At a time, when the entire country has been asked to stay inside homes amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a nationwide lockdown, tribals in Kalahandi district of Odisha have been reportedly rendered homeless. On April 24, around 32 shanties of adivasis were razed to the ground by the Forest Department leaving around 90 people living in these shanties, bereft of food and shelter.
The tribals claimed that they had no clue when officials from the Forest Department came and demolished their houses. "We were in the nearby village to attend a funeral when the officials came. They knew we won't be there. When we returned, there was nothing. Our houses were demolished. We couldn't find our hens and goats," said one of the adivasis from Nehla village in Sagda Gram Panchayat.
Sagda village is adjacent to Khandul Mali forest area which is rich with bauxite mines. Taking cognisance of their plight, Prafulla Samantara, President of the Lok Shakti Abhiyan and award winning environmental and tribal rights activist has written a letter to the Chief Secretary of Odisha. The letter reads, "I am here to draw your kind attention that is it not violation of lockdown and inhuman to demolish shelters of villagers who are now without job and an alternative rehabilitation."
Speaking to NewsClick, Samantara said, "First and foremost, the time of demolition clearly reveals that it has been done keeping in mind that there is no dissent as everyone is under lockdown. While the entire world is practicing social distancing to contain the spread of the deadly virus, these adivasis have been rendered homeless with no food to eat and are surviving on Mahua leaves. Why such treatment?"
Also read: ‘Will Not Be Displaced Again’: Odisha Tribals Resist Deforestation for Mining
According to Samantara, earlier, the adivasis used to live in a village in Makhaguda, around 15 kms from the current place. "In 2017, their houses were damaged due to landslides. So, finally they came and settled here. By no means, and also under Forest Rights Act, they can't remove tribals from their current area of living. But on April 24, Forest Department officials came when no one was there and demolished their bastis," he alleged.
Siddhartha Naik, a lawyer in the Kalahandi District Court and a tribal affairs petitioner in the Supreme Court, believes it to be a conspiracy as the entire area falls under an elephant sanctuary. "You see, the Vedanta Bauxite mining project is nearby and they want to increase the area of mining by reducing the sanctuary. These tribals posed a hurdle in doing so and hence, their houses were razed to the ground. And it was done amid a lockdown so that there is no reaction," he claimed.
Naik also complained of manhandling. "I received phone calls from the tribals regarding the demolition. As I reached the spot to meet them. The Forest Department officials and guards misbehaved and manhandled me," he added.
According to Naik, the tribals have been asking to be relocated and also land for cultivation. "Since 2017, the talks for relocation has been going on but no concrete step has been taken. My only question is that if some step was to be taken, it should have been discussed and taken after May 3, when the lockdown ends. This forceful demolition at such a time reveals their ulterior motives."
T Ashok Kumar, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), however, blamed the tribals for forcefully encroaching the land. "These tribals came after the lockdown was announced. Their village is some 12-13 kilometers away from here and we asked them to go back and stay there till the lockdown is over. They didn't comply," he told NewsClick.
Naik refuted Kumar's claim and said that the tribals have been living in the area for last six months. "The DFO is outrightly lying and he has been asked to lie. If this was the case, they would have taken a step. Why would they let them live here for a month and then suddenly demolish their houses," he questioned.
Speaking to NewsClick, Yash Meghwal, Tribal Army spokesperson, said, "These tribals have been living here for sometime. They didn't arrive at the time of lockdown. The DFO is new. And if one goes by what DFO has said, if they have encroached the land as stated, is it the right to demolish their houses at this time? If community spread happens and they contract infection who will be responsible for that. Also, there are rumours that some company is behind it. we don't know how far is that true."