When Penduru Veeru was left with less than Rs 10,000 after repaying a moneylender, the Adivasi farmer in Telangana’s Adilabad district decided to become a jeetham labourer. Jeetham refers to a kind of bonded labour that has been legally abolished but continues in a diluted form in the region.

“I would have to stay at the employer’s house for one year for which I was promised Rs 60,000,” Veeru said. “I worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week. I would fetch water, take care of cattle, get firewood, remove weeds and do any work that came up.”

In the past, employers of jeetham labourers were mostly upper caste landlords. But Veeru was employed by a Lambada household – categorised as a Scheduled Tribe like the Adivasis.

While Adivasis are traditional forest-dwelling communities known to be the original inhabitants of the area, Lambadas are a nomadic community that is believed to have migrated from Rajasthan to other states several centuries ago.

In 1976, Lambadas – also called Sugalis or Banjaras – were included in the list of Scheduled Tribes by the government of undivided Andhra Pradesh. Telangana, which was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014, continues this categorisation. In contrast, Karnataka classifies Lambadas as Scheduled Castes while Maharashtra includes them in the Other Backward Classes.

“After the inclusion of Lambada as a Scheduled Tribe, large-scale migration of Sugali and Lambada tribe has taken place from other states into Andhra Pradesh,” a report prepared by the Central government’s Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes Commission said in 2004. “The Sugali population was 1,32,464 in 1971; by 1981, the Sugali and Lambada population together became 11,58,342 – an increase of 777.4%.”

By 2011, Lambadas accounted for 64% of Telangana’s 3.2 million Scheduled Tribes population. The state has 33 communities listed as Scheduled Tribes.

In the Adilabad region, Adivasis allege the Lambada community has cornered a disproportionate share of the 6% Scheduled Tribes reservation in government jobs, pushing them further down the ladder of development.

The underlying fault lines between Adivasis and Lambadas came to the fore in October, when protests erupted in Jodeghat.

It all started on October 5, the 77th death anniversary of Adivasi Gond leader Komaram Bheem. Adivasis vandalised a statue of a Lambada woman placed in the Tribal Museum in Jodeghat in Komaram Bheem-Asifabad district. From the first week of November, incidents of Lambada teachers being stopped from entering schools by Adivasi villagers came to light from villages across undivided Adilabad. Both the communities continued their representations and protests outside government offices and public places, with stray incidents of scuffles between them. However, on December 15, the rift between the two communities took a violent turn when hundreds of Adivasis assembled near the Lambada settlement Hasnapur Tanda of Utnoor mandal in Adilabad district and damaged several vehicles, put fire to some and broke household items. Riot control force was deployed and several areas of the district were under section 144 till new year. Internet connectivity was shut down by authorities as rumours spread about alleged deaths and attacks.

Farmers in Penduruguda village, home to 50 Gond Adivasi families, grow one crop a year because water is scarce.

“The Lambadas did not fight along with Komaram Bheem against the Nizam. Why then impose cultural symbols of another ethnicity on us?” asked a young Gond Adivasi teacher who did not want to be identified, since he faces charges of criminal conspiracy, rioting and disobeying the orders of a government official.

Said Soyam Baburao, Adivasi leader and former legislator: “The agitation is not an impulsive act against the statue or the Lambada teachers alone. This is the pent up anger of over 40 years and Adivasis are determined to get our rights back.”

On December 9, nearly one lakh Adivasis from across Telangana assembled in Hyderabad demanding that Lambadas be removed from the Scheduled Tribes list. The Lambadas too held a protest in Hyderabad on December 13 in which thousands of community members participated, saying they were taking their rightful share granted by the Constitution and nothing more.

“The Lambadas are a backward community too. We need the reservations and welfare schemes,” said Amar Singh Tilawat, a former member of Parliament and currently national working president of the All India Banjara Seva Sangh. “Let the government come up with special packages and recruitments for the Adivasis and have exclusive training centres for them.”

