“I will never go back,” said Madakam Adama, referring to his home in Chhattisgarh’s Gedampal village, which he last saw 13 years ago, in 2006. Adama, who looks about 60 but says he is 45, now lives in Kota Namilipeta, a settlement of 27 mud-walled houses in the middle of a forest in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district.
Adama is among the thousands of Adivasis (tribal, indigeneous people) displaced from their homes and villages in southern Chhattisgarh. The Adivasis were fleeing violence allegedly inflicted by a state-sponsored militia, the Salwa Judum, soon after it was formed in mid-2005. The Supreme Court banned the Salwa Judum in 2011, calling it unconstitutional and the state support to it “a matter of gravest constitutional concerns and deserving of the severest constitutional opprobrium”.
The displaced Adivasis, who had found refuge in the forests of Andhra Pradesh, feared retribution if they returned home. They eventually settled on land that they had cleared in Andhra forests. At least 500 of these families have now applied for land titles for their new houses and small farms under the Forest Rights Act. They are relying on a special provision meant to rehabilitate displaced Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers, which has never been used before.
Adivasis have never before sought relief under Section 3(1)(m) of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or FRA. There is a hurdle that the families will have to overcome, though. According to FRA, claims for forest rights can only be made on land that the claimants occupied before December 13, 2005, the day on which the Forest Rights Act was placed before the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament. The majority of the Adivasis fled Chhattisgarh in 2006.
Some experts say the Act may need to be amended to accommodate the demand for land rights, but the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, unsure if a legislative amendment would work out, is framing guidelines on how to use Section 3(1)(m) to process the Adivasis’ applications for land rights. Other experts believe the state governments may have to come up with an entirely new solution.
How the applications get decided would be relevant to the rehabilitation of millions of Adivasis, displaced before or after 2005.
At least 190,000 Adivasis have been forcefully evicted or displaced since 2005 without compensation or rehabilitation, according to six cases documented so far in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, Assam, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana by Land Conflict Watch, a network of researchers who collect data about ongoing land conflicts in India. Half of them are in Assam, and were displaced because of an ethnic conflict over the demand for a separate state of Bodoland.
No consolidated data on how many Adivasis have been internally displaced after 2005 seem to exist, and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs did not respond to IndiaSpend’s requests for data or comment. This story will be updated if they do.
Eight years after the Supreme Court’s order against the Salwa Judum, few Adivasis have returned to Chhattisgarh. They live in 200-odd villages inside the forests of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana (which was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014), according to estimates by local organisations and district officials in Telangana. Of the estimated 200, 131 villages are in the Bhadradri-Kothagudem district of Telangana, according to a Telangana government document not related to the Adivasis that IndiaSpend reviewed. The rest are along the Telangana-Andhra Pradesh border, mostly in Andhra’s West Godavari district.
States alone have the legal authority to grant forest rights. But Telangana and Andhra Pradesh have so far not taken any steps to help them.
“The point is that they are refugees,” said Nandini Sundar, a professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics. The Adivasis from Chhattisgarh need to get forest rights wherever they have settled, keeping in mind that they have fled violence, she said.
Sundar has extensively documented the conflict in Chhattisgarh, and was the lead petitioner in the case against the Salwa Judum at the Supreme Court. She pointed out that there has been no rehabilitation package for the Adivasis unlike for other groups such as the Kashmiri Pandits – native Hindus from Kashmir who fled due to communal violence in the 1990s and settled in other parts of the country.
Sundar had drawn up a draft rehabilitation plan at the behest of the Supreme Court in 2010 for all those affected by the conflict in Chhattisgarh, suggesting that displaced Adivasis receive individual and community forest rights in their new villages. The court did not give any order on the draft plan in its verdict in the case.
“There are rehabilitation policies if you are a Sikh or a Kashmiri Pandit or if you are powerful enough [as a community to influence policy],” said Sundar. “But not if you are an Adivasi.”
About 30,000 indigenous people or Adivasis like Adama from Chhattisgarh’s southern districts of Sukma, Bijapur and Dantewada – among India’s 90 districts identified as affected by Left-wing militancy – fled to Andhra Pradesh in the months after the Salwa Judum was founded in mid-2005.
The Salwa Judum, which means ‘purification hunt’ in the local Gondi language, was funded and armed by the Chhattisgarh and Central governments to fight Maoist guerillas in the jungles of the state’s southern Bastar region. It unleashed terror in villages and stood accused of murder, rape, abductions and arson, the National Human Rights Commission found.
