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3— Tribes and Forest Policy
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3—
Tribes and Forest Policy

All the tribal populations of Andhra Pradesh were traditionally closely associated with forests, and there are some who even today spend the greater part of their lives in the proximity of trees. It is for this reason that aboriginals were often referred to as jangali , today a derogatory term standing for "uncouth" or "uncivilized" but literally meaning "forest dweller." Tribal communities living in settlements surrounded by forest regarded these woods as much their own as old-style pastoralists considered the grass-lands over which their herds were ranging as their own preserves, to be defended if necessary against the inroads of neighbouring tribes. In Northeast India there are to this day tribes among whom specific forest tracts with clearly defined boundaries are claimed as clan or village property, where only members of the clan or village in question are allowed to hunt or cut firewood. Ownership over forests is there clearly defined and generally recognized.

In the tribal areas now forming part of Andhra Pradesh, similar conditions prevailed until the beginning of the twentieth century. Communities living near forests depended on them for building material, fuel, fodder, and often also food in the shape of wild fruits and tubers. Preservation of the resources on which they relied for so many of their needs was in the tribesmen's own interests, and as long as there was no interference by advanced populations the ecological balance was usually well maintained.

A new situation was created, however, when the demands of modern industries situated outside the tribal areas led to the commercial


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exploitation of forests. These became then an important source of revenue in the state, and to regulate the extraction of timber and other produce large forest areas were designated as "reserved" and put under the control of a government department. Tribal communities dwelling in enclaves inside the forest were either evicted or denied access to the forest produce on which they had depended for many necessities. Thus arose a conflict between the traditional tribal ownership and the state's claim to the entire forest wealth. Numerous revolts, one of which will be described later in this chapter, were the direct result of the denial of the local tribals' right in the forests which they had always considered their communal property. While they were forbidden to take even enough wood to build their huts or fashion their ploughs, they saw contractors from the lowlands felling hundreds of trees and carting them off, usually with the help of labour brought in from outside. Where tribals were allowed access to some of the forest produce, such as grass or dead wood for fuel, this was considered a "concession" liable to be withdrawn at any time. The traditional de facto ownership of tribal communities was now replaced by the de jure ownership of the state, which ultimately led to the exploitation of forest resources with total disregard for the needs of the tribal economy. In recent years many projects have been started which change the character of forests in such a manner that they serve exclusively commercial interests and no longer benefit the original forest dwellers. The natural mixed forests, which provided the tribesmen with the raw materials for many of their household implements, cane and bamboo for baskets, and such items of food as mangoes, tamarinds, jack fruits, mahua corollae , and edible berries, are being replaced by plantations of teak, eucalyptus, and various coniferous trees.

An extreme example of such a commercialization of forests at the expense of the local tribal population is a project in Madhya Pradesh where Rs 46,000,000 are to be spent on converting 8,000 hectares of forest in the Bastar Hills to pine forests to feed the paper pulp industry.

In a recent symposium on "Forests, Tribals and Development," Dr. B. D. Sharma, who is Tribal Development Commissioner, Government of Madhya Pradesh, stated the position very clearly when he said:

As the ownership of the State gets consolidated and formalised and the decision making recedes farther away from the field, the special relationship of the tribals with the forest is not appreciated. Their rights are viewed as a 'burden' on the forests, and an impediment in their scientific and economic exploitation. . . . Since the forest produce is treated as nature's gift, the State stakes its full claim over it. At the best, the tribal may be allowed a reasonable wage for the labour which he may put in for the collection of minor forest produce or extraction


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of major produce. Thus, the de-facto and conventional command of the tribal over resources is completely denied in this perception and he is reduced to the status of merely a casual wage-earner.

