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Thousands of tribal farmers on streets, demanding title deeds for forest land

Thousands of tribal (Adivasis) farmers have taken to the streets, demanding title deeds for forest land cleared for ‘Podu’ cultivation (a form of shifting cultivation).

The matter, which has been subject to review for more than 15 years, has resurfaced after the Telangana government encouraged the Haritha Haaram (greenery program) into forest lands, including those claimed by Adivasis under the Forest Rights Act 2006.

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The Forest Rights Act

This instilled fear among Adivasi farmers, who were hoping that the new government would reconsider their pending claims. ‘In 2006, the united Andhra Pradesh Government introduced a law that gave the gram sabhas the right to ascertain the extent of the land in question and allot title deeds to them,’ Arun Kumar, a leader of the Adivasi association Tudum Debba, explained.

Based on the recommendations of the gram sabhas, the Forest and Revenue Departments, as well as the Integrated Tribal Development Agency, conducted a joint survey. The district administration was notified of the proposals.

Applications for a total of 3.20 lakh acres were submitted, but only one-third of them were settled, with the remaining 2.20 lakh acres being rejected.

‘The Act expressly states that officials must explain why a claim was denied. The problem could have been solved if the Act had been strictly enforced. It still has the potential. It is the only way to solve the problem,’ M Kodandaram, President of Telangana Jana Samithi and a key figure in the Telangana movement, said.

After the formation of Telangana in 2014, the issue became more complicated. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government, which launched Haritha Haaram, decided to plant forests on lands claimed by Adivasi farmers. ‘The previous government had rejected our claims without providing any explanation. The TRS government has decided to seize the lands,’ said another Adivasi leader.

Adivasi farmers have found support from political parties such as the Congress and the Left, as well as farmers’ unions and non-governmental organizations.

With the opposition Political parties unifying behind the Adivasi farmers, Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao has started to swing into action and directed officials to develop a strategy to resolve the issue once and for all.

‘Once the Podu land issue is resolved, officials should take protective precautions to protect the forest land. Only Adivasis will be permitted to live there,’ he said at a recent review meeting, implying that outsiders who encroached on the forests would be forcibly removed.

In addition, the government intends to conduct a comprehensive survey of forest land and assign coordinates to the surveyed land.

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The Adivasi farmers are also demanding that the government halt migration from the plains in order to protect their rights. ‘We demand that the Forest Rights Act of 2006 be strictly enforced. It should be a cut-off point for determining rights. We are not seeking to include lands cleared after 2006,’ Arun Kumar explained.