Working in Andhra Pradesh’s thriving chilli and cotton farms had been common practise for Chhattisgarh’s Adivasis for years. So when the Salwa Judum’s violence started, the Adivasis naturally fled to the Andhra villages and pleaded with farm owners to allow them to settle on nearby forest land.
Some time in 2007, Adama estimated, a farmer told him about other similarly displaced Adivasis who had set up huts on forest land not too far away. Adama moved there. Over the next year, he chopped down trees, cleared a five-acre patch of the forest, and started to grow paddy and pulses for his family of four, and some cotton to sell.
Breaching laws to start anew
Today, Adama continues to work in chilli and cotton farms. He walks for an hour to reach work, crossing a forest and a stream. When the stream swells up in the monsoon, he takes a detour to avoid wading through waist-high water. Because the state has not build roads to connect hamlets such as his.
Settlements such as this one, created by Adivasis like Adama inside the forests, are considered illegal under some forest laws, so they are denied electricity, potable water, sanitation facilities.
“These settlements are inside forest areas and not legally recognised, so we cannot create any physical assets,” said a tribal welfare officer in Telangana, requesting anonymity. Most state government officials spoke to this reporter seeking anonymity out of fear of being transferred or otherwise punished for ‘helping’ Adivasis. “We are trying to do whatever we can... other than [providing] physical infrastructure,” said the officer.
Adama’s hamlet was busy with signs of daily life when we visited. Bottle gourd and pumpkin hung from creepers spread over fences made of tree branches. Papaya trees grew in compound corners. Hens and chickens scurried about in the open spaces between houses. There was also a pig, seemingly belonging to no one in particular.
Although the Forest Rights Act enacted in 2006 recognised tribal peoples’ rights over forest lands that have inhabited or relied on for generations, a number of settlements such as Adama’s were set on fire by the Andhra Pradesh state forest department that year, international advocacy group Human Rights Watch noted in its 2008 report. Some were burnt multiple times because residents kept rebuilding their homes, until, in September 2007, the Andhra Pradesh High Court directed the forest officials “not to demolish or set fire” to these structures.
In most places, the Adivasis eventually reached informal agreements with forest officials, some of whom were sympathetic to their plight, but not all. Podam Ravamadu, 40, recalled his first meeting with a forest officer in Chepuru Gumpu village on the Telangana-Andhra border between Bhadradri-Kothagudem and West Godavari districts. Ravamadu had come to Andhra Pradesh in early 2006 with 27 other families from his Palchalma village in Sukma. He went to the forest office to get permission to settle on the forest land.
The officer swore at him and told him to go away, Ravamadu said. “When I said we have nowhere to go, he swore at me again and said, ‘Okay, you can stay on a small patch, but don’t cut too many trees’.”
Basic needs unmet
Without water supply, many drink water from forest streams. Some villages have managed to install hand pumps – paid for by charities – dug under the cover of darkness at night.
The Telangana government occasionally organises health camps, and has begun extending anganwadi (rural childcare) centres that provide meals to children and pregnant women. But since the villages are difficult to access given the lack of roads, anganwadi workers rarely visit.
“I have seen a worker just once,” said Madakam Sujata of Chintakunta settlement in Telangana’s Bhadradri-Kothagudem district. She complained about the lack of medical facilities and schools. “Water is a bigger issue. The state can at least provide us clean tap water,” she said.
Malnutrition is rife despite access to subsidised rice and sugar under food security schemes, enabled thanks to a case filed before the National Human Rights Commission in 2008. A survey of 11 settlements by the Bhadradri-Kothagudem district administration in 2018, reviewed by IndiaSpend, found that 90% of pregnant women were severely anaemic.
Children are often born underweight, and at least five infants die every month, according to a doctor who works with these communities. The doctor did not wish to be identified because he feared the state government would prevent him from helping the Chhattisgarh Adivasis. He said he also faced criticism from local Adivasi communities who said he solely treated the displaced Adivasis and not them.
The Chhattisgarh Adivasis are also unable to avail of benefits under financial and developmental schemes meant for their welfare, or to claim reserved positions for Scheduled Tribes (STs) in universities and government jobs. This is because they are not recognised as STs in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Each state has its own list of STs native to the state.
Point of no return
Despite the hardships they face in their adoptive lands, the Chhattisgarh Adivasis do not want to return. For Adama, it is enough that there is peace and an opportunity to earn: “I like that I can do as much coolie work as I want to.”
Although there is no danger from the Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh now, the Adivasis fear backlash from the Maoists.