Dr. B. D. Sharma included in his exposition a detailed plan for a reconciliation of the interests of tribal communities and forestry development, largely by the economic involvement of tribals in the management and utilisation of forest resources. He summarises the basic principles of this plan as follows:

It is clear that the development of the people and development of the forests, as two co-equal goals, are fully consistent. Certain basic needs of the local community must provide the solid foundation for rational utilisation of forest resources. The socio-economic conditions of tribal communities must be accepted as an important boundary condition for determining the level of technology and intensity of operations in an area. . . . The plan for tribal development must take the forest resources as the base on which tribal economy can progress with greatest confidence. . . . Planning without participation of the people and their active involvement cannot be expected to be realistic. The tribal should become a co-sharer in the new wealth created in these areas and should become an active participant in their management.[1]

In this context I am not concerned with plans for the future, but with recording the past and present conditions of the tribal populations of Andhra Pradesh, and we shall presently see that there is a great gap between these conditions and the idealistic vision of Dr. Sharma.

In an assessment of the forest policy of the former Hyderabad State and present-day Andhra Pradesh in its effect on the tribals, we must distinguish between three categories of populations: foodgatherers and hunters, shifting-cultivators, and settled farming populations.

The only tribe in Andhra Pradesh falling clearly into the first category is the Chenchus of the Nallamalai Hills. Since time immemorial they have inhabited the forest-clad hills to both sides of the Krishna River, and even today the forests are their true habitat. Hunting and foodgathering are the Chenchus' traditional occupations, and when I studied them in 1940 those living on the upper Amrabad Plateau in Hyderabad State and many of those in the neighbouring district of Kurnool subsisted almost entirely on wild fruits and tubers and the occasional game hunted with bow and arrow. Their small settlements, situated in the depth of the forest, consisted of round huts and leaf shelters, and they frequently shifted from one collecting ground to another. Foodgatherers in the true sense of the word, the Chenchus of


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those days only rarely obtained grain, by barter in exchange for honey or other minor forest produce.

For centuries the inaccessibility of the upper Amrabad Plateau, ascent to which was only by foot-paths, had protected the Chenchus from any sudden inroads of outsiders, and it was left to them to seek barter contacts in the villages of the adjoining lowlands. The notification of the plateau as a forest reserve, first in 1894 and with some modifications in 1930, as well as the subsequent extraction of timber from the forests, brought the Chenchus' isolation to an end.

By 1940 roads suitable for wheeled traffic had been driven into the forest, and forest contractors brought hosts of labourers, partly to fell and cart trees, and partly to collect minor forest produce which had been auctioned by the Forest Department. The competition in the collection of such produce hit the Chenchus particularly hard, for by bartering honey, gum, certain nuts, and wild fruits they used to obtain metal tools, cloth, and some household goods. Forest guards recruited the Chenchus for work in nurseries and the demarcation of forest coups, but being badly paid such work was not popular. All the innovations resulting from the commercial exploitation of forests had come so rapidly that the Chenchus had no time to adjust mentally and materially to the new conditions. They felt baffled and helpless when watching the ever-increasing inroads into the forests which they had always considered their undisputed domain.

As a result of my reports to the Nizam's government at the conclusion of my fieldwork in 1940, administrative action was taken to protect the Chenchus from exploitation and to safeguard their rights to the forest produce on which they depended for their livelihood. Some 100,000 acres on the upper plateau were established as a Chenchu Reserve, in which they were enabled to continue their traditional life-style. The rules governing this reserve are contained in an appendix to my book The Chenchus (pp. 377–81). They provided for the Chenchus' right to collect for their domestic use all minor forest produce without payment, and established a procedure by which the Forest Department would purchase at fixed prices any forest produce the Chenchus would offer for sale. The auctioning of minor forest produce to contractors was to be discontinued. The Chenchus were also given grazing rights within the reserve free of charge, and were allowed to cultivate small plots of land near their settlements. Hunting with bow and arrow was permitted irrespective of whether the area of the reserve was included in a game sanctuary or not.

Already in 1940 a number of Chenchus owned buffaloes which they used for milking, and in view of their apparent skill in herding, the Social Service Department, which had established a centre in Mananur, provided some more female buffaloes free of cost. The idea was


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then that the Chenchus' semi-nomadic life-style would be compatible with the development of pastoral pursuits. However, contact with cattle brought into the forest area by Banjara graziers resulted in epidemics of foot-and-mouth disease which wiped out most of the buffaloes in the possession of Chenchus. Hence in 1977 the Chenchus of the upper plateau owned fewer cattle than the previous generation had possessed.

