No Place To Call Their Own

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Chhattisgarh’s tribals are fleeing their homes and bountiful natural resources to escape both the Salwa Judum and Naxals, reports Anjali Lal Gupta

Leaves little A Koya woman looks at the remains of her hut after forest rangers destroyed it
Leaves little A Koya woman looks at the remains of her hut after forest rangers destroyed it
Photos: Srikanth Kolari/Actionaid

NOT-SO-OLD Bhimaiya, 60-year-old Charma, 10-year-old Madkam Ramesh, 60-year-old Madkam Bimai, four villagers from Regadgatha village, 35-year-old Sodeganga, the 18-year-old-girl Sodejogi, a 20-year-old unmarried son, someone’s married daughter…”

The Koya tribals we met one warm afternoon reeled off an amazing list of numbers and names of relatives and neighbours allegedly killed by the Salwa Judum. One after the other, these Koyas, who had fled to Andhra Pradesh from neighbouring Chhattisgarh, recounted the horror that had transpired after the creation of the militia. Judum, as Chhattisgarh tribals call it, is a squad aimed at eliminating Maoists. Allegedly supported by the government, it recruits civilians, mostly tribals, arms them and makes them fight Maoists, aka Naxalites.

Naxalites have been leading an armed movement in this area for over 30 years. Their aim is to overthrow the government and the local traders who they hold responsible for the economic exploitation of the tribals. In the bid to counter Naxalites, human rights abuses became rampant. Tribal men, women and children who refuse to leave their homes and relocate to government-run camps are either branded Naxalites or Naxalite supporters and are hunted down and killed.

Joga, a 60-year-old man from Regadgatha village of Dantewada district describes being in the middle of the lethal tug of war between Naxalites and the Salwa Judum, “People from our villages are forcibly taken to the camps. Once in camps, Naxalites come and kill us.”

In each of the four villages we visited in Khammam district of Andhra Pradesh (Andhra Pradesh), tribal after tribal told us that staying alive back home had become an ordeal.

Judum members first came to meet Regadgatha residents in 2005 and ordered them to shift to government camps. Villagers did not want to anger Naxalites or leave their homes. So they appointed a few among themselves to keep vigil from high ground. If Judum members were seen approaching, they would blow a buffalo horn to warn the others. Everyone would then run into the jungle. Women would pick up infants and run with halfcooked meals in their hands. Youth would carry the old and the sick on their cots.

A 35-year-old man was killed by Naxalites because he met Judum members

“Because they had to flee, three pregnant women had to deliver their babies in pits,” says 40-year-old Muchki Gangi.

After the Judum’s first visit, over 100 households in Regadgatha and four adjoining villages were encircled, doused in petrol and burnt twice. Four villagers were allegedly shot dead. More would have died had they not escaped. Driven further into the jungles, with rice and utensils in short supply, families would build new huts. But there too they feared the sudden arrival of Salwa Judum. For several months they lived in fear of being attacked.

Uprooted Adma and his family in their makeshift hut in Guttani village, AP
Uprooted Adma and his family in their makeshift hut in Guttani village, AP

Kai Deva, a 30-year-old tribal man, was caught in the jungle by the Judum. He was brutally beaten with a rifle butt, which broke a rib. He was about to be shot when he managed to convince them that he did not belong to Regadgatha. “He shows telltale signs of third degree torture. He is frail and weak,” explains Haneef, a medical practitioner from Sitara Association, who works amongst displaced tribal families.

Salwa Judum members and Special Police Officers would accuse tribal families of giving Naxalites food. “Naxalites would come calling after Salwa Judum held meetings with us. Sodeganga’s 35-year-old nephew was killed by them because he met with Judum members,” states Joga. Naxalites have never baulked at the murder of suspected government supporters.