Madivi Hiresh returned to his village near Maraiguda in Sukma, Chhattisgarh, in 2014. He found that his land and house, which his family had left behind when he was still in school, had “become like the jungle”. The village headman told him to take the Maoists’ permission to resettle and explain to them why the family had run away in the first place. He returned to Andhra Pradesh and has not gone back since.
The 30-year-old now works as a coolie on farms, and assists local non-profit organisations that work with Adivasi groups. “Many people think of going back to their land, but everyone is afraid,” said Hiresh.
Many have nurtured fruiting trees like mango. “They have only just started to bear fruit,” said Ravamadu, “Why will we go back now when it’s time to reap them?”
In February-March 2019, 300 displaced Adivasis like Hiresh participated in a 300-km bicycle rally from Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh to Raipur, the state capital. The rally was organised by Shubhranshu Choudhary of CGNet Swara, a community radio service in Gondi, as an initiative to build peace in the Maoist-affected areas. At the end of the rally, few Adivasis expressed any desire to return to Chhattisgarh, and a majority said they wanted to remain in their new settlements in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, he said.
Only 20 families from Maraiguda village in Sukma wanted to return because they wished to benefit from the state’s schemes, including reservation in schools. Their return was facilitated in April 2019.
Charting a way out
Choudhary’s CGNet partnered with the non-profit Sitara Association, based in Chinturu in Andhra Pradesh, and proposed to the other Adivasis that they obtain rehabilitation rights under the FRA. Section 3(1)(m) of the Act states that Adivasis and other forest-dwelling communities have a right to “in situ rehabilitation including alternative land” in cases where they have been “illegally evicted or displaced from forest land of any description without receiving their legal entitlement to rehabilitation prior to the 13th day of December, 2005”. The Adivasis are demanding forest rights on the land they moved to in exchange for their land in Chhattisgarh.
Following the Gond religious festival of Pen Pandum this June, 500 such forest rights claims were filed with the sub-divisional magistrate in Konta, Chhattisgarh. The claims have been filed in Konta because the Adivasis are not recognised as scheduled tribes in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, said Choudhary. The Chhattisgarh government must verify the applicants’ claims to land in their state and certify the same to the governments of Telangana or Andhra Pradesh, as per the CGNet-Sitara team’s interpretation of the Act. However, there is no clarity on how the rehabilitation rights under FRA are to be applied, especially since the displacement is from one state to another.
In June 2019, Choudhary approached the New Delhi-based National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), which looks into the welfare of Adivasis, with a request to order the three state governments and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to facilitate the process of recognising land rights of the displaced Adivasis. The NCST called a meeting of the three state governments – Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana – and the Union ministries of home and tribal affairs.
The governments of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana did not attend the meeting, held in September, and gave no reasons, Nand Kumar Sai, who chairs the NCST, told IndiaSpend. It is up to the states to see whether they can give forest rights based on the availability of land, he said. “We are willing to mediate between the states, but they need to come to the table first,” said Sai.
Following the meeting, the Chhattisgarh government wrote to the tribal affairs ministry, seeking guidelines on how to implement the in-situ rehabilitation section of FRA to process the displaced Adivasis’ applications. The NCST asked the Chhattisgarh government for a survey of the displaced Adivasis as a first step towards rehabilitation.
Additionally, in October, the central home ministry wrote to the governments of Chhattisgarh and eight neighbouring states to find out how many Adivasis from Chhattisgarh were displaced.
“By some estimates 55,000-60,000 Adivasis have been displaced. But we don’t even know the real numbers,” said Sai. “It is the state governments’ responsibility to see how these people are living. We have asked the Centre to ensure this is done.”
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs, meanwhile, is preparing guidelines on using the clause for in-situ rehabilitation. It will take a “long time”, an official told this reporter on condition of anonymity. The ministry is waiting for the states to complete the surveys, which will indicate the exact number of Adivasis who want to stay on in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The guidelines will be prepared with help from the Ministry of Law and Justice once the numbers are clear.
Jaideep Singh Kochher, who represented the Ministry of Tribal Affairs at the NCST meetings, said he would not comment until the state governments completed their respective surveys.
No survey had taken place when IndiaSpend visited five settlements – Kota Namilipeta in West Godavari, Andhra Pradesh; Chepuru Gumpu on the Andhra-Telangana border; and Chintakunta, Eraburu Padu and Palavangu in Telangana’s Bhadradri-Kothagudem district – in early October 2019.
In 2017, Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao denounced the displaced Adivasis for causing deforestation, in a statement to the state assembly. The Adivasis are also suspected to have links with Maoists, said Sitara Association’s Haneef, who chooses to be identified solely by his first name – the Muria Gond Adivasis, the majority of those displaced, have lived deep inside the forests, which is also where the Maoists are based.
