Venkat (name changed), who lives in Devanigutta in Mulugu, a border district of Telangana, is unaware of the conflict that forced his parents to flee Chhattisgarh decades ago. Although he has visited Chhattisgarh several times, Venkat considers Telangana home. He farms on two acres of forest land and also travels to nearby villages to work as a daily labourer. Venkat is a member of the Gutti Koya tribal community, and all he wants is a land ownership title, the right to dig a borewell, and a Scheduled Tribe certificate. He has no idea how old he is, but Venkat recalls dropping out of school some 10 years ago. “I want to finish school and get a degree from an open university. I see educated people in nearby villages. I want the same,” Venkat said.
Gutti Koyas, also known as Gotti or Gotte Koyas, are an Adivasi tribe who have been caught in the crossfire that began in 2005-06 between Maoists and Salwa Judum, a militia unit backed by the Chhattisgarh government (later banned by the Supreme Court) for use in its counter-insurgency operations. After their villages were set on fire, their women raped, and fellow tribals killed, the terrified Adivasis of Dantewada, Sukma, Bijapur, and Bastar districts fled to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh (then undivided) and Odisha. Numbers vary on the number of Gutti Koyas who reached Andhra Pradesh to avoid being forcibly taken to government-run camps or having their youth made to join Salwa Judum, but it is estimated that at least 30,000 of them stayed back.
From as early as the 1990s, there is evidence of the migration of the Adivasis of Chhattisgarh into Andhra Pradesh in search of labour and land. However, the “influx was unprecedented” after the formation of Salwa Judum in 2005, notes Nandini Sundar in The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar.
The majority of Gutti Koyas now live in the forests of Bhadradri Kothagudem, Mulugu, Jayashankar Bhupalpally, and Khammam districts in Telangana. In Andhra Pradesh, Gutti Koyas have settled in far fewer numbers mostly in the forests of East and West Godavari districts. Several of them initially made their living by working on the farms of local people. Through natives, local politicians or brokers, they eventually created settlements in the forest and cultivated rice, maize, pulses, and sesame seeds. Forests were also their natural choice as minor forest produce makes for a good part of the sustenance of Adivasis.
Gutti Koyas, however, are not considered tribals in Telangana. In a strange legal twist, a person’s ST status, for the purpose of rights and benefits, cannot be used in the State of migration; the list of STs vary from State to State. This means they are not eligible for any social welfare programmes. This also affects the eligibility of Gutti Koyas to claim titles to forest lands they have cleared for cultivation.
A forest officer’s killing
Gutti Koyas have had issues with forest officers since their arrival in Telangana, which was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014. They have been accused of deforestation, labelled as encroachers, and vilified as land grabbers. The death, on November 22, of Chandrugonda Forest Range Officer Challamalla Srinivas Rao, 42, in an incident involving Gutti Koyas and forest officers, close to Yerrabodu hamlet in Bendalapadu gram panchayat of Bhadradri Kothagudem, is the latest flare-up of the simmering issue.
The officials were reportedly there to ensure that Adivasis did not graze their cattle in the reclaimed forest land they had previously cleared for cultivation (called “podu”, or shifting, cultivation). According to the first information report (FIR), they tried to prevent Madakam Thula and Podiyam Nanga, two members of the Gutti Koya community, from grazing their cattle there. In “a fit of rage”, as the police describe it, the two stabbed the forest officer, who later died.
Although “podu” is traditionally a slash-and-burn system of cultivation, the term is now locally used for all kinds of forest land cultivation, said Palla Trinadha Rao, a lawyer working for tribal rights in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh.
“Altercations between Gutti Koyas and forest officials over ‘podu’ lands are not uncommon. But there does not seem to be a direct link between the ‘podu’ land issue and this murder,” a police officer said. Significantly, Srinivas Rao was involved in an altercation with the villagers during the monsoon months this year, which resulted in both sides filing complaints at the Chandrugonda Police Station. The forest officials claimed attacks on them and obstruction of duty, whereas Gutti Koyas claimed harassment and violence against their women. The Telangana State Forest Service Officers’ Association has now demanded firearms for protection.
