Caged Birds No More

After the rescue Chenchus freed from bonded labour gather for a community meeting
After the rescue Chenchus freed from bonded labour gather for a community meeting.

Photos: Deepa Philip

The caged bird sings/ with a fearful trill/ of things unknown/ but longed for still/ and his tune is heard/ on the distant hill/ for the caged bird/ sings of freedom- Caged Bird by

Maya Angelou

Freedom is only a monthold concept for the Chenchus, an Adivasi community inhabiting the floodplains of the mighty river Krishna.

The Chenchus that live beside the river in Amaragiri village, Telangana, are a community which once had the thick forests as their home. Over thirty years ago their forefathers lived deep inside the Nallamala forests and were displaced by the construction of the Srisailam hydro electric power project in 1967. Accustomed to living off wild meat, nuts, barks and a seldom catch of fish, the plain surroundings provided to them for rehabilitation, confounded them. Under the circumstances, 38 of the 42 rehabilitated families of the community turned to the meandering river for sustenance. They decided to take up shikari or fishing as their source of livelihood. Wooden bamboo sluices were let into the water by them as they floated down the river in their kodemeis (small boats). The fishes trapped by these sluices would be their best bet for survival.

Through self-made implements and self-taught techniques, they caught fish and sustained themselves. But soon they discovered that proper equipment will be required in the long run. The Chenchus turned to the only help in sight: The Gollas (the same caste as the Yadavs in North India). Higher in caste hierarchy than the Chenchus, the Gollas owned land, livestock and had money which the Chenchu families were in need of. “My father and others approached the Golla families for money to purchase fishing nets,” says Ankanna Ileni, a Chenchu from the village.

The Chenchus recall tales from the previous generation when Gollas were given cash loads by then famed Tamilian trader Guruswamy to serve as middlemen who would purchase fish from the Chenchus and supply it for trade. But the Golla families soon parted ways with the trader and siphoned off the money. “They ditched him and decided to start their own business,” says Venketaiah Kudumala, a Chenchu. The Gollas then began giving the Chenchus money for fishing nets in lieu of their catch. “Whenever they would lend us money they would only verbally announce amounts against our name. Nothing was noted down and no explanation offered for the same,” says Ileni.

The illiterate Chenchus would comply having no knowledge of the inflated sums being recorded against their names. They would bring all their catch and hand it over to the Gollas who would threateningly remind them of their debts. Scared of the mounting debts they would get back to fishing. “The fear of our outstanding debts always gripped our hearts. The only aim in life was reduced to just ‑clearing debts,” says Kudumala whose never-ending debt started when his father took a loan of Rs 10,000 from the Gollas to buy fishing nets.

Growing rebellion Chenchus of various villages are forming self help groups to fight exploitation
Growing rebellion Chenchus of various villages are forming self help groups to fight exploitation

Their misery was compounded by the fact that nets would wear out every three months. A new net meant an addition to the spiralling debt. The Chenchus had no clue of the market price of nets and were charged an inflated price of up to Rs 50,000 for a single one. The debt would pass on from father to son. Kudumala’s son Govindiya is one such example. “He started working with me when he was only nineyears- old,” says Kudumala. He is 24 now and the burden of debt on him is already over two lakh rupees.