The government of Telangana initially addressed the Adivasi protests as a law and order issue but its officials have now initiated talks with both Adivasis and Lambadas. Senior officials from the Integrated Tribal Development Agency said, “It is peaceful now and we are working on measures that can be taken.”

The 15 thatched homes in Kolamguda-Gattepalli village have no tap water, no cooking gas connections and no toilets.

Crisis in the farms

In Adilabad region, the violence has abated but tensions between the two communities continue. While the demands of Adivasi protestors have centred on the question of reservation in education and government jobs, their anger extends to becoming disempowered labourers in their own lands.

Resolutions have been passed by several Adivasi villages to stage total non-cooperation against Lambadas, to not work for Lambadas anymore, and to not lease out their lands to them. As a result, in October, Veeru returned to his village because of the resolution passed against working for the Lambadas, even though it meant a severe blow to his income.

Across the region, however, both Adivasi and Lambada settlements appear to face the same crisis of water scarcity, failing crops, high interest rates imposed by moneylenders, delay in loans from banks because of poor payment record and increased dependence on non-agricultural work.

In Kolamguda-Gattepalli of Indervelly mandal in Adilabad district, the worn-out bamboo fence of Kumara Ramu’s house was held together with cloth and discarded wire. The 15 thatched homes in the village have no tap water, no cooking gas connections and no toilets. About 100 Kolam Adivasis, a particularly vulnerable tribal group, live here. Every family owns 1 acre to 4 acres of farmland on which cotton, jowar and chickpea are usually grown – for one crop season a year.

“A good year is a profit of Rs 20,000-Rs 30,000 on cotton,” said 40-year-old Ramu, who owns four acres of land. “Together, MGNREGA [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act] work and the money from bamboo products like baskets and mats add another Rs 10,000-Rs 15,000 to our income. The foodgrains ensure we do not starve.”

In a good year, Ramu’s family of seven manages to earn just about Rs 17 per day per person. India’s official poverty line for villages is Rs 32.

Ramu borrowed Rs 30,000 in 2017 for cotton. After repayments, his debt currently stands at Rs 30,000 – partly because of bad crop yield and partly because of steep interest rates.

“The bank loans are usually delayed because our payments are not regular,” Ramu said. “The sahukar [moneylender] gives loans before the monsoon, but at 25%-50% interest rate.

Penduruguda village, where farmers own between an acre and 5 acres of land.

It is a similar story in Nandu Naik Tanda village in Aashepally gram panchayat of Jainoor mandal, Komaram Bheem-Asifabad district. It has 35 Lambada houses and a population of less than 200. Bitumen roads have not reached the village yet, neither has tap water or cooking gas connections. Located on a slightly higher terrain, water scarcity handicaps the residents in summer – officials send two water tankers a day for drinking. For domestic use, the villagers travel 3 km downhill to fetch water in bullock-carts.

Vithhal Rathod’s family of five owns five acres of land on which they grow cotton and a variety of grains. A sahukar controls their finances.

“Most of our loans come from the sahukars and obviously, the rate of interest is higher than the banks and the profits are less,” Rathod said. “Since there is no water even to drink during summer, we are restricted to one crop. The yield of what we grow is dependant on the rains and the past few years have not been great. Men here have resorted to migrate to other towns for construction work or to work in brick kilns during summer.”

Penduruguda is a Gond Adivasi village, home to over 50 families and a population of about 300. Except for the five landless families, most farmers here own between an acre and 5 acres of land but are able to grow only one crop a year because water is scarce.

Villagers from Penduruguda recalled times when they grew nine foodgrains a year – one grain per acre in each season – and led a self-sufficient life.

“With the increase in the non-Adivasi population in the Adilabad region, foodgrains were replaced by commercial crops and moneylenders started controlling the input and output,” Venkatesh, the Gond Adivasi teacher, said.

