Hyderabad: Tribals in Telangana are keeping their fingers crossed as the state government is set to embark on a new exercise to address the long-pending issue of podu or forest lands under cultivation by tribals and other forest-dwellers.
The exercise of receiving applications from eligible beneficiaries claiming podu lands, beginning next week, has created both hopes and apprehensions among tribal communities who had been practising podu or shifting cultivation on forest lands.
The tribals are anxious to know how the State government is going to address the vexatious issue linked to their livelihood.
Under podu cultivation, cultivators raise crops on a piece of land in one season and move to different locations the next season.
The conflict over podu lands have been raging in parts of the state for the last few years and on a few occasions led to clashes between tribals claiming right over such lands and forest officials, who wanted to take up plantation as part of the state government’s plantation programme ‘Haritha Haram’.
The tribals claim that plantation on podu lands violates their rights, guaranteed under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
The Adivasi Joint Action Committee has alleged that Adivasis cultivating podu lands for decades are being driven out by the forest department. It claimed that forest officials are taking away their lands every year.
The forest officials, however, argued that they are taking up plantations on forest lands. According to them, Forest Rights Act apply only to those lands which were under cultivation before December 2005.
Some places in agency areas witnessed clashes during the last couple of years. Tribals claiming rights over podu lands tried to stop forest officials who went there to plant saplings.
The local public representatives are under pressure from tribals to speak up for their rights and stop forest officials from taking over podu lands.
Last year, a tribal legislator belonging to TRS had gone to the extent of threatening war. Rega Kantha Rao, who represents Pinapaka Assembly constituency in the Khammam district, had asked the tribals not to allow forest officials to enter their villages and if they do detain them.
In 2019, BJP MP from Adilabad Soyam Bapu Rao had asked tribals to beat up and drive away forest staff who take up plantations on podu lands and also uproot the saplings planted in podu lands under ‘Haritha Haram’.
Last month, Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao decided to address the issue of podu lands once for all. He told the state Assembly that after the issue is settled, the government will not allow encroachment of even an inch of forest land.
The government decided to receive claims from tribals and others to settle the podu lands issue. Village committees have been formed as per the Recognition of Forest Rights (ROFR) Act to receive the claims.
District Collectors were asked to convene an all-party meeting in the districts on solving Podu land issues and the protection of forestlands.
KCR suggested that all those tribals involved in the podu cultivation within the forest should be provided with alternative government land nearby for cultivation. If there is no government land available, they should be provided with land on the outer periphery of the forestland. He said they will also be provided with free water, power and houses.
The new exercise has been taken up even as 15,558 claims submitted in the past covering 53,565 acres were pending inquiry.
Tribal welfare minister Satyavathi Rathod recalled that under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, over 2.04 lakh claims were filed seeking rights over 6.90 lakh acres of forest land.
The tribal welfare department had processed 96,676 claims and approved farming rights over 3.08 lakh acres of forest land.
According to officials, 91,942 claims for podu rights, involving 3.27 lakh acres were not approved.
There is no clarity if the people, whose claims were not approved in the past, can file the claims under the new exercise.
Though the TRS government has vowed to settle the issue of podu land once and for all to protect the forests, analysts say this is easier said than done.
If the claims rejected in the past are received afresh and approved, this requires the government to provide 3.27 lakh acres of alternate land to the forest department.
If all the previous claims are to be honoured and if they are to be relocated outside the forests, the government will have to find alternate arable land, which will also be equally challenging.
The forest officials were busy making a fresh assessment of how many more people and how many more acres of forest land could be assigned the rights.
“It is only after this assessment that the government will make a decision on granting recognition of rights,” said Forest Minister A. Indrakaran Reddy.
The government reached a conclusion that unless those engaged in podu cultivation are provided pattas or ownership documents, the issue can’t be addressed permanently.
Since pattas can’t be given to anybody on forest lands, the government is keen to shift all podu cultivators to the periphery of forests.