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Forest Officials Burn And Destroy 40 Huts Of Displaced Tribals
In Andhra Pradesh

By Tathagata Sengupta

03 April, 2012

The settlement of Sarapaka (Burgampadu Mandal) is home away from home to 43 families of Koya adivasis who have been displaced mainly from Millampally village (Jaigaregunta block, Konta Tehsil) in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. There were a few families from Raigudem, Singaram, Ramrajpad, Simalpally, Sarba, Achigutta villages as well. These villages have been few of the theaters of gruesome violence over the last few years. Salwa Judum torched the village of Millampally, Maoist squads killed people in Millampally and Raigudem, the massacre of Singaram is well-known today thanks to the efforts of journalists and activists.

Many of the people in the Sarapaka settlement, located inside the boundaries of the Krishnasagar Reserve Forest, not too far away from the Bhadrachalam-Manuguru main road, had fled a few years back to escape the violence in Bastar. Their first stop was the Bhadrachalam division area of Khammam district where they worked as coolies on mirchi farms and construction sites. After staying for a few years in rented rooms of size 6 ft by 6 ft, costing Rs. 1000-1200 per month, housing 10 people per room, these so-called “Internally Displaced People” of the Union of India finally cleared out a patch of forest area a few months back and made for themselves 10 huts to act as shelter in the scorching heat of the Telangana summer.

On 27th March 2012, after having dismantled most of the huts over the past few days, the forest officials formally completed the task of destruction in Sarapaka as they set fire to the few structures of wood that still stood and threw away food supplies, including rice that the people had stocked up. The village, which has been destroyed multiple times since January this year by the forest department, had just been rebuilt by its inhabitants with freshly cut wood from the forest encircling the patch of land they had cleared. The whole village now looks like a barren ground, with occasional heaps of utensils, some clothes, a few plastic sheets erected by some pieces of wood, and patches of ash here and there. Ironically the only pieces of furniture that were left intact, other than a few cots, were plastic chairs which would later throughout the day be occupied by Government officers of various ranks. It is as if the forest officers who led the episode of destruction foresaw that soon the State will send its all-important agents, accompanied by their teams of subordinates and orderlies and people with bottles of mineral water, who would need comfortable chairs to sit on as they conduct the very difficult business of dispensing “democracy” to their subjects.

Although the subjects of this democracy have been historically migrating to Andhra Pradesh from Chhattisgarh for seasonal work on the farms, the scale of migration reached new levels after the conflict between the State and Maoist forces started in south Chhattisgarh. Some of the residents of Sarapaka even lost their family members to the violence when they were in Millampally. The Salwa Judum raided Millampally, forced people into the camps. Some joined their ranks, some came back. The Maoists also had their share of recruitments from the village. Millampally was thus torn into pieces. Sodi Sitaram's father, Sodi Dola, was killed by the Maoists because he was allegedly a Salwa Judum activist. His main fault was that he was forced into the Salwa Judum camp at Jaigaregunda, and had to live there for a while. The Maoists killed him once he returned to his village, under the suspicion that he was “one of them” now and that he would give them the leads to local Maoist leaders. Similarly Kumaram Lakshmaiya's father, Kumaram Muthaiya, was also killed by the Maoists. Even the village sarpanch, Madkam Jogaiya, had to be sacrificed to the altar of the “Revolution” that is allegedly on its way. He had wandered off into the forest once in search of his buffalo, and was caught by the police forces on his way back for some inquiry. The fact that the police were seen talking to Jogaiya reached the Maoists who frequented Millampally. An armed squad came to the village seven days later, called the entire village including women and children, and executed Jogaiya in front of every one. It is not just the State which believes in setting public examples. Millampally is thus part of the same tradition of the irony of violence witnessed by Central India over the last few years – where the same individual, the same family, the same village, the same community has taken blows from both the warring parties. This is a war where persecution by one side doesn't guarantee one's membership to the other side. This war has graduated from its phase of polarization to that of universal victimization. While the Maoists eliminated people, the Salwa Judum took its turn to torch the village – houses, grains and clothes – everything was put into fire. Kumaram Rajesh's certificate for the 10th exam got destroyed in one such fire, taking to pyre with it his hopes of getting a job in the city.

Clearly the flames of violence haven't left these people alone even after their migration to the neighboring state. This time though, in order not to leave too much of ash behind as evidence, the forest officials came with a tractor, took down all the houses, and carried away the wood. Only the few structures that they couldn't bring down were set to fire – the houses of Kumaram Rajesh, Sodi Kannaiya, Sodi Muthaiya, Vetti Bheema. Clothes, utensils and other belongings were thrown into the fire. Sacks of rice were emptied on the ground. People were beaten up with sticks, mainly on their hips, legs, knees and feet. Naresh, an activist with a local NGO, was taking pictures and videos of the demolition. He was manhandled by the officials, and threatened. Though they tried to snatch his camera away, he somehow managed to smuggle it out to Bhadrachalam.