This is why in some settlements, the Chhattisgarh Adivasis are asked to report to the police station every month to keep track of new migrants as well as to see if any have disappeared – which officials see as an indication that they may have joined the Maoists, one district administration official told IndiaSpend.
The displaced Adivasis are also seen as a burden on the state’s resources. “I have 10,000 displaced Adivasis in addition to three lakh local Adivasis who need the state’s support. Who do you think will be my priority?” asked the Telangana tribal welfare officer quoted earlier who wished to remain anonymous.
Wrangling over status, dates
“Adivasis don’t see state borders in the forest,” said Haneef. “This is all part of one forest and they should have the same rights across the area.”
Section 3(1)(m) of the FRA is meant “to cover exactly these kinds of situations”, said Shomona Khanna, an advocate at the Supreme Court and a former legal consultant to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Khanna said that the Chhattisgarh Adivasis not being recognised as scheduled tribes in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana would not prevent them from having their forest rights recognised in those states in light of an earlier court order. In 2011, the Andhra Pradesh High Court had said that it was up to the village-level forest rights committees to decide whether the Chhattisgarh Adivasis could be considered as scheduled tribes in Andhra Pradesh. This means that the committee can, for the purpose of granting rights under the Forest Rights Act, consider the displaced Adivasis from Chhattisgarh as scheduled tribes given that they had escaped the violence and crossed the border, she said.
Another option for the Chhattisgarh Adivasis is to apply for rights as Other Traditional Forest Dwellers, for which they would need to use records from Chhattisgarh to show that they have been forest dwellers for at least 75 years–the legal eligibility to be counted as an Other Traditional Forest Dweller under the FRA, said Khanna.
However, since claims for forest rights including for in-situ rehabilitation can be made only on land that the claimants occupied on December 13, 2005 (the day the Forest Rights Act was tabled in the Lok Sabha), and the majority of Adivasis fled Chhattisgarh after this date, the law may need to be amended to accommodate their claim, a senior district officer in Telangana told IndiaSpend. “The government needs to ponder on what is so important about this particular date,” said the officer, who would be in a decision-making capacity to grant forest rights.
A senior Ministry of Tribal Affairs official quoted earlier said there was no plan to amend the law to change the date, and opined that the Adivasis who had migrated after the cut-off date would not be eligible to have their forest rights recognised.
This would mean that FRA may not offer a solution to the Chhattisgarh Adivasis’ demands for land rights, and the state governments will need to find “innovative solutions”, according to a lawyer who works on forest rights and who also did not wish to be identified because there is no clear government opinion on the subject yet.
The state governments could collaborate to simply “offset” the forest rights in Chhattisgarh in favour of rights in the new states, said the lawyer. “The states need to figure out a solution. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs’ intervention is important to enable this.”
But the Adivasis may be running out of time. The forest officers of the Telangana government have repeatedly asked them to leave since 2018. “They said they wanted to plant trees on our farmland,” said Ravamadu.
The Telangana government has said that it plans to “retrieve” the “illegal possession” by Chhattisgarh Adivasis, called ‘Gutti Koyas’ in Telangana and Andhra, inside forests under the state’s 2015 afforestation programme, Haritha Haram. To this end, the forest department had in August and September 2017 demolished houses belonging to Chhattisgarh Adivasis who had settled in Bhadradri-Kothagudem district decades before the ones displaced by the Salwa Judum. The Adivasis had subsequently filed a case in 2018 in the Hyderabad High Court (now renamed Telangana High Court) seeking a stay on the demolitions. The court issued a stay order in October 2017.
“They can get thrown out any day,” said Choudhary of CGNet Swara, emphasising that obtaining land rights is an important step towards restoring normalcy in their lives.
Back in Kota Namilipeta, Adama led the prayer at the community’s harvest festival, Kurmi Pendu, when fresh paddy is offered to the gods. No one in the community of Adivasis displaced from Chhattisgarh is a priest, so the people picked Adama – one of the earliest settlers – for the job.
Adama squatted before clay idols of a horse and an elephant on a bright October day. Three mounds of mud were made in front of the idols. Adama began reciting prayer as people crammed into the open-air shrine in a square clearing in the forest just outside the village. The prayer sounded more like a conversation with a child as he persuaded the gods to eat the rice.
The prayer suddenly stopped. Adama looked up, and for the first time, a smile stretched across his gaunt face. A speck of rice had fallen off a mound. The gods had eaten. Now the people may eat, too.
Nihar Gokhale is a writer with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers and journalists documenting ongoing land conflicts across India.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.