The sun has barely risen but the Chenchu men and women along with their children are out on a long trek, one which will take them deep into the Nallamala forest along the Eastern Ghats, in search of leaves, tubers, roots, soapberries, honey and gum. Waving a branch of the Devadari kura (Cedrus deodara or native cedar) plant, the lean and wiry Udumula Anjaiah suddenly shouts out as he chances upon the wonder plant — its leaves, when consumed after being crushed into a paste, are believed to ward off liver, urinary and respiratory infections and gastric ulcers.
Forests as a lifeline
Before heading off to the forest, the Telugu-speaking food gatherers and hunters of the Nallamala hill range will have a brunch which is a cocktail of curries made of leaves and fruits, mainly custard apple and gardenia which are found in plenty here. Armed with an axe and a bow and arrows for “self defence”, as Bhumani Ankanna puts it, they will set out along with their pet dogs for company on an arduous journey undeterred by the tough terrain in search of a variety of minor forest produce, their lifeline.
Somewhere along the way, prayers will be offered to Malalamma Vana Devatha (the goddess of honey) before Anjaiah and his children collect the honey from a variety of sources like ‘Pedda pera’ (which means big tree) and ‘Junna’ (trees and shrubs). “We trace honeycombs just by observing the movements of the bees,” says Damsani Guruvaiah. They brew their own liquor “Thummachakka” with acacia bark, mahua flower and jaggery, which is consumed after a hunt.
For Anjaiah, Ankanna and Guruvaiah, living deep inside the dense Nallamala forest which also happens to host India’s largest tiger reserve, the 3,728-sq.-km Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR), this has been their daily grind for as long as they can remember. But that is now shrouded in uncertainty following a recent order from the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA). The order of March 28 read: “in the absence of guidelines for notification of critical wildlife habitats, no rights shall be conferred in Critical Tiger Habitats (CTH) which is notified under section 38 V (4) (i), of the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.” What this means is the Chenchus will no longer be able to claim Nallamala as their home.
It also means living in a red zone of man-animal conflict with an inviolate space for the tiger and virtually no place for Chenchus who ironically are counted among the oldest aboriginals of south India and have lived in the Nallamala hill range for hundreds of years. In the skewed tiger versus tribals debate now rekindled, will the Chenchus lose out again? Will they be edged out of the CTH and thrown into the plains in the name of rehabilitation? And what will happen to those who were already given land rights in the Nallamala forest?
The order has come at a time when the Chenchus thought the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 — commonly called the Forest Rights Act or FRA — had come as a huge relief providing them the forest land rights they deserved and waited for so long. Around 1,502 Chenchu families got rights over forest land spanning 5,700 acres in Prakasam district, with corresponding figures for Kurnool and Guntur being 443 families and 1,250 acres and 149 families and 452 acres respectively.
Displaced from their habitat
Not long ago, between 1990 and 2006 the Chenchus were caught in the crossfire between Maoists and Greyhounds, the elite anti-Naxal force of the Andhra Pradesh police. With the Maoists shifting base to Chhattisgarh and the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha border, and just when the Chenchus heaved a sigh of relief, the recent NTCA order puts them into yet another uncertain phase.
“We have lived in the forests for generations. Show us one example of a Chenchu killing a tiger. In fact, we protect them from poachers. Nor were there many cases of tigers attacking us. Our paths cross but we respect each other. We share the resources. But the Forest Department treats us as enemies of the tiger and wildlife and not as protectors. They want to relocate us in faraway plains where we will be like fish out of water. Neither do we have the skills to cope in the plains nor can we return to the forest. We will simply wilt away,” laments Dasari Bayanna, a Chenchu tribesman.
Bayanna’s family has been pulled out of Maripalem in Prakasam district and relocated 35 km away in Sundaraiah Chenchu Colony in Pedda Dornala where he ended up as a daily wage labourer. Whenever he does not find work, he journeys back to his forest home. A similar narrative is shared by other tribesmen who were forced out of forests to the plains.
S. Sravanan, Field Director, NSTR, denies coercion and spells out the process of rehabilitation. “It may just be their fears. We are not forcing any Chenchu even out of the core area. There is a process and a monetary package for relocation and we give options to them. And it is purely voluntary and only after all Chenchus in a particular gudem (village) have given their consent.”
Asked about the impact of the NTCA order, Sravanan says, “We have to wait and see what will happen to the pending claims now. There is no conflict between tiger protection and Chenchus in NSTR. Chenchus live in coexistence here and in fact we deploy 200 Chenchus as tiger protection watchers all round the year and 200 more as forest fire watchers for six months.”
Cohabitation or relocation?
How much space within the forest should be left for tigers and the indigenous tribes like Chenchus? There is no reconciliation yet with Forest Department and wildlife conservationists sticking to the argument that tigers require an exclusive protection zone while the supporters of tribal rights favour them staying within the tiger habitat. The NTSR has a core area of 2,444 sq. km and a buffer zone of 1,283 sq. km. The ‘Status of tigers in India, 2014’ report released by the NTCA put the tiger population in the reserve at 65, the tiger density being 1.9 tigers per 100 sq. km.
On the other hand, Census 2011 puts the Chenchu population at 64,227 in habitations spread over five districts, three in Andhra Pradesh (Prakasam, Guntur and Kurnool) and two in Telangana (Mahbubnagar and Nalgonda). The gender break-up is 32,196 males and 32,031 females, the child sex ratio is 988/1000 and literacy is 40.6%, (47.3% among males, 34% among females). However crude this may sound, it is pitting 65 tigers against 64,000 Chenchus living in CTHs or core areas and the abutting buffer zone.
