ANDHRA PRADESH

Chenchu tribals fight grim battle for survival

K. Venkateshwarlu

Hounded by the police hunting down Maoists, the tribals struggle to make ends meet as deep forests are now out of bounds for them

CHINNAARUTLA (Prakasam dt): Nestled in Nallamala forests, this tribal habitation may go down in the State's chequered history as the place where top naxalite leaders emerged out of their long underground life to participate in abortive peace talks, but for the local Chenchu tribals, the milestone only heralded more trouble from the police.

"They might have come and gone back and God knows what happened after that. But the police continue to be after us. There is no end to their harassment. In the name of combing they do not allow us deep inside the forest, which means cutting off our lifeline," says Pulicherla Ganganna of this `gudem' (habitation) 10 km off Srisailam hill shrine on Dornala road. "How can we survive?" he asks.

Caught in crossfire

As yet another move by the Government to buy peace with naxalites lies shattered and as the police is back mowing down the Maoists, innocent Chenchus seem to be caught in the crossfire, waging a grim battle for survival.

With police stepping up anti-naxal operations and scouring the Nallamala hilly ranges like never before, large parts of the core forest areas have become out of bounds to Chenchus.

It simply means denying access to this primitive bow and arrow wielding food gathering tribe to collect minor forest produce like roots, gum, honey, fruits, tubers and tamarind -- their only source of income.

"I do not know what crime my husband had committed. He is asked to report to police station in Dornala, 30 km away, frequently. Whatever little we earn from gathering and selling bamboo, the only thing we get these days from the forest, we spend on going to the police station," says Nagamma, wife of Ganganna. A Chenchu couple carrying about 10 bamboo stalks get a paltry Rs. 30.

Whenever Chenchus go deep into the forest they go in groups of 10 and carry rations enough to feed them for about a week. Even this becomes a crime as police suspect them of supplying the rations and cooked food to the naxalites.

Beaten up

Chenchus narrate umpteen instances where they were beaten up and threatened if they carried rations inside and provided shelter to naxalites.

But when it comes to transporting their rations and equipment, the police uses Chenchus extensively to carry heavy head loads, trekking treacherous forest paths being their forte. "Sometimes we are asked to carry these head loads for 20 to 30 km," complains Kudumula Venkanna.

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