Hard statistics of tribals displaced by the conflict are difficult to come by, as the tribals are often too nervous to reveal themselves. According to a 2008 Human Rights Watch report, an estimated 65,000 villagers have fled to the adjoining states of Maharashtra, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. Nearly 50,000 have settled in Andhra Pradesh, mostly in Warangal, Karimnagar, Vishakapatnam, Khammam and east and west Godavari districts. Many made the journey to Andhra Pradesh on foot. Adhumaya, 26- year-old mother of a four-year-old disabled girl, walked from Kanaiguda village in Chhattisgarh to Guttani village in Andhra Pradesh carrying her child, with nothing but the clothes on her back.

Forest range officials in AP demolish the huts of tribal Chhattisgarh refugees
Forest range officials in AP demolish the huts of tribal Chhattisgarh refugees

“Villagers found the body of my husband three days after he had gone to the forest to herd our cows. I do not know why the Judum killed him,” she sighs.

Bhimaa, a tribal, recounts his encounter with the Judum. “A few villagers and I were caught by the Judum. They rained sticks and blows on me while shouting, ‘You thief, you support Maoists, you feed Maoists!’ They put me in Vinjaram Judum camp in Dantewada. I escaped from there.”

At a rare government-supported residential school in AP, child refugees from Chhattisgarh inch back towards normalcy
At a rare government-supported residential school in AP, child refugees from Chhattisgarh inch back towards normalcy

IT’S LITTLE wonder that several tribals can’t think of returning home. Kundan, a 35-year-old man from Kanchala village who now resides in Napana village of Khammam district, is convinced that they will be killed if they return. “Even if the government gives me a lorry or even a helicopter, I will not return,” he says. “We will not go back,” echo families who have streamed into Monalli village in Andhra Pradesh. The violence in Chhattisgarh will not let them live, they say.

But going hungry day in and day out is also violence. Adma, 30, and his wife Soderama, 25, are a frail couple from Uskivai village of Chhattisgarh who have been trying to eke out a living in Guttani village for two and a half years. They have five children. When we met them, Madei, their three-year-old daughter, was their youngest. In their small thatched hut, frail Madei ate slowly, with droopy eyes. “She doesn’t even have the stamina to eat,” her mother says.

A Koya tribal refugee from Pelisherma village, Chhattisgarh
A Koya tribal refugee from Pelisherma village, Chhattisgarh

Some months back her parents took Madei to the nearest Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre (NRC), 55km away. NRCs provide food and medicines to severely malnourished children. “We can’t keep going to the NRC. Who will look after the other children?” asks Soderama.

Outside Chhattisgarh, this family has known acute hunger. Adma tills one acre of land borrowed from the local tribals and sometimes works as a farm hand. The farm produces a sack of grains which lasts two months. If he gets work, he gets Rs 50 per day. When there’s no work, there’s little to eat.

“Sometimes we have to make gruel out of mango kernels,” he admits. “When kids cry out for food, I sometimes hit them out of frustration. ‘Where can I get food? Where?’ I would shout.”

Two months after we met Madei, she died. “We tried saving her, but her malnourished body couldn’t fight back,” says Venkatesh of the Vyavasaya Mariyu Sanghika Abhivrudhi Samstha (Agriculture and Social Development Society) or ASDS, an ActionAid partner organisation.

Because she is a woman, Adhumaya gets only Rs 30 a day as an agricultural labourer. She supplements this by selling mahua flowers and gum extract, but it is not enough. A broken cot, a tattered blanket and a worn-out sari make up Adhumaya’s belongings. Both she and her daughter often go hungry. “If we get food, we eat. If not, we have to stay quiet,” she says. Twelve out of 19 tribal families taking refuge in Guttani are malnourished, according to ASDS. In addition, reports of strife between local and Chhattisgarh tribals are increasing. Sharing land and resources means that everyone gets less. With government support, ASDS helps run a few residential schools in Khammam and seven non-residential centres in villages where young children and pregnant and lactating mothers get cooked lentils, rice, coconut oil, soap, and a sweet dish made of jaggery and groundnuts. Three such centres are aided by ActionAid.

