Between 30 June and 1 July, at least two incidents of violence have been reported between farmers, mainly from Tribal communities and Forest Department officials in Telangana. The conflict between the two sides is land—while the forest officials claim the land in question to be forest land, the farmers accuse that the officials are forcefully taking over their land.
On June 30, while forest officials attempted to begin a plantation drive ‘Haritha Haram’ in Sarasala village of Kagaznagar in the state’s newly formed Komaram Bheem Asifabad district, a forest range officer (FRO) was assaulted. The female officer sustained injuries to her head, as she was hit with sticks by a group of farmers allegedly led by Koneru Krishna Rao, Zilla Parishad Vice Chairman and a local Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leader. The incident was captured in a video that went viral, and subsequently, Rao resigned from his post and was later arrested by the police along with 12 other farmers. Several charges including attempt to murder, rioting, assault on public servant among others were slapped on them.
Haritha Haram is a flagship programme launched by the Telangana government under CM K Chandrashekar Rao in 2014, envisaging increase in tree cover in the state to 33% (presently 24%). As part of the programme, Forest Department officials were given the responsibility to plant saplings in notified forest areas. According to government statistics, over 60 crore saplings have been planted (till July 2017, last available data).
Subsequently, on Monday, the Forest Department had planted saplings in 20 hectares of land in Sarasala under tight security where the violence took place. However, as per local sources, the villagers argue that the forest officials ‘harassed’ the tribes there who were practicing podu cultivation on parts of the land in question and were expecting land titles through Forest Rights Act.
In the second incident, on July 1, reportedly, two officials from the Forest Department in Gundalapadu village in Bhadradri Kothagudem district were attacked by locals. The incident took place when the officials allegedly stopped several locals from ploughing forest land located in the Mulakalapalli forest range there.
In another incident, on Monday, FRO MRP Rao in Kothagudem district complained to the local police that TRS MLA Vanama Venkateshwara Rao and his son Raghava, along with three others, had abused him for doing his duty. The issue pertains to a wall being constructed by forest officials around a controversial land at Lothuvagu. While the officials claim that the wall is for ‘protection’ of forest land from encroaching, the MLA and locals argue that several farmers have land pattas on the land where the land was being built.
These incidents also throw light on the controversies surrounding the implementation of Forest Rights Act (FRA). According to data from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, so far, 51.1% of the 183,252 individual forest rights claims received under the FRA had been recognised, and nearly 45% rejected and 4.09% are pending with the government. And, of the total 3,427 community forest rights claims, only 721 claims have been recognised, 1,652 have been rejected and 1,054 are pending.
These developments are at a time in the wake of a crucial Supreme Court hearing on July 12 on eviction of tribals and other forest dwellers. On February 13, the apex court ordered the eviction of nearly 2 million tribes whose claims for land rights under FRA have been rejected. However, the order was stayed after the tribal Ministry filed a recall petition.