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Encroachment or Exercising Right? Why Land Dispute Between Telangana Govt, Tribals Has Turned Ugly

While the Telangana Forest Department says a part of ‘forest reserve land’ has been allegedly encroached, the tribals in the area claim the land as their own.

Rishika Sadam | CNN-News18

Updated:July 11, 2019, 9:36 AM IST
Encroachment or Exercising Right? Why Land Dispute Between Telangana Govt, Tribals Has Turned Ugly
Kagaznagar Forest Officer Chole Anitha and her staff were attacked with bamboo sticks at Sarasala village in Kumram Bheem Asifabad district of Telangana on June 30. (Image: Twitter/ANI)

Hyderabad: Video clip of a woman forest official being brutally assaulted by villagers and the brother of a TRS MLA in Telangana went viral on the social media last week. A day later, more forest officials were attacked by a local mob in another district. Both the incidents were a harsh reminder that all is not well in the lush green areas of the state, and in both the cases the core issue remains land dispute.

Simply put, the officials claim that a part of ‘forest reserve land’ has been allegedly encroached and the tribals in the area claim that the land is theirs. This conflict has led to repeated clashes between the two groups over the years.

The issue dates back to the colonial era when the British gained control over the forestry through the Forest Acts 1865/1878 — truncating the centuries old traditional use by communities of their forests.

Although the procedure for settlement of rights was provided under statutes such as the Indian Forest Act, 1927, they were hardly followed. This forced the tribals, the most socio-economically backward class, to live in fear and tenurial insecurity.

As years passed by, the act saw improvisations to accommodate the rights of tribals over the forest lands. In 2006, Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 was enacted to protect people from the peripheral socio-economic class and balance the right to environment with their right to life and livelihood.

This meant that people from the ST community, staying in forest areas for several years, could claim rights over a piece of land in the area and do cultivation for livelihood.

According to official data from the Telangana Forest Department, of the 1,86,534 claims received from the forest-dwellers for their rights on the land, more than half were rejected as of November 2017.

“The rejections were done when it was found that those were not genuine. Most of it, according to our records, is a forest land. And some of those claims were sent as a ‘benami’,” a senior official from the state forest department, who did not wish to be named, told News18.

However, the tribals were granted rights over 3 lakh acres of land in the state after 2006. “See, the state government, in 1970, had said there would be no further accommodation to grant rights over lands in the form of ‘pattas.’ It said that the lands allotted, at that time, to tribals would be the last. In future, there would be no such facility. However, the ROFR act, 2006 says otherwise. So this is like an incentive for the tribals who feel that if they encroach a piece of forest land and cultivate it for a certain period of time, it would give them the right to claim it. This is the main issue,” the official from Telangana Forest Department said.

The officials argue that tribals have been constantly encroaching lands that belong to the forest department and later start to claim rights over it. In other cases, people from other communities have been misusing the Act.

“In a lot of cases, people from other communities such as BC and OC, who have been staying in those forests for a long time, are also claiming that they should be given rights over the forest land. But this cannot happen. This is mainly for the tribes,” V.Mohan from Telangana United Foresters Federation (TUFF) told News18.

Mohan added that the Forest Rights Act (ROFR, 2006) permits ‘Scheduled Tribes and Other Forest Dwellers’ to claim rights over a land if they’ve been cultivating it for 25 years or so.

“In some cases, if the rights over two acres of forest land have been granted, the locals tend to encroach the forest land attached to those two acres and then claim that it is theirs. If forest officials go to conduct any work there, they attack them. If they have an issue, they need to go the collector, why attack?” Mohan said.

According to the forest officials, of the 66 lakh acre identified as ‘forest reserve lands,’ more than 7 lakh acre has been lost to ‘illegal’ encroachments in the past few years.

What’s the Confusion?

When it comes to the implementation of Forest Rights Act, it’s a matter of perspectives from both the sides. There are allegations that local revenue officers have been misguiding the villagers into believing that they will be able to gain rights over the encroached land, at least in the future.

Officials from the Telangana Forest Department argue that lands in the forest belt of the state — in Adilabad, Asifabad, Nagarkurnool and Bhupalpally districts — has been surveyed and demarcation has been done. The disputed land percentage there is relatively less.

“We’ve gone to each village, conducted extensive surveys and then the land demarcation was done. Call it institutional insignificancy or whatever, in a few cases, records have not been updated within the revenue department that the land is a forest Reserve land. People of the village have not been informed that it is a forest land, which is why when officials go to do afforestation, the locals attack.”

Experts point out that there is no accommodation to issue fresh ‘pattas’ (allotting rights over forest land) after 2006. However, politicians and leaders from across the country, due to lack of awareness or political mileage, promise ‘pattas’ as part of their election campaigns.

“Until the Centre decides to ‘disreserve’ forests again, there is no provision to allot land rights to any of the forest-dwellers after the 2006 order. However, politicians are misleading these people by promising them ‘pattas’,” Mohan said.

Are Politicians exploiting the Tribals?

Both the forest department officials and tribal activists allege that in a lot of cases local leaders encroach lands and claim rights under a ‘benami’ name, usually under the name of an adivasi.

“In a few villages, once an adivasi is granted rights over a piece of land, it is taken away by a local politician who, in turn, gives it on rent to the adivasi again for cultivation. This is exploitation of the tribals and their rights,” another senior official from the state forest department pointed out.

It is the lack of awareness and no proper information about paperwork that makes the tribals vulnerable, the officials say.

In both the recent attacks on forest officials, local politicians have been at the forefront. In the first one, TRS MLA Koneru Konappa's brother Krishna attacked a female forest officer who had allegedly ventured into their land. In the second incident, a leaked phone conversation between a local MLA and a revenue officer, where the former had asked the officer to stay away from forest lands, has gone viral.

There are allegations that both of these politicians were trying hard to save their own private lands, which they might have encroached illegally.

‘Tribals Living in Fear’

For tribals, the relationship with forests is sacred. Apart from being a source of income and livelihood, the forests have also been their home, a tradition that runs through generations.

Today, they’re at the risk of eviction from their ecosystem, say activists. “Tribals are living in fear. Their lands have been taken away and now they’re scared that they will be asked to leave their homes. Who has more right on the forests other than tribals? The government thinks tribals are helping Maoists and that is why they are a lot more stringent on them,” says Ambu Naik, Tribal Rights Activist.

Naik pointed out that it is incorrect to order eviction of tribals who cannot produce papers (proof of possession.) “They’re exploited at every level. They have no proper identity cards and that itself makes them ineligible to apply for ‘pattas,’ and hence they do not get it. That does not mean they must be evacuated. All these people have been in forests for decades and will continue to be that way,” he said.

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