Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao’s decision to increase the number of the state’s districts from the current 10 to 27 places the state's Adivasi areas in Telangana under further stress. The move could undermine Adivasi autonomy and allow a host of non-Adivasis to acquire land that has special protection under the Constitution.

According to the draft notification for new districts issued on August 22, as many as 247 Adivasi villages notified under the Fifth Schedule in Adilabad, Warangal, Khammam and Mahabubnagar districts with a total tribal population of 1.2 lakh people, will be clubbed along with non-Adivasi areas to make administration more efficient.

The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution puts special safeguards around the transfer of indigenous lands. Both this constitutional guarantee, and the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, give substantive powers to Adivasis with regard to the management of natural resources and self-governance and empowers them to set up autonomous councils.

These districts, rich in natural wealth, are home to Adivasis belonging to the Gond, Kondadora and Koya groups.

To club their villages along with non-Adivasi areas "is a negation of the spirit of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution as it will jeopardise the interests and rights of Adivasis”, said VS Krishna, secretary of the Human Rights Foundation.

Among the villages that will be affected are Bayyaram and Garla, both in the Fifth Schedule area of Khammam district. They will be merged with Gudur and Kothaguda mandals of Warangal into a new district called Mahbubabad. The population of the proposed new district will become predominantly non-Adivasi, with the majority comprising Reddys and Velamas.

Similarly, the Fifth Schedule mandals (or blocks) of Eturnagaram, Mangapet, Tadwai, Govindaraopet and Mulug in Warangal district will become part of a new district called K Jayashankar – after the mentor of KCR’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi party.

Activists point to the irony in the fact that the professor was a strong champion of Adivasi rights. “I am confident that if Professor Jayashankar were to be alive today, he would have opposed it tooth and nail,” said Dr Ramakrishna Reddy, a social activist based in Warangal.

Similarly in the unwieldy and thinly populated Adilabad district, Adivasi areas will be merged with the plains and carved up into two districts – Adilabad and Komaram Bheem district.

Komaram Bheem is a tribal hero who coined the slogan jal, jangal, zameen to mark the right of tribals over water, the jungle and forest land. Jodeghat, a hill-top village in Kerameri mandal of Adilabad, where Bheem fought his last battle against the Nizam’s forces, has now been clubbed with a district that includes a coal miners’ town, Mancherial.

“It is adding insult to injury to the memory of the tribal folk hero,” said Jeevan Kumar, a human rights activist and professor at Osmania University.

Negation of self-rule

Tribal organisations have also raised their voices over the proposed changes.

Said Bukke Nagendra Naik, leader of Telangana Adivasi Sanghatana, an organisation fighting for Adivasi rights: “Mergers of tribal sub-plan areas with plain areas is against the spirit of not only the Fifth Schedule but also that of PESA [the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act] of 1996.”

Gummadi Narasaiah, a five-time tribal legislator from Khammam, suggested that Advasi areas should remain part of Adivasi districts, regardless of the size of the district. “The move to carve out new districts is, in a basic sense, the negation of the Adivasis’ right to self-rule,” he said.

Telangana Telugu Desam Party leader A Revanth Reddy said that mergers will erode the rights of Adivasis over land. “The new districts clubbing tribal regions [with non-tribal area] will help the ruling TRS to overcome the Constitutional limitations of Act 1/70 in alienation of tribal lands,” said Reddy. According to Act 1/70, non-Adivasis cannot legally purchase land in these areas.

“Once the new districts are created, the tribal regions become part of the overall land development strategy and eventually tribals will lose their special right of ownership of tribal lands," Reddy said.

‘Larger gameplan’

KCR plans to allocate Rs 100 crore for infrastructure in each proposed new district and has sought the Centre’s assistance to post additional Indian Administrative Services and Indian Police Services officers in Telangana.

The number of Assembly seats are also likely to go up. In his Independence Day speech last month, KCR said that the Centre had agreed to his demand to increase the number of Assembly segments from 119 to 153.

Political observers say that the creation of new districts seemed to be part of KCR’s larger plan to fix his political opponents. In a previous report, Opposition members in Telangana alleged that the districts were being carved out on the whims of KCR and not on the basis of a scientific survey. They also alleged that KCR was tampering with the boundaries of their constituencies so that he could benefit politically. For instance, the rival Telugu Desam Party won a large numbers of Adivasi votes in Telangana during the last state election and any attempt to redraw these Assembly constituencies could impact its prospects the next time around.

“KCR knows the region, men and also value of land assets very well and hence it is a mistake in being fooled by his altruistic declarations,” said Uttam Kumar Reddy, president of the Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee.

So far, Telangana has received over one lakh objections to the plan to form new districts. However, the government is all set to push ahead as KCR is keen to announce the formation of new districts by Diwali, which falls on October 30. The process will have to be ratified in the state Assembly.