Development agencies agree that temporary measures cannot offset the socio-economic catastrophe sparked by the conflict. “The government needs to side with the tribals. The continuation of their life in the natural environment is vital to saving indigenous people,” says Raghu P of ActionAid.

‘When my kids cry out for food, I sometimes get so frustrated I hit them,’ says a tribal

They would return to Chhattisgarh, “if Judum stops,” says Adma, without batting an eye. They had four acres of land there, 30 bags of rice every year, filled bellies and healthy children. “What do we have here?” he asks. Adhumaya and Bhimaa agree.

ASDS and Vanvasi Chetna Ashram (VCA), an ActionAid partner organisation in Chhattisgarh, recently helped 90 families, originally from Bijapur district, return to their homes and land.

Villages in Bijapur and Dantewada districts of Chhattisgarh look empty. Tribals need to reclaim their land before big businesses usurp it,” says Himanshu of VCA.

CHHATTISGARH IS rich in 28 varieties of minerals, including diamonds and coal. A fifth of India’s iron ore is found here. The state government proclaims, “The state’s Mineral Policy, 2001, has created a conducive business environment to attract private investment in the state, both domestic and international.” Such a policy is in line with the Indian government’s push for double digit economic growth. But something has to give.

Research by tribal affairs expert Walter Fernandes and his team in India’s tribal heartland – Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa – shows that the drive for development has led to rampant displacement and impoverishment. The corporate sector is being empowered to take over forests and rural land in these resource-rich states for mining, dams, industrial plants and a host of other projects. According to government notifications, over 1 crore acres have been acquired across the four states.

Tribals make up 80 percent of the 16 lakh displaced by development programs

In the last 10 years, a whopping 16 lakh people have been displaced and affected by development projects in the four states. Of these, nearly 80 percent are tribals. They who once cultivated land have lost it, along with their forests, rivers, ancestral homes, cremation grounds and places of worship. Industrial jobs also often go to people from outside the forest region as the tribals are poorly educated. Many thus migrate to neighbouring cities to become daily wage labourers.

More displacement is imminent. Across the four states, nearly 80 Special Economic Zones (SEZs) designed to encourage business investment have been sanctioned. In Chhattisgarh, nearly 1.54 lakh acres have been acquired for SEZs.

According to the Chhattisgarh Industrial Promotion Board, the state government has signed as many as 113 Memoranda of Understanding with industrial companies between 2001 and 2008, promising all possible help, incentives and clearances to them.

The government’s response is dispiriting. The law states that the rural and urban poor are entitled to subsidised food through the Public Distribution System. In Andhra Pradesh, despite repeated petitions to the Khammam district administration to provide subsidised rations and midday meals to displaced families and children, only 10 percent of the immigrant population have ration cards.

What’s more, forest officials regularly uproot the makeshift homes of displaced tribals. They take away the tarpaulin used for their homes and the farm implements without which they cannot earn a wage.

Those who have settled in Napana have seen their homes torn down five times. Just a week before we met them, they had rebuilt their huts from the rubble of their broken homes.

A Sharat, a project officer with the government’s Integrated Tribal Development Agency in Andhra Pradesh, has an imposing office. He hears us out patiently but says he can’t do much in isolation. He can deal with the affairs of tribals listed in the jurisdiction of Andhra Pradesh – but those from Chhattisgarh do not figure in that list. At an interim hearing in September 2008, the Supreme Court had asked the Chhattisgarh government to rehabilitate the victims of Salwa Judum and provide compensation. According to the Campaign for Peace and Justice in Chhattisgarh, a civil rights group, not a single village has been rehabilitated since the order. Meanwhile, lakhs of tribal citizens remain refugees in their own country.

The author is a development writer. The names of some people and places have been changed to maintain anonymity

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