The Karnataka High Court has given them time till December-end to vacate

A recent Karnataka High Court order has given 6,000 people time till December-end to vacate their land. The order, issued in April, came after the Forest Department declared 6,777 acres of the Thotadur Gram Panchayat a reserve forest. The impending eviction has forced farmers and the landless labourers to take the issue to the Supreme Court.

“We are natives of the region, and have been cultivating the land for generations. How can the department suddenly call us encroachers” asked Sham Gowdlu, a Scheduled Tribe farmer with a six-acre coffee and cardamom plantation at Kerekoppa.

According to sources, it was only last year that the land officially received a title deed. In many similar cases, land records were obtained by the families only in the past two decades.

At the same time, there are families that don’t have any land records, though they claim to have been tilling the land for generations. “Our ancestors were illiterate. I myself don’t know the documents I need. We have been cultivating without any government interference for generations,” said Hooviaah of Nellikotta.

“I have worked here all my life. I cannot work in the dusty ‘bayaluseeme’ ,” said Hanumanaiah (45) of Konabail. His 20-member family has been asked to vacate. “We would be like fish out of water elsewhere. I also have to think of my five children aged between 8 and 13,” he said.

Lokaiah Kumbar’s 2.5 acres of coffee plantation in Adkoche village has seen 30 years of hard labour. Inheriting an uncultivated plot from his father-in-law, he and his wife saved from their earnings as daily wage labourers in coffee estates and used the money to buy coffee plants. “We planted 25 coffee plants a year, tending to them after our daily work. Now, we have more than 2,000 plants,” he said. They have been working on their farm for over a decade now, which has helped them gain financial independence and liberated them from the hard labour that agricultural labourers perform.

“This is my land. Why should I move out,” he asked.

Not only would the eviction throw many families on the streets, said K.L. Vasu, gram panchayat member, it would also hit the poor the hardest. He estimates more than 60 per cent of the affected are economically backward.

‘Lack of communication’

Mr. Vasu said the issue stemmed from a “lack of communication” between the Forest and Revenue departments. During the last decade, the Forest Department claimed the land belonged to them, whereas in the preceding century the Revenue Department encouraged cultivation, granted lands and regularised properties.

Range Forest Officer (Kalasa) Prahalad P.L. said those without documents, or not belonging to the ST community — estimated by Mr. Vasu to be around 60 per cent of the displaced — would have to vacate their land. On compensation, he said: “Depending on the final court verdict on the rehabilitation, the Revenue Department will decide.”

Villagers claim that the Forest Department has been harassing them since the High Court ruling. “We can’t even cultivate as they now destroy our crops, saying it is illegal. They even filed criminal cases against many of us. Because of this, we have been forced to give up farming and have to work as daily wage workers elsewhere,” said Nellikotte farmer Shyam Gowdlu.

Many farmers have been called to the Forest Ranger’s office in Kalasa as a result of the notices sent by the department. Strangely, many farmers like Lache Gowda of Thotadur have received notices on the land that had been allotted by the Forest Department itself six months ago under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

“We will continue our fight until our rights are protected,” said Sita Gowda, president of Prajata Mahila Sangha.

Villagers are quick to remind this correspondent that Maoist activity in the region started because of similar evictions.

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