To welcome someone who is not a part of their tribe, the Khond women in Kothaveedhi village, in Cheedikada mandal of Anakapalli district in Andhra Pradesh, wash their feet and hands. G. Chilakamma, 60, explains, “This has been our tradition ever since I can remember, ever since we came here and started growing fruit trees.”
Sitting under a canopy of green, drinking sweet tender-coconut water, eating freshly cut papaya and guava ripened on their trees, it’s easy to leave the sense-numbing noise of the city behind. Except, the city is catching up with the Khonds, a Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG), who claim they have inhabited this village for the last 40 years or so.
The 10 families who had migrated to this village from G. Madugula mandal today face the threat of eviction. “We find that our names have been removed from the digitised land records and this practically makes us homeless people, despite being the tillers of this 65 cents of land (a little less than an acre),” says Vanthala Nageswara Rao, who was the first to come here with his wife, Vanthala Kumari, and friend Gemmili Balaraju, Chilakamma’s husband. Here, they bore children and grandchildren.
“I moved here when I was barely 13 years old. I gave birth here, and now I have grandchildren. They go to school every day, trekking 3 km,” says Vanthala Kumari.
They had never known anyone as owners of this pristine land before, they say, and there is no tenancy agreement between them and any private party.
Despite the uncertain future, Chilakamma smiles, her sun-burnt face crinkling up, as she wipes her guests’ feet with her saree that she wears like a sarong, knotted at the neck. An objection is treated as an insult. Her heavy gold nose stud is a symbol of being married.
Several villages in the mandals of Devarapalli, Cheedikada, V. Madugula, Ravikamatam, Rolugunta, and Golugonda in Anakapalli districts where tribal people live, face similar problems of being alienated from land they have lived on.
It is not easy to reach Kothaveedhi, the hamlet nestled amongst three hills: Volabu Konda (konda meaning hill in Telugu), Palli Konda, and Madinagopu Konda. A trek of at least 3 km along a cattle track winding through forests thick with trees as diverse as cashew, mango, tamarind, jackfruit, plantain, and jamun. The old banyans, peepuls, and other forest fig trees have so far hidden the land with its dense undergrowth from the prying eyes of realtors.
Living in simple brick houses with asbestos and terracotta Bangalore-tiled roofs, “we have been living a peaceful life here,” says Balaraju. But about a year ago, a few officials trooped into their hamlet, branded them illegal occupants on private land, and they were verbally told to vacate Kothaveedhi.
The area under question has about 37 acres, with most of it being cultivated by the Konda Dora tribe of the Gunti village, also in the Cheedikada mandal. The land in question comes under the tehsildar (revenue administrative officer) of Cheedikada.
Like many tribes, the Khonds have traditionally been hunter-gatherers, accustomed to living in the low hills of the region, earlier migrating from one place to another, as they practice the podu (shifting agriculture).
In this part of the country (they also have a presence in Odisha), their language is a mix of Kui, Odia, and Telugu.
A large number of Khonds were drafted into the army by the British during the World War I and II, for their natural skills in jungle warfare, says P.D. Satyapal, a former head of the Department of Anthropology, Andhra University, who has studied the socio-cultural traditions of tribes in the Eastern Ghats.
This is also a reason the banned CPI (Communist Party of India - Maoist) have been wooing them to join their movement, across Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and in the Andhra-Odisha border region of Andhra Pradesh. Practically, they have been the main fighting force for the left wing extremists, says the DGP of Andhra Pradesh K.V. Rajendranath Reddy.
Land rights and wrongs
When land is surveyed by the State government, it takes into account people who have been enjoying the natural resource, though they may not necessarily own it. This aspect is clearly highlighted in the operational manual of Land Transfer Regulations (LTR) and Survey and Boundaries Act of 1923.
As per the LTR and Survey and Boundaries Act of 1923 , before changing any records, revenue officials are supposed to conduct a physical survey to ascertain who is tilling or enjoying the land. This is also mandated in the as per the Records of Rights Act.
When the Andhra Pradesh government ordered a re-survey of the land and digitisation of land records, two years ago, the families found that their names were off the record book, when the intimidation from private entities began about a year ago.
“As tillers or enjoyers of the land, our names should figure in the ‘land enjoyers’ column of the register. But they are missing and the land is registered in the name of some other non-tribals, who have never visited the village,” says Nageswara Rao. The Konda Doras are also at risk of losing their land.
Ajay Kumar, general secretary of the All India Agricultural Rural Labour Association (AIARLA), explains that this is a non-scheduled tribal village. “If it was a scheduled village, then this problem of calling the tribal people illegal occupants would not have arisen,” he says. A scheduled village is one in which only tribal people have rights over the land.
Since the 1980s in Andhra Pradesh, about 805 villages in the combined State (before Telangana was carved out) were listed to be included in the scheduled list, as they were inhabited by tribal people in the forest areas. But successive governments have not taken a decision in the last 40 years, says former bureaucrat E.A.S. Sarma. With the bifurcation of the district (a part of it went into Telangana), these villages have now come out of the fold of the Integrated Tribal Development Agencies (ITDAs) and are now under the local urban bodies. This has left them vulnerable to land sharks, says Mr. Sarma.
Kumar says private individuals are trying to evict them by using verbal threats and muscle power, and will not serve legal notice. “Once a notice is served, it will be challenged in the court of law, and that is what they are trying to evade, alleged Kumar, adding that earth movers have been brought in to break down houses.
“Where will I now go from here? I cannot go back to my village in the Agency (how the British referred to tribal areas) area (now under Alluri Sitharama Raju district). This is my village,” says Balaraju, in his mid-60s, as he squatted on the ground in front of his house, under a jackfruit tree.
The families are questioning not just the ownership of the land or the eviction threats, but also how their names were omitted from the records without conducting an enjoyment survey or serving them an official order.
Mr. Sarma, says village revenue officers, mandal revenue officers, and the revenue divisional officers, had visited the village between 2022 and 2023, but had blatantly omitted the possession status. At the same time, they claim that the tribal people have to be evicted, which clearly indicates the discrepancy in the reports, he says.
The families say that Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has always favoured tribal people. “He has extended various welfare schemes to the PVTGs even in the most inaccessible parts of tribal settlements,” says Balaraju, who officiates as an informal headman for the village. They feel officials at the lower-rung are fabricating records to benefit realtors.
The Chief Minister has given directives that clearly indicate that no tribal should be evicted without following the due process of law. He has also said that if it is government land, it should be regularised in the tribal people’s favour with pattadar (land deed) passbooks given to them.
When the tribal people had approached the CCLA (Chief Commissioner Land Administration), the highest authority in the Department of Revenue, the CCLA had asked for a detailed report on the land transaction, record for any ceiling and surplus lands, position of the PVTGs and had asked the authorities concerned to move the land under question to dispute register and that the possession of the PVTGs not to be disturbed.
The residents of Kothaveedhi have Aadhaar cards that establish both identity and address. They have voter IDs and ration cards, even electric connections in their names for their houses and bore-well pump sets. “Despite all these, our presence on the land is being ignored, said Balaraju.
Revenue Divisional Officer H.V. Jayraram claimed the tribal people do not have the documents to support their claim that the land belongs to them. “But yes, they are enjoying it,” he admits, adding that unless they had documentation it wouldn’t help to establish the land in their names. He also said that the tribal people are tenant farmers and the owners have produced documents.
“If there are such documents they are fabricated,” alleged Kumar, saying they should be taken to a court of law.
In the meantime, Chilakamma though unlettered, is determined. “We will fight for our rights,” she says, as tears stream down her face.
“If it was a scheduled village, then this problem of calling the tribal people illegal occupants would not have arisen.” Ajay Kumar, general secretary of All India Agricultural Rural Labour Association
Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy has always favoured tribals. He has extended various welfare schemes to the PVTGs even in the most inaccessible parts of tribal settlements. Gemmili Balaraju, headman of Kothoveedhi villages
The tribals are tenant farmers and they do not have the documents. But we are working out a model to benefit them. H.V. Jayaram, RDO