The most important change in the economic position of the Chenchus is the transition from gathering roots, tubers, and wild fruits for consumption to the collection of minor forest produce on a large scale for sale. This entry of the Chenchus into a cash economy has come about mainly by the activities of the Girijan Cooperative Marketing Society, an organization set up by government for the benefit of tribal populations. Without having changed their style of life, the Chenchus are now no longer concentrating on the gathering of wild plants for consumption, but gather marketable commodities and take them to Girijan depots, where they are paid for in cash. With that cash they then buy grain for their daily consumption. The sums obtained from the sale of minor forest produce are very considerable. Thus the Girijan Cooperative Marketing Society at Mananur purchased between January and November 1977 minor forest produce worth Rs 547,216. The main items were: gum, worth Rs 310,495; soapnuts, worth Rs 62,970; nux vomica , worth Rs 11,729; mahua seed (Bassia latifolia) , worth 75,412; pungam seed, worth Rs 98,066; and honey, worth Rs 26,724. Some of these commodities may have been irregularly bought from persons other than Chenchus but even if one allows for such malpractices the genuine purchases from Chenchus—say 80 percent of the total—must have made a decisive impact on their economy.

The Chenchus represent thus the unusual case of a forest tribe of semi-nomadic collectors and hunters who notwithstanding close contact with advanced populations and the agents of a regular administration have remained gatherers even though the bulk of the produce they gather is no longer food for their own consumption.

Until 1979, forest conservancy and the pursuance of the Chenchus' traditional life-style were not in conflict, and in view of the value of the produce collected for pharmaceutical and other industries there was every reason to believe that this situation could persist for the foreseeable future. However, in 1980 a development occurred which threatens to undermine the very basis of Chenchu economy. When I revisited the upper Amrabad Plateau in November 1980, I noticed large-scale inroads into the bamboo forest, and learned that the Sirpur Paper Mills, whose activities had already destroyed the greater part of the bamboo forests of Adilabad District, had been awarded a contract for the exploitation of bamboo on the upper Amrabad Plateau. The


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agents of the Sirpur Paper Mills had brought in hundreds of forest labourers, many of them recruited in distant Madhya Pradesh, as well as a fleet of trucks. The local forest officers told me that they were not in a position to control the extent and the manner of the exploitation of bamboo, and whereas there is a method of cutting bamboo which safeguards future regeneration, it was obvious that the felling was carried out without any regard for the conservation of the stocks of bamboo.

For the Chenchus, the destruction of bamboo in their habitat will be catastrophic. They depend on bamboo not only for the construction of their huts and for making many of their utensils, but above all for the manufacture of baskets and mats, which they traditionally sell or barter for agricultural produce. It is no exaggeration to say that the depletion of the stocks of bamboo in the forests of the Amrabad Plateau would make the area virtually uninhabitable for its original denizens. The fact that the prospect of such a development is by no means a figment of the imagination is demonstrated by the fate of other forest dwellers of Andhra Pradesh, whose life has been totally disrupted by a forest policy unmindful of the rights and needs of tribal populations.

The Fate of Kolams and Naikpods

Tribes who in the past forty years have suffered such a fate are the Kolams and the Naikpods of Adilabad District. Both these tribes long have shared the habitat of the far more numerous Gonds, but both stood always on a lower level of material development and resembled in their life-style some of the Konda Reddis of Khammam District. Their traditional method of tillage was slash-and-burn cultivation (podu) on hill slopes, and for this they used digging sticks and very primitive hoes. When in 1941 I first came in contact with Kolams and Naikpods, most of them possessed no cattle and usually did not even possess goats, sheep, or pigs. Only a very few Kolams and Naikpods had at that time taken to plough cultivation. Compared with their Gond neighbours, most Kolams and Naikpods were very unsophisticated and limited in outlook. They had little idea of the functions of the various government officials, were vague about such revenue terms as kharij khata, parