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Displaced by Polavaram project, AP tribals 'struggled' to get land without title deeds

By Dr Palla Trinadha Rao* 

The case study Village Kondamodalu, a Scheduled Village in Devipatnam Mandal of the erstwhile East Godavari District, is one of the Polavaram Project affected villages. The village is situated on the bank of the river Godavari. The Government of Andhra Pradesh (AP) is constructing a big dam on the river Godavari for industrial and agricultural purposes. The people living in the predominant tribal village, Kondamodalu, were displaced under the project and rehabilitated in various places within the Scheduled Area of the Devipatnam and other Mandals in 2022.
This case study examines how the tribal rights question has become a serious contested issue in the context of acquisition of lands in the submergence area of Polavaram Project in the erstwhile East Godavari of AP. The study further examines the issue in the light of tribal land alienation in the Scheduled Area. The submergence area of Polavaram Project is in the Scheduled Area mandals of AP.
This paper further examines how the land issue of tribals where the tribal welfare officers are faced with the ethical dilemma of having to recognize the title deeds of the absentee non-tribals on one hand and the concerns of tribal who are depending on the lands in question for their survival and their consistent land struggles.

Introduction:

Scheduled Area is a notified area under Fifth Schedule to the Constitution of India. Art.244 Administration of Scheduled Areas and Tribal Areas states that the provisions of the Fifth schedule shall apply to the administration and control of the Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes in any State.
The Scheduled Area is spread over in 5 districts presently, after the reorganization of districts in AP. East Godavari District is one of the erstwhile districts in AP. Now the Scheduled Area of this district has come under the jurisdiction of the newly carved Alluri Seetharamaraju District.
The Scheduled Area of the erstwhile East Godavari District is the habitat for 2.36 lakh STs spread over 15 mandals including 4 sub-plan mandals in the East Godavari District. The Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA), with its head-quarters located at Rampachodavaram covers 741 villages. Konda Reddis are categorized as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) whose population was 40 percent of the total ST population as per 2011 census.
The Scheduled Area of the study district spreads over in 11 mandals in Two Revenue Divisions (Rampachodavaram and Chintur) and ST Population is 2,20,245 (66.68%) of the total population of 3,30,281.

Study of Gram Panchayat Village Kondamodalu:

The study village Kondamodalu Gram Panchayat (GP) is one of the GP villages in Devipatnam Mandal. The Mandal has 14 GPs. The land issue arises from a fact that around 440 tribal households in 10 of the 12 habitations in Kondamodalu GP have been cultivating their lands for the last four decades.
Most of these tribal families belong to Konda Reddis. Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood of these tribals and it is subsistence in nature. The key issues around Adivasi agriculture are land alienation, adverse terrain, degraded soils, rain fed agriculture, absence of irrigation infrastructure and poor investment capacity.

Tribal land alienation:

The AP Scheduled Area Land Transfer Regulations 1 of 59 as amended by 1 of 70 was promulgated by the Governor under Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. These Regulations prohibit the transfer of lands in the Scheduled Area of AP in favour of non-tribals. A non-tribal cannot acquire the land either from a tribal or a non-tribal. These Regulations are intended to protect the land rights of tribals.
However, more than half of the tribal lands in the Scheduled Areas of AP is estimated to be in the hands of non-tribals. Special laws to protect the tribals from land alienation have been violated, and about 48 percent of the land in agency areas is formally owned by non-tribals.
Large scale manipulations during the survey and settlement period of 1970-76 led to grant of land entitlements as settlement pattas in the name of non-tribals over tribal lands. “Every year more and more lands are passing into the hands of non-tribals and if not checked with a very strong executive force, very soon the tribals may not have any lands at all”, according to the Koneru Ranga Rao Land Committee Report. (Ranga Rao, Koneru (2006). “The Land Committee Report - 2006”, Government of Andhra Pradesh, Hyderabad, p.57.)
Several legislations have been passed since independence but “despite the legislation in force against alienation of land from tribals to non-tribals, a fair proportion of them have either been dispossessed of their lands or have parted with their land due to some other reason. (Report of Commissioner for SC and ST, Fifth Report, 1982-83, p.28.)
Land alienation is a major influencing factor of growing vulnerability of Adivasi agriculture. The reports of Integrated Tribal Development Agencies (ITDAs) show that as of April 2023, 44 percent of cases (12,673) covering 39 percent of the land (56,933 acres) only were decided in favour of tribals in AP. Under the tribal protective land transfer regulations 1 of 70, 28,795 cases were disposed of covering 1,47,527 acres of land situated in the Scheduled Area.
Of the land secured through court orders, 90 percent of land (51,253 acres) were actually put to successful physical possession of tribal farmers. Non-tribals were able to illegally retain the rest of the lands in their possession.

Displacement of Tribals under Polavaram:

Added to resource displacement is the project displacement where development projects have threatened the livelihood needs of tribal communities. For instance, there are 18 major dams in AP; six of the large ones alone have displaced about half a million people. The proposed Indira Sagar Project (Polavaram) threatens involuntary displacement of 2.37 lakh people from 276 villages in the Scheduled Areas of AP, 55 percent of them being tribals. The project will result in the submergence of 94,357 acres of lands in the Scheduled Areas of which 29,852 acres are poramboke land.
In addition to this, the Project will submerge 3,223 hectares of forest resources.(Rao, Palla Trinadha (2005). “Nature of opposition to Polavaram Project”, Economic and Political Weekly, 15th April.) The Project will submerge 9 tribal mandals viz., Polavaram, Velerpadu, Kukunoor and Burgampad in West Godavari and Devipatnam, Chintoor, VR Puram, Kunavaram and Bhadrachalam in East Godavari.
In many submergence villages under the Project, the tribals are cultivating ‘banjar’, ‘poramboke’ and other forest lands. The AP government has not yet issued them pattas for these lands. Where there are no pattas, tribals are going to lose land but cannot claim compensation. In the 94,357 acres of land subject to submergence there are 29,852 acres poramboke lands. Poramboke lands are recognised only as government lands. Tribals cannot claim compensation for these lands. (ibid)

Acquisition laws in the Scheduled Area:

The Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Area (PESA) Act 1996 is a special enactment made to protect the interest of tribals. Section 4(i) of the PESA Act mandates consultation of Gram Sabha or the Panchayat before initiating proceedings for acquisition of land in tribal areas. Section 41 of the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation & Resettlement (LARR) Act 30 of 2013 prescribes special procedure to acquire land belonging to owners of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
The purpose of these sections are that, as far as possible, no acquisition of land shall be made in the Scheduled Areas. According to Section 41 (2) of the LARR Act, where such acquisition does take place, it shall be done only as a demonstrable last resort. As per Section 41 (3) of the LARR Act, in case of acquisition or alienation of any land in the Scheduled Areas, the prior consent of the concerned Gram Sabhas in Scheduled Areas under the Fifth Schedule to the Constitution shall be obtained.

Historical tribal struggles in the Study Village:

The movement of tribals of Kondamodulu village consisting of twelve hamlets in Devipatnam Mandal of East-Godavari district focused on land struggle against landlords who used to control tribal lands through illegal means. Shivaiah Patrudu, a non-tribal landlord, along with his other kinfolk, used to dictate terms in the Agency Area.
The feudal lord’s rule over the area was challenged by the ‘Girijana Sangham’ which was founded 1967 by the tribals of the area. The movement began in 1968 and gained momentum in July 1981 - November 1982 when the tribals under aegis of the Girijana Sangham occupied the lands controlled by the landlord and sowed paddy seeds.(Rao, Palla Trinadha(2007). “Persisting alienation of Tribal Lands, in Rekindling Hope”, Ed. Fr.Thomas Pallithanam,A.P Social Watch Report, Hyderabad.)
Somehow non-tribals managed to get settlement pattas on the disputed lands during 1970-1976 under Ryotwari Settlement Regulations 2 of 70. However the tribals regained access to lands with the support of local Agency Girijan Sangham during 1982-1984 and sensitive officials stood with the cause of tribals.
Though the tribals have been cultivating for last several decades, the revenue officials failed to incorporate their names as enjoyers of the lands in the revenue records. The names of the non-tribals who are settlement patta holders have continued to be in the cultivation accounts. Therefore the tribal land rights issue in this GP has become a challenging task for officials during the acquisition of lands for the Polavaram Project.
The argument of the tribals is that the lands in question originally belonged to them. They lost their lands to migrant non-tribals through different clandestine transactions. Their contention is that the non-tribals came into possession in violation of the provisions of Land Transfer Regulations also.
The Land Acquisition Officers issued a Notification to acquire lands noting the names of non-tribals in the Notification instead of the tribals under the Polavaram Project. The 440 tribal families who have been cultivating these notified lands had to lose their lands. In fact this decision adversely affecting their source of their basic livelihood. The livelihood systems and the traditional knowledge of Adivasis are closely linked to the land they live on.
However, the Land Acquisition Officers took the stand to acquire the disputed lands from the tribals but pay compensation only to the non-tribals since the latter are the land title holders. This issue pushed the tribal welfare officers into an ethical dilemma of having to consider the marginalised tribal communities and protect their interests or straight away consider the non-tribal title holders and pay compensation to them under the Project by evicting the tribals?

A way laid out for the solution:

This situation pushed the Project Officer (PO), ITDA, Rampachodavaram to intervene on behalf of tribals to protect their interest. The ITDA PO conducted a meeting in 2013 (Minutes of the review meeting dated 21st May, 2013 of the Project Officer, ITDA, Rampachodavaram) to discuss the tribal land rights question with all concerned officers elaborately.
A consensus emerged on the points of scrutiny of land documents of non-tribals to be undertaken, and a clearance has to be taken from the PO, ITDA before passing of an award in favour of non-tribals during the acquisition of lands, and the Tahsildar, Devipatnam, should conduct a field enquiry in all such cases and give an inspection report on the actual possession and enjoyment of such lands.
The Tahsildar, Devipatnam, is to take steps to incorporate the names of tribal occupants in Adangal and other revenue records and give effect to mutation of records providing the way to claim the possessory rights of tribal occupants and seek compensation to that effect. This is the turning point.

Land Acquisition questioned by tribals:

However, the Land Acquisition Officers instead continued to acquire lands from non-tribals without even verifying physical possession of land or conducting any proper enquiry under tribal protective land transfer regulations. This has caused hardship to tribal communities in Agency Areas of the East Godavari District. (Maheshwari, Uma R (2007). “Polavaram: Rehabilitation via Forced Consensus”, Economic and Political Weekly, 23 June.)
The tribals then decided to challenge the Notification in 2015. The main contention of the tribals was that no consent was obtained from the Gram Sabhas (GS) as well as Mandal Praja Parishad (MPP) for the acquisition of lands. But the government officials claimed that a resolution from the GS was already obtained.
The tribals challenged the resolution of the Gram Sabhas which was used to issue notification of acquisition of lands before the High Court of AP. The AP High Court stayed (WP No 33452/2015) the land acquisition in Kondamodalu GP in East Godavari district on a ground that officials cooked up GS resolutions. The AP Government Policy of 2005 recognises that the issue of displacement must be handled with utmost care, human touch and forethought in respect of tribals. (Rao, Palla Trinadha (2016). "Riding-roughshod over tribal rights", The Hans India, 22 September.)
Simultaneously another Writ Petition (WP No 8488/2016) was also filed by tribals challenging the Land Acquisition Notification on the grounds that the resolution of Manal Praja Parishad as well as GS were not obtained for the acquisition of lands. The High Court after hearing the petition passed an order in March 2016 staying the operation of the land acquisition notification. Then the officials proposed for negotiations.

Negotiations with tribals:

The officials sent an invitation for negotiations in 2017. During the negotiations, the Sub-Collector, Project Officer, Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) of Rampachodavaram agreed to give land to land compensation to tribals disregarding the ownership/titles in the name of non-tribals to an extent of 420 acres.
As part of the resettlement of the to-be displaced tribals, the lands in Gangavaram Mandal were shown to them and the District Collector also sent a proposal to the Government for this land vide Ref. G5/682/2017 dated June 6, 2018.

Conclusion:

The tribals could secure alternative lands to the lands that they were in possession for last several decades without title deeds which stood to be acquired under the Polavaram Project because of their consistent land struggles. The Tribal Welfare and Revenue Officers had to resolve the issue without looking for the title deeds that are required to be produced to claim compensation.

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