In any case, Survival International, a global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, reported in December 2015 that tiger numbers have increased rapidly in the first tiger reserve in India where local tribes (the Soligas in this case) have won the right to stay inside, the Biligiriranganatha Swamy Temple Wildlife Sanctuary or BRT Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka. The tiger population doubled between 2010 and 2014 from 35 to 68. This increase is far higher than the national rate at which the tiger population is growing.
Many like the environmental NGO Kalpavriksh see the NTCA order as a direct violation of the Forest Rights Act and a conspiracy to stop implementation of the FRA in tiger reserves thereby denying forest rights to a large population of Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) living in these reserves. The FRA clearly defines ‘forest land’ under Section 2 (d) to mean forests of all categories including the protected areas such as Wildlife Sanctuaries, National Parks and Tiger Reserves. Section 4 (1) provides for recognition and vesting of all kinds of forest rights of STs and OTFDs as mentioned in section 3 notwithstanding anything contained in any other laws for the time being in force. Further, Section 4 (2) requires recognition and vesting of rights in critical wildlife habitats and similarly Section 38 V of the Wild Life Protection (Amendment) Act of 2006 mandates recognition and vesting of rights of STs and OTFDs in the critical tiger habitats. Therefore, the NTCA order has no legal basis and is seemingly aimed at obstructing implementation of the FRA in the tiger reserves.
The Chenchu way of life
Driving through the vast expanse of undisturbed Nallamala forest, a landscape characterised by tropical dry deciduous scrub punctuated by trees of axlewood, teak, hardwickia, one wonders how this tribe, with a majority of them still cut off from modern life, sustains itself. Some answers can be found in The Chenchus: Jungle Folk of the Deccan by the legendary Austrian anthropologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, who stayed in Chenchu gudems in the early 1940s.
Chenchus take pride in describing themselves as children of the Nallamala forest. Besides hunting with bows and arrows, they live off forest produce and also sell it to the Girijan Co-operative Corporation, set up in 1956 to support economic empowerment of tribals. At the Chintala Girijan cooperative outlet located on the edge of Nallamala forest, Chenchus travel 5 km from Maripalem and wait for their turn to sell roots, tubers and oilseed. Artha Venkatesan brings 10 kg of kukadu (tuber) and gets ₹120 for it at ₹12 a kilo. Bhumani Anjaneyulu gets ₹54 for three kg of kanuga (oilseed). Sustaining a family on this meagre amount is tough. Carrying an axe and a bow and arrows, Pulicherla Guruvaiah and his wife trek 20 km into the jungle from Chinnarutla and stay put in the forest for four days collecting roots, tubers and gum which they sell at the Girijan cooperative. For their efforts, they get ₹800!
The fact that Chenchus enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the Nallamala was recognised early by the British, who controlled the southern part (now Andhra Pradesh) and gave them rights not just to stay inside the forest but also do subsistence farming and grazing. The northern part (now Telangana) was under the Nizams of Hyderabad, who maintained the forest as a hunting reserve for the nobility and royal guests. “Everyone talks about tigers but not many about us,” laments Bayanna.
Itinerant and nomadic as they are, adjusting is a nightmare for the Chenchus. “These rehabilitation colonies have turned out to be ghettos where one can see poverty, disease and squalor,” says M. Sambasiva Rao of Banjara Development Society that has been working for the welfare of Chenchus for over decades now.
“A perusal of the enquiry reports prepared during colonial rule shows that the British had a better understanding of the Chenchus, their living conditions and their dependence on forests. The reports speak of how Chenchus will be exterminated if they are moved out of the forests, and also tigers and other wild animals as there would be no natural guard to protect the forest,” Rao says.
Marginalisation at the margins
“We feel threatened in our own habitat, not by the big cats but by the government policies,” says Bhumani Edanna, whose family is among the few hundred tribal families still clinging on to their natural habitat. They have refused to move out to the plains as suggested by the State government, to Shanti Nagar and Gandhi Nagar near Yerragondapalem in Prakasam district where over 200 tribal families have been resettled by the authorities on the pretext of ensuring them a better life and leaving undisturbed the reserve forests.
The rehabilitation policy envisages concrete one-room tenements replacing the traditional conical bamboo and thatch huts. Internal roads, drinking water supply, education and health-care facilities have been provided in at least some of these colonies but no new or alternative sources of livelihood have been concretely proposed. On top of this is a health emergency that stares these tribals in the face, with a plethora of diseases ranging from anaemia to tuberculosis and high infant and maternal mortality rates and malnutrition.
The results of a recent (July 2016) study on Chenchus by Sujith Kumar S. Dondapati and Keerthimayee Karimaddela in Velugodu revenue mandal of Kurnool district showed that 72% of them were illiterate, 40% earned their livelihood by collecting non-timber forest produce, and 59% per cent of under-five and 30% of school-going children and adolescents and 60% of adults were undernourished.
Since 2006, with the notification of the FRA, only 5,000 out of the 64,000-odd Chenchus have secured forest rights including land for cultivation. In the past, whenever they were relocated from the core area or from deep inside the forest to the plains with the promise of a better life, the story rarely had a happy ending. As tiger conservation assumes an extreme avatar with the March NTCA order, there’s little chance of a twist in the tale.