With the death of Srinivas Rao, the call to remove Gutti Koyas from the State has grown louder. The Bendalapadu gram panchayat recently passed a resolution to evict them to Chhattisgarh, but the Telangana High Court overturned it on the basis of a petition filed by three members of the tribe.
“As far as Adivasi culture goes, the border is an artificial one,” Nandini Sundar writes in her book. Tribal people have historically seen forests as one contiguous area, and modern State boundaries do not make sense to them.
The issue has once again brought to light the plight of internally displaced persons (IDPs) such as Gutti Koyas, as well as the ongoing settlement of claims to holders of “podu” lands in Telangana. In 2021, when the government invited applications for titles under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, it received 4.14 lakh claims in 2,845 gram panchayats for 12.49 lakh acres of forest land.
In the absence of publicly available data on the number of Gutti Koyas residing in Telangana or the amount of forest land they have cleared, officials and politicians have turned to using dog-whistle tactics. Following the murder, unfounded allegations of widespread forest encroachment by Gutti Koyas have been made in the media. Some reports have even portrayed them as the new landlords of Telangana.
Land grabbing or seeking a living?
Frontline contacted District Forest Officers (DFO) in Telangana as well as officials from the Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) to learn more about Gutti Koya encroachment in their jurisdiction. According to officials, three Gutti Koya hamlets in Khammam have encroached on approximately 30 acres of forest land.
Bhadradri Kothagudem district has the most Gutti Koya settlements in Telangana. While the DFO did not provide figures, it is estimated that there are 120-130 habitations there.
In Jayashankar Bhupalpally district, there are seven Gutti Koya hamlets. In Mulugu district, there are 73 hamlets of Gutti Koya settlements spread across 14,000 acres of forest (carved out of Jayashankar Bhupalpally), with 150-200 Gutti Koyas in each habitation. The DFOs of the remaining districts did not respond, but the numbers in those districts are said to be significantly lower.
When asked how many of the four lakh claims for “podu” titles were by Gutti Koyas, an ITDA officer said it was “difficult to be precise about who filed how many”.
Afforestation and eviction
The Gutti Koyas’ conflict with the forest department began with the Telangana government’s Haritha Haram programme, or afforestation drive, launched in July 2015. In the past three years, forest officials have reclaimed over 100 acres from Yerrabodu. This includes 20 acres reclaimed earlier this year which six Gutti Koya families relied on.
“The department offered me money to safeguard the reforestation in my land,” one of them said. He refused the money, partly in rage but largely hoping to claim the land back.
According to a letter from the Valasa Adivasilu Samakhya (VAS), a confederation of displaced tribes based in Telangana, to Harsh Chouhan, the Chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh governments have taken back land from IDPs in at least 75 settlements. The majority of these are from Telangana. “Many IDPs now have become landless and have no source of livelihood to feed their families,” it states.
The letter further states that in the past two years, the Telangana forest department reclaimed land from Gutti Koya settlements in nearly 15 habitations spread across 10 mandals of Bhadradri Kothagudem. Several Gutti Koya families in Burgampahad, Palwancha, Karkagudem, Chandrugonda, and Mulkalapalli mandals confirmed that the department had reclaimed land in their hamlets.
“Now I go for work every day in the nearby village,” said a woman from a hamlet in Mulkalapalli. She said she used to grow food on less than two acres.
The State, however, views what Gutti Koyas claim as their land as an encroachment. Most officials whom Frontline spoke to said: “We are just doing our job of protecting the forests.” Invariably, nothing is heard about the reclamation of lands that have been taken over by non-tribals, including some of the dominant castes in Telangana. In Khammam district alone, half of the 18,000 claims filed were by non-tribals, according to information from the ITDA.
In December 2018, acting on a writ petition (WP 342 of 2018) and taking cognisance of newspaper reports, the High Court of Telangana ordered officers to restrain from “destroying any of the huts and other dwelling units”. The court also ordered Gutti Koyas not to engage in further deforestation.
