Nexus between Andhra’s non-tribal landlords and state actors is undermining tribal land rights

Protest against Polavaram project in West Godavari district

By Dr Palla Trinadha Rao*

The philosophy of adivasis’ life is centred upon land and forests, the basic pillars of tribal economy. Since the British times, the outsiders invaded the tribal areas and robbed land of tribals through dubious and clandestine transactions. Several regulations were made by successive governments since the British times to prevent the tribal land alienation and restoration of alienated land in the Scheduled Areas.

However, nexus between the non-tribal landlords and political outfits in connivance with the State executive machinery systematically made the tribal protective land laws fail in restoring the lands to tribals. Now the State Government itself is usurping the tribal lands for Polavaram Project in violation of the tribal land laws.

The magnitude of the tribal land alienation situation in the Scheduled Areas of West Godavari District  in Andhra Pradesh is a classic example. Of the 12,170 cases covering an extent of 65,487 acres of land, 11,793 cases covering an extent of 63,201 acres were disposed of by the Special Deputy Collectors’ courts (SDCs) in West Godavari by the end of August 2016 under Land Transfer Regulations 1 of 70 (LTR).

The courts decided 2,638 cases covering an extent of 11,519 acres of land in favour of the tribals, while 9,154 (77.62%) cases covering an extent of 51,668 (81.51%) in favour of non tribals. Of the total cases decided in favor of Non tribals 3664 (31.91%) cases with an extent of 20048 (31.72%) were noted as dropped without looking into the merits of each case. Even the cases decided in favour of tribals, the implementing officials could only restore 10081 acres of land from non tribals in relation to 2,451 cases of total of 2,638. On the other hand, the non-tribals were able to secure orders in their favour in 5390 cases and retained 31620 acres of land in their possession.

Lakshmudugudem, a scheduled village in Buttayagudem mandal, shows the extent of non- tribals’ land holdings and status of implementation of LTR. The lands of tribals were stripped by non-tribals. Today 90 percent of the tribals go for agricultural labour work for their bare survival.

The total extent of land under the control of tribals is 363 acres, while non-tribals are holding land of 1,525 acres. The number of non-tribal holdings were 43 as per the Re-Survey Register (RSR) in 1933 which increased to 63 by 1971.  The extent of land secured by non-tribals by the year 1933 was 2,072  acres and had lost only a margin of  129 acres during the period 1933-1971 and could retain the huge extent of  land 1943 acres (93.77%) percent in spite of  tribal protective land laws in force since 1917. On the other hand, only 10 tribal families held land of 153 acres in the year 1933 and their  land holdings increased to 290 acres  by the year 1971 by gaining additional access to  137 acres.

Now the State Government of Andhra Pradesh is trying to acquire the land from tribals for irrigation projects and making them totally landless. The implementation of the LTR has come to a standstill in the agency areas of West Godavari District due to largescale acquisition of lands from both non-tribals and tribals. No enquiry officer under LTR is entertaining the petitions of tribals seeking restoration of alienated land to non tribals.

This is happening because the authorities under LTR have already given a clean chit to the land holdings of non-tribals in the scheduled areas to facilitate them to secure awards under Land Acquisition Act under Polavaram Project. The legal presumption encapsulated under the Land Transfer Regulations 1 of 70 is that the lands situated in the scheduled areas once belonged to tribal.

Non-tribals have found a way to the offices of authorities under LTR and playing fraud on the constitution in connivance with the officials resulting in “files missing” of the land cases of tribals for their wrongful gain. There are several complaints with the ITDA Project Officer, West Godavari district for missing of case files, but no action is initiated yet against the erring staff. Thus there is a need to arrest the exploitation of tribals and  plundering their  resources.

*Tribal rights activist, lawyer and researcher based in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh

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