“Once cotton gained popularity, by our own will or the coercion of the sahukars, we got sucked into growing a crop that gives us either marginal profits or huge losses,” said the village head Ram Sahu. “Eventually, we started doing every work we could. In summer, men migrate to nearby towns to work in rice or cotton mills or biscuit factories for Rs 120-Rs 150 a day. We take up MGNREGA work or construction work in the nearby villages.”

Difference in jobs

While the farm crisis poses a common struggle for both communities, the difference between them appears to lie in their access to education and jobs.

In Kolamguda-Gattepalli village, as the elders narrate struggles of farming, children who should have been at school or the anganwadi centre gather around. Of the 15 school-aged children in the village, eight do not attend school.

“The village will not get its own school as it has less than 20 children. We did not even get an anganwadi,” said 45-year-old farmer Kodapa Maruti. “Our only options are either 1.5 km away on the main road or 5 km away. Some children go, others do not. At times, experiences at school deter them.”

Speaking about his nephew, hiding behind him, Maruti said, “His first day of school was after he turned eight. He returned in two days saying he was mocked for being a slow learner. The Lambada teacher did not address it. He is 13 now, cannot read a word and will probably never get educated.”

Ramu added, “This is how we lose opportunities. If we had our [Adivasi] teachers at school and government offices, they would be more patient in dealing with issues related to our communities.”

In contrast, Rathod’s wife, Tara, is an anganwadi worker – one of five people in the village with a government job or income.

“Even the smallest Lambada tandas have some representation in government jobs, but our better-off villages are still struggling to show our role models to our future generations,” said Atram Bhujanga Rao, a government teacher and state committee vice-president of the Telangana Human Rights Forum. “Across the district, the nine Adivasi communities together have less representation than the Lambada community alone.”

The Adivasi Hakkula Porata Samiti (Adivasi Rights Organisation) filed a right to information application seeking data on jobs held by Adivasis and Lambadas in the region under the Integrated Tribal Development Agency, Utnoor. As per the data received, the Lambada community has 21 post-graduate headmasters (in Ashram high schools) and the nine Adivasi communities together have a representation of 18. The contract residential teacher post too has a slightly better representation of Lambadas with 253 of their community members in the post, while the Adivasi communities have a representation of 149. The tribal welfare schools have a slightly better representation of Adivasis with 382 of them employed in it as against 360 Lambadas.

Lambadas, however, dispute these claims. Heerapur Tanda in Utnoor mandal, Adilabad district, has about 60 houses and a population of 240. While 60% of the population are farmers, 20% are employed by the state government and the rest are business owners. “Nobody offered us seats in colleges and jobs on a platter,” said Ajay Kumar, a government school teacher and the head of Heerapur Tanda. “We worked very hard to get those. We cracked competitive exams and got through because of our merit.”

Bhujanga Rao disagrees. “Using the argument of merit to justify the outsized share of Lambadas is faulty and incoherent with the idea of reservation,” he said, adding, “The reservation and, more importantly, the constitutional safeguards – at least on paper – were given to Adivasis because we have been historically oppressed and discriminated against.”

Jadhav Prem Singh, a Lambada youth from Sonpur village in Adilabad district, disagrees. “People see a handful of well-settled Lambadas and assume it is all good, but it is not our reality,” said Singh, who works as an assistant director in the Telugu film industry. He returned from Hyderabad to be with his family amidst tensions.

“In some districts of Telangana, our community members are still selling girls for prostitution because of poverty,” he said. “Most of the municipal workers, auto and taxi drivers, and beggars are from our community.”

Rao responded: “Let the government give them whatever schemes it wants. We realise they are marginalised too. But including them in the ST [Scheduled Tribe] list and clubbing the Adivasis and them into one category was a historical mistake which needs to be corrected.”

Residents of Kolamguda-Gattepalli. The village is home to 100 Kolam Adivasis, a particularly vulnerable tribal group.