There have been multiple petitions in the High Court with regard to the evictions. In 2018, the High Court found a district forest officer guilty of contempt of its 2014 order staying the eviction of Gutti Koyas. The officer admitted in court that they “fabricated the Preliminary Offence Report” in order to avoid the contempt case.
In fact, in all the mandals of Bhadradri Kothagudem, at least a dozen cases of contempt of court could have been filed against forest officials for violating the High Court’s stay orders. But not every news clip reaches the High Court, nor every Gutti Koya has the means to find a lawyer.
Eviction attempts have decreased following numerous court petitions, but the debate now is over “podu” lands.
Rows of Eucalyptus trees planted as part of the afforestation drive line the narrow mud road leading to the decade-old Yerrabodu hamlet. Gutti Koyas live in makeshift wooden and mud huts, allocating large parcels of land to their cattle, cows, goats, hens and ducks.
Ravva Ramesh was the first Gutti Koya to have found this location. Initially, he would come here for work and return to his village in Chhattisgarh seasonally, but after 2002, he stayed back.
The villagers say that much of the conflict between them and the forest department is about unpaid wages and other similar issues. They list all the free work they did for various officials or influential people in the early years of their migration. In a way, several of the tribe’s youngsters learned the skill of cotton farming when one of the local “chowkidars” forced them to work for free on his cotton farm. “We still work for the department on a regular basis, but we also have farms to look after,” said Ravva Ramesh.
“The forest department is not kind to most Adivasis. But to the Adivasis who came from Chhattisgarh, they have reserved even more contempt,” said Ravva Ravi, a tribal.
The Bendalapadu gram panchayat reportedly employed Gutti Koyas of Yerrabodu and others to clear a piece of land and install a solar borewell to water the plants in a nursery. Later, trenches were dug around it to stop Gutti Koyas from drawing water.
Abuse of power
T. Harikrishna, Warangal district president of the Human Rights Forum, said there have been reports of foresters razing hamlets, beating up Gutti Koyas, and stealing their cattle and farm produce. According to Land Conflict Watch, a data research organisation that tracks natural resource disputes in India, Devanigutta was attacked 11 times by the foresters in four months in 2017.
In exchange for their reliance on the forest, several officials demand labour and other services from Gutti Koyas. It used to be free labour in the early years, but they eventually started paying, though not at the market rate. There are numerous cases of unpaid wages in all hamlets. Gutti Koyas did not mind this as long as they were allowed to live in the forest. It would appear that more than the prevention of encroachment, the officials want their labour supply restored.
“Mainstream them” is the refrain among foresters. “Relocate them to the nearby villages, give them huts, and they can find work in the villages. This solution will benefit all departments and the local people. The villagers will get cheap labour, and we won’t have to worry about encroachments,” said an officer.
Several senior officials, including District Collectors, have tried to persuade Gutti Koyas to leave the forest in the past, but they have been unsuccessful. “None of us will survive outside the forest,” Gutti Koyas say repeatedly.
The overlooked people
Gutti Koyas are classified as “Other Category” in Telangana, which makes them lose the constitutional safeguards granted to STs. Gutti Koya settlements have not seen much “development”, but various departments claim they have made every effort. The officials cite jurisdiction reasons for not being able to intervene further or create better facilities in the forest areas.
Such support also hinges on the relationship of Gutti Koyas with the local people, officials, politicians and NGOs. Electricity is non-existent in most hamlets, but several places have solar lights installed by officials or NGOs. Gutti Koyas have access to public healthcare, and Auxiliary Nurse Midwives (ANMs) and Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHA) visit most hamlets. However, ambulances still cannot reach all areas because roads cannot be laid on forest land. While most of them have voter IDs and Aadhaar cards, several families do not have a ration card or NREGA job card that guarantees 100 days of work a year.