However this was not the first time the residents of Sarapaka saw the forest officials and their sticks. Around a month back they were all forced by the same department to cut trees at a nearby forest, and got nothing as payment. Instead they were beaten up one night by 3 drunk forest officers for having cleared the forest land. A few days back the forest officers took 11 people in their custody and took them away to the forest office. The people detained were Rajesh, Lakshmaiya, Kattam Ramu, Sodi Sitaram, Korsam Ramesh, Vetti Jogaiya, Madkam Baburao , Sodi Eramaya, Madkam Jogaiya, and two others with the name of Sodi Kannaiya. In addition to charges related to destruction of forest, they were also charged under Prevention of Damage to Public Property Act, which is the jurisdiction of the police administration. The forest department has absolutely no business slapping this Act upon people. Their possessions such as mobile phones, etc. were taken away without any receipt or any mention in the chargesheet. About Rs.4000 was “collected” from the captured, of course without any receipt of any kind. All in all Rajesh and his people spent 11 days in Bhadrachalam sub-jail, accompanied by beatings, till they got released on bail. When the men were in jail, the forest officials would visit the village and threaten the women to go back to where they came from.

According to the Deputy Forest Officer of Palvoncha, it is under the demands of his job of conserving forests that he has to write such orders of evacuating settlements. One wonders what departmental pressures and expectations make his subordinates go around beating up people with sticks, looting money at the slightest excuse, and setting homes to fire. The DFO however agreed that there needs to be larger policy level changes to avoid such happenings, and had a few concrete suggestions about what could be done, but he doesn't lose a moment to add that striking such dialogues within the system is not under the scope of his current position and job description. Similarly the matter of transfer of forests by the Department to corporations such as paper industries, mining companies, etc., non-tribal occupation of land under Fifth Schedule, illegal mining in forest areas by the ruling class of the nation “are not matters under his purview”. It is remarkable how the same Indian State which is hell bent on providing “single-window clearance”, “single window grievance redress mechanism”, etc. to its corporate partners, puts up the best show of its fragmented bureaucratic multi-faceted self when it comes to the grievances of its most vulnerable subjects.

While it is encouraging, assuming of course that the officials meant what they said at a meeting with outraged villagers, to find officers who acknowledge the difficulties of the migrant forest-dwellers, it is impossible to overemphasize the amount of alienation that is built into the structure of governance of forests in India. Thus when the sub-collector or the DFOs ask “But why do these people not want to move out of the forest, even when we are offering them better employment, better health and nutrition facilities, better water supply outside of the forest?”, their lack of understanding of the relationship between the tribal and her forest is as genuine as the fact that such lack of understanding is what was anyway supposed to be the pillars of an institution like this. The incident of Sarapaka symbolises the kind of violence that is institutionalised in the Forest Department. It also vividly narrates the story of migration of a people who had their own lands, rivers, forests, culture, politics, everything, and had no reason to live under the current form and scale of socio-economic trauma. The forest dwelling communities of India were alienated for the first time from their natural ecosystem and lives when the British rulers of colonial India enacted the Indian Forest Act in 1878 and established its Forest Department. The stated assumption of such a move was that the local communities were incapable of scientific management and that only a trained and centrally organized bunch of cadres could properly manage forests. The unsaid motive was unrestricted commercial exploitation of the vast expanses of rich forests. This legislation and the extension of the idea of absolute private property from the individual to the State through the Property Law were the legal cum ideological nails that were used to pin down the lives of people in line with the wishes of the colonial rulers. These unfortunately are, among other equally outrageous tools of statecraft, precious inheritances from our colonial masters. Today the indigenous people of the subcontinent are being robbed all over again of their lives, culture and community by our current State structure whose institutions and their socio-economic foundations are built under the principles of exclusion, alienation and hegemony. It is perhaps the biggest irony in the history of development that the adivasis are seen as the ones either not recognising, and are misusing, the potentials of the forests and the minerals they coexist with; while it is a State which is disconnected from its people and a Department which is as autocratic and feudal as possible, that are expected to preserve and manage our forest resources for the “greater common good”. Thus, today at Sarapaka, when the forest officials wonder as to how possibly could the Department protect the forests unless the tribals were driven out from there, it is very hard to ignore the irony.

Tathagata Sengupta s a faculty at the University of Hyderabad, and a human rights activist.


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