in the value of Haritha Haram. S Srinivasa Rao, a forest guard in Telangana’s Aswaraopeta and Dammapet forest ranges, in Bhadradri Kothagudem district, swelled with pride when he mentioned his work for afforestation programmes.
“I feel proud to successfully get the land back after years, because I can see with my own eyes how different it is in our care,” he said, as he showed me a Haritha Haram plantation site in Aswaraopeta range. This land was earlier being used for podu cultivation by “encroachers”, he continued, but with new sapling plantations, they would no longer be able to cultivate it without cutting down trees – an offence that ordinary citizens hesitate to commit, he added, because the Forest Department usually pursues those cases with great stringency. There was considerable pressure from his seniors to implement Haritha Haram, he said, which made it his top priority.
Rao was also proud of the diversity of the saplings planted under Haritha Haram. He explained that in previous decades, the Telangana forest department would plant teak monocultures across the state, which it could then harvest to sell wood to industries. Now, he noted, the department is planting a variety of native trees as part of Haritha Haram.
Despite the successes of the programme’s execution, its success in combating pollution or mitigating the impacts of climate change is less clear.
Recent studies have shown that afforestation programs do not do enough to offset carbon in meaningful ways. “Ecosystems, not tree planting campaigns, capture and store carbon,” ecologist Forrest Fleischmann wrote in the journal BioScience in 2020, in a paper that presented an overview of current research on the topic.
Indeed, recent research in India also shows that different forest ecosystems absorb carbon in different ways. For instance, the study by Chakraborty, in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park examined the amount of carbon dioxide that the forest both absorbed and emitted. It found that the forest was a net emitter of carbon, not an absorber: this was a result of carbon dioxide released by soil bacteria, likely in sediments deposited by the Brahmaputra river.
Some Central Indian forests can and do function as net carbon absorbers. This is a function of the different soil, climate and organisms of the region. For instance, the same group that studied Kaziranga studied a teak plantation in Madhya Pradesh and found that it acted as a net carbon sink, absorbing more carbon dioxide through the year than it released.
With very little data available on this question, it remains a matter of debate.
According to Chakraborty, there are only about 20 flux towers across India that measure eddy covariance, or carbon emissions and intake in forest ecosystems, which is an insufficient number for a country of India’s size and diversity.
As a paper in the Annual Review of Environment and Sciences, quoted by IndiaSpend noted, “In sum, the official Indian stance has consistently been that Indian forests are sequestering carbon and can sequester more. Some academic studies are beginning to question the biophysical basis of this claim, but no resolution has been reached.”
The paper also noted that unthinkingly pursuing afforestation can have a great human cost. It argued that if India were to prioritise plantation programmes, without accounting for the traditional use of forest resources, the result would be an upending of the “devolution of rights” to forest dwellers, which had begun after the passage of the landmark Forest Rights Act in 2006.
A sacred anjan tree, with seven polished and coloured stones set in front of it, is part of evidence that the residents of Chittiramavaram have marshalled in their fight against the forest department. They have photographs of the tree that they say are from the 1980s, which establish that they were residents of the area since at least then – the clearing that surrounds the tree also indicates that the area was not forested at the time.
From 1971 onwards, a resident named Banoth Chandru, on behalf of himself and others of the hamlet from the landless Lambada or Banjara communities, which are classified as Scheduled Tribes in the state, submitted a series of applications to the forest department to be assigned land titles for a stretch of unforested land adjacent to the Ramavaram forest, near the village.
One such document, from the 1970s, which is in English and which local activist Gugolothu Dharma showed me, described the applicants as “landless poor peasants”. It noted that “even prior to 1956, we felled the petty forest growth and removed the stumps, bushes hither thither cleared the land and made it fit for cultivation”. But after a few years, “forest authorities objected and restrained us and subsequently we were allowed, again were restrained”, the document stated.
