Anger is brewing among tribal communities in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam district over “invasion of their lands, culture and identity” by ‘outsiders’.
While the pomp and fanfare associated with the annual “Araku Utsav”, organised by the Andhra Pradesh government last week to showcase the rich tribal tradition and culture of the region, hogged the limelight, the silent battle waged by tribal communities to assert their rights over lands and local jobs went largely unnoticed.
“This is what hurts us. The government has spent ₹1 crore to organise the annual event, but our grievances and concerns are being ignored,” the co-convenor of the Joint Action Committee (JAC) of the agitating tribal communities Rama Rao Dora said.
At a time when immigration and identity have become the contested narratives across the country, the tribals in the scheduled areas of Visakhapatnam district are on a warpath, targeting non-tribals, dubbing them as outsiders who they allege are out to destroy the local culture, identity and steal jobs.
Several tribal organisations have formed a JAC to intensify their agitation, demanding that all non-tribals who have set up small businesses in the scheduled areas, be sent back and all tribal laws, including the rights over forest lands, be implemented in letter and spirit.
Large scale encroachment of tribal lands by non-tribals has emerged as a major contentious issue. Over the years, there has been a string of violations against the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, and the Land Transfer Regulation Act 1 of 1970 which are meant to provide protection to local tribal communities.
Tribals allege, influential politicians, in collusion with successive governments, have been encouraging non-tribals from outside to slowly take over the economy of the region.
“In the name of development through tourism in the Visakha Agency, Araku valley and Lambasingi areas of the district, local cultures are being destroyed and the tribes are losing their identity,” Dora said.
The JAC leaders have demanded the eviction of non-tribals from the scheduled areas (called ‘agency’ areas in local parlance), cancellation of identity cards given to the non-tribals to set up their businesses and constitution of a high-level judicial tribunal to implement all tribal acts that ensure protection to local tribal communities.
There is a specific law in Andhra Pradesh for protection of tribal rights in the scheduled areas. It is called the Land Transfer Regulation Act 1 of 1970, popularly known as 1/70 Act. The Act checks the transfer of tribal lands to non-tribals.
The JAC leaders alleged that there had been gross violations of the Act with regard to allotting mining leases in the scheduled areas to non-tribals and allowing non-tribal persons to own benami (in another’s name) houses, lodges and hotels. “Many non-tribal persons own and run mines and hotels and lodges by having a benami tribal as the owner. They reap profits without giving back anything for the development of the tribal areas,” alleged K Surendra, a member of the JAC.
“We want the state government to withdraw all the facilities provided to the non-tribals in the region including ration cards and voter enrolment cards. We want them to vacate our lands,” said JAC leaders B Chinnaiah Padal, Mettadam Rajababu and Lochali Ramak.
Reservations for non-tribals
The ‘outsiders’, who migrated to tribal lands for livelihood long back, have unleashed a socio-economic assault on the areas posing a threat to the very existence of the adivasis, say tribals in these areas.
“Ours is a non-political movement. We have not sought support from the leaders from the mainstream parties. Our request to the adivasi MLAs is that they raise the issue of this tension building up in the region following the methodical entry of non-locals, and seek constitutional protection,” said Bonangi Chinna Padala, a JAC leader.
The state government’s decision to reserve certain Zilla Parishad Territorial Constituencies (ZPTC) in the region to non-tribals has also angered the tribal communities. Their contention is that the rules pertaining to scheduled areas in Panchayat Raj Act have been flouted to accommodate non-tribals.
The JAC is also planning to approach the local panchayats and ask them to identify the non-tribals living in their respective areas and also those tribals who are acting as benamis for non-tribals owning big chunks of lands and running businesses.
According to JAC leaders, several non-tribal traders had approached courts and obtained stay to continue their businesses in the scheduled areas. “The ITDA (Integrated Tribal Development Agency) should get all such stays vacated and restore the rights of tribals,” JAC leaders said.
The tribal-dominated villages had witnessed violent clashes in the past between local tribals and non-tribals who were allowed by the successive governments to live in these villages and carry out their businesses.
As per a survey conducted in 2008, there were around 650 such unauthorised cases in Araku division alone and over 2,000 across the 11 mandals in the scheduled areas. The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) government in combined Andhra Pradesh made an attempt in 2000 to amend the act to allow bauxite mining in Chintapalle tribal area which has more than 550 million tonnes of the ore used to make aluminium.
However, following protests from the opposition, local tribal organisations and environmental activists, the government was forced to step back.
The repeated attempts by the successive governments in the past to take up bauxite mining in the district had triggered anger among the tribal communities. The issue was one of the key rallying points for the opposition parties as well. Soon after taking over the reins of the state in May last year, Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy ordered the withdrawal of a government order on bauxite mining and assured that his government would not take up mining in the district which is part of the environmentally fragile Eastern Ghats.
The announcement, made in June last year, was widely welcomed by social and environmental activists. Incidentally, the order was issued in November 2005 when Jagan’s father YS Rajasekhar Reddy was the chief minister of the combined Andhra Pradesh. The plan was to involve the state-owned Andhra Pradesh Mineral Development Corporation to undertake mining in 1,212 hectares of reserve forest area in Chintapalle and Jerella blocks of Visakhapatnam district.
However, the subsequent governments chose not to go ahead with the proposal due to widespread opposition in the region. The failure to scrap the order had triggered widespread protests from anti-mining activists.
“Minerals like bauxite/alumina are scarce resources. Aluminium is a strategic metal that is used widely in the aviation industry and other manufacturing processes in the west. The price at which Indian miners export alumina is several times lower than the global price, which implies enormous scope for corruption and black money generation,” the retired IAS officer and environmental activist EAS Sarma said.