In 2019, the High Court directed the Telangana State Legal Services Authority to submit a report on Gutti Koya hamlets. The 2020 report of the District Legal Services Authority of Khammam, which visited Gutti Koya habitations in Bhadradri Kothagudem, was an eye-opener.
Access to education among Gutti Koyas is appallingly low. A 2017 study by the NGO Save The Children of all 50 Gutti Koya hamlets in the undivided Jayashankar Bhupalapally district says that most children there did not even have a birth certificate, which is essential to sit for the Class X examination.
The displacement of Gutti Koyas from Chhattisgarh was a humanitarian crisis, and it remains so in Telangana because of the numerous demands to evict them from the forests. The majority of the community is reluctant to return to Chhattisgarh, citing potential violence and poverty.
Vasudha Nagaraj, lawyer for the Gutti Koyas in four writ petitions filed in the Telangana High Court, said there was a deliberate obfuscation about granting them ST status. “They are an ST in Chhattisgarh and should be given the same status in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh as well,” Vasudha said.
Twice in the past three years, the NCST has given notice to the governments of Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh about the plight of Gutti Koyas, but they have found ways to avoid the issue. The Central government has made no tangible intervention either.
It is a crisis of “statesmanship” in these States, said Shomona Khanna, Supreme Court lawyer and former legal adviser to the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs. Even if Telangana decided to be “technically absolutely purist” with regard to dealing with claims for titles in forests, she said, it was still possible to make allowances for Gutti Koyas with “help from the Chhattisgarh government to help identify them as forest dwellers”.
Palla Trinadha Rao proposes two options: One is for the Central government to declare Gutti Koyas as STs in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The other is for the Chhattisgarh and Central governments to collaborate on a rehabilitation and resettlement package for them. Earlier this year, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel stated that his government would devise a strategy to “create a conducive environment” for rehabilitating those displaced during Salwa Judum. Nothing has happened so far.
In India, a more recent precedent for IDP resettlement can be found in Tripura. In 1997, 34,000 Bru-Reang tribals fled Mizoram and settled in Tripura due to ethnic conflict. According to a Press Information Bureau release, Home Minister Amit Shah announced a Rs.600 crore package that includes residential plots in addition to a Rs.4 lakh fixed deposit, Rs.5,000 cash every month for two years, free ration for two years, and Rs.1.5 lakh to build a house. The government of Tripura was to provide the land under this agreement.
In Telangana, it is unclear how the State intends to handle the Gutti Koyas once the “podu” claims are settled. The resurfacing of this issue could be the litmus test for the Bharat Rashtra Samithi to gain legitimacy. The officials from the various departments coordinating this process said they would act “as per the law”.
Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao initially did not plan to repatriate Gutti Koyas to Chhattisgarh, but the forest department is pressuring him to do so now. The party appears to be seeking solutions.
Some Congress leaders raise the issue sporadically. Danasari Anasuya, also known as Seethakka, the Congress MLA from Mulugu, said that the State should find a way to grant the Gutti Koyas ST status.
Once that happens, Venkat plans to go back to completing his education, ensuring that generations after him have better access to development.
- Gutti Koyas, also known as Gotti or Gotte Koyas, are an Adivasi tribe of Chhattisgarh, who fled to Andhra Pradesh to avoid being forcibly taken to government-run camps or having their youth made to join Salwa Judum.
- It is estimated that 30,000 of them stayed back in undivided Andhra Pradesh. The majority of them are now in Telangana.
- Gutti Koyas are not considered tribals in Telangana. This means they are not eligible for any social welfare programmes.
- Gutti Koyas have had issues with forest officers since their arrival in Telangana. They want land ownership titles for the forest land they have cleared for cultivation. But they have been accused of deforestation, labelled as encroachers, and vilified as land grabbers.
- The death, on November 22, of Chandrugonda Forest Range Officer Challamalla Srinivas Rao, 42, in an incident involving Gutti Koyas and forest officers, close to Yerrabodu hamlet in Bendalapadu gram panchayat of Bhadradri Kothagudem, has flared up the anger against them. The clamour for them to be evicted to Chhattisgarh is growing.