After locals made several applications, by the 1980s, the state assigned this land to Banoth Chandru and others, presenting them with a map of 13 plots of half a hectare each, a copy of which Lakshmi and her neighbours showed me. They cite the document, which bears the stamp of an official who was overseeing the Ramavaram forest range, as evidence that they are entitled to cultivate this land, though they do not formally own it.
This assignation of land to the residents of Chittiramavaram occurred under a sustained policy of the Andhra Pradesh government to enforce land reforms. According to the government, in all, it has assigned 42 lakh acres of land to landless cultivators under the 1977 Land Reforms Act.
But recipients of assigned lands do not receive a permanent title – they only have rights of cultivation. On paper, the land still technically belongs to the government, which leaves the recipients extremely vulnerable to displacement.
In contrast, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006, commonly known as the Forest Rights Act, confers permanent land titles to forest dwellers. The objective of the act is to “undo the historical injustice” done to forest-dwelling communities, to include them in plans to conserve forests and biodiversity, and to ensure some degree of security in their livelihoods and their rights to use land.
When the Forest Rights Act was enacted in 2006, Banoth Lakshmi and Gogula Lakshmi’s families applied for a title under that act. If their claims under the Forest Rights Act are approved, they will receive land titles. This means that they will be able to cultivate the land legally, and that it can no longer be used for Haritha Haram plantations.
Gugolothu Dharma, who is district president of the Telangana Girijana Sangha, a Communist Party of India (Marxist)-affiliated group that advocates for the rights of Adivasi people across the state, noted that the Forest Department had not responded to their claim. Dharma said that department officials had argued that the forest land in question falls within the limits of Kothagudem city’s municipal government, and that therefore the department cannot implement the act there. The department also cited satellite evidence to claim that the people of Chittiramavaram began to cultivate that land only after the December 2005 cut-off date mandated by the Forest Rights Act – under the act, those who began cultivating a piece of forest land after this year are not entitled to avail of rights over it.
Though the Forest Department has not yielded, in July 2022, Lakshmi informed Scroll.in over a phone call that the department had unofficially agreed to let the people of the village cultivate 24 acres of the 50-acre stretch in dispute, and that the department had placed three rocks which serve as markers for the land the cultivators can use. A Forest Department official denied this claim.
Nevertheless, similar stories are fairly common across Telangana. In Errabodu hamlet of Khammam district, cultivators alleged that the forest department offered to grant half of a portion of land under dispute to the petitioners, many of whom had applied for pattas under the Forest Rights Act, on the condition that they not interfere with Haritha Haram plantation on the rest of the land. This offer was made only orally, and by lower level forest department officials, local residents claimed, and was not repeated by higher level officers.
“If we are going to lose everything it is better for us to have at least half of that,” said Narsingh Satyanarayana, a resident of Errabodu.
I sent queries about these claims to senior and local forest department officials over email, and also spoke to them over the phone, but had not received official responses at the time of publication.
On paper, thousands of claims such as those of Banoth Lakshmi and Gogula Lakshmi, lie unaddressed. This is because, since 2010, according to several forest officials, there has been an effective moratorium in Telangana on considering claims for pattas under the FRA.
None of the forest officials I spoke to had any information about why this moratorium was unofficially imposed: they just said they had received orders to stop processing claims, and had followed them.
The state began to process halted claims at a large scale only in 2021, said L Ranjeet Nayak, District Forest Officer for Bhadradri Kothagudem district. In the district, he added, there had been “4,000 pending claims since 2009, but now only 100 are left” to be processed.
The forest department continues to claim that most podu cultivators are encroachers. In Bhadradri Kothagudem district alone, Nayak said, seven lakh acres of forest land are encroached upon by cultivators.
But some cultivators say that the forest department’s own records prove that they have been using the land for decades. Among them are residents of Satyanarayanapuram, where forest department action has left a group of people entirely landless and without a livelihood. Satyanarayanapuram is a remote hamlet in Bhadradri Kothagudem district, where people say they have been cultivating 250 acres of land since 1996.
As proof that they have been cultivating the land for at least two decades, they cite cases of trespass that the forest department has filed against them. Sixteen people were named in the first case in 2001, and another eight in a second case in 2002, both for trespassing on forest property and cutting trees. These were crimes before the Forest Rights Act of 2006, the locals explain – but they argue that after its passage, the cases serve as proof of the legitimacy of locals’ claims of use of the land. Yet, when people attempted to file claims in 2016, they received no reply from the department.
At the end of 2020, the local government decided to press ahead with Palle Pragathi Vanam plantations on the disputed land, and also set up a tent on the land. Residents decided to fight back by attempting to sow the land. On January 6, 2021, they gathered on it and tried to sow red gram and green gram.
Soon after, 300 police officials, from two different beats, came to arrest them. They filed two cases against them: one, for gathering during the lockdown that was in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, and a second for occupying forest land. A video from that day shows 67-year-old Vukkam Venkatamma lying unconscious on the ground as people gather around her.
“They threw us like dogs into a dog van,” said Vukkam Radha, one of those who was arrested. “We were using only 250 acres and they took it all. How can we be encroachers on our own land?”
The land was their only source of livelihood, villagers explained – Vukkam Lakshmi said they used to harvest around seven quintals of jowar and green gram per acre while they had possession of it. “We only had agricultural land,” she said. “None of us are job holders. So now we have to go elsewhere to work.”
Vukkam Radha alleged that while the government had paid compensation for loss of land and livelihood to cultivators in many parts of the state who had lost land to Haritha Haram, the residents of Satyanarayanapuram had not received anything.
“We have no lands now so we only do seasonal work,” explained Vukkam Mohan Rao. In some months they go to a nearby mango orchard to pluck mangoes for the owner of the plantation. In other months, they harvest cotton or chilli, also grown on others’ lands. Sometimes, they obtain work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, but they typically do not receive their full entitlement of 100 days of work. The impact cascades down generations. Radha said she has had to take her children out of school as she can no longer afford to educate them.
Not all claims are as straightforward.
This reporter visited a hamlet in Khammam district whose residents made vastly contradictory claims over their land. Some residents of the hamlet claimed that the land had been owned by a large landowner until just before Independence, and that they had occupied and cultivated it from around that period. Others, however, said that they had been occupying and cultivating it since around 2005.
Despite these conflicting claims, residents are fiercely protective of their land. In August 2021, when the forest department attempted to plant saplings on 25 acres they had been cultivating, locals destroyed the saplings and reclaimed the land. According to Nonavath Srinu, a resident of the hamlet, the forest department has since allowed them to cultivate the land and has promised not to take further action against them.
This case is just one of thousands that might not be easily resolved because of conflicting claims and inadequate documentation.
In November 2021, it appeared that cultivators like Gogula Lakshmi would have some respite. The chief minister of Telangana announced that the state government would regularise all podu land holdings. Those who wished to make claims for regularisation of their land had to send applications to the forest department by December 2021.
But as applications poured in, some districts received applications for far more forest land than they had recorded as being encroached. By April, the government had ceased to take action on the applications – it had reportedly not begun the verification process for any of the claims. Both Dobriyal and Kumar said that the process was ongoing.
For now, the people affected by Haritha Haram continue to grapple with a future of uncertainty and a loss of livelihood. Once almost every month, Gogula Lakshmi has to travel ten kilometres each way to attend the hearing of the assault case filed against her at the district court in Kothagudem city. She also has to set apart days on which to visit a hospital for treatment.
Meanwhile, Banoth Lakshmi is not giving up and has not accepted the state’s informal compromise to allow them to use half the land. “We are 27 families – how are we supposed to survive on less than an acre of land?” she said. “Why should we give up land that our grandfathers were cultivating?”
The reporting for this article was supported by a grant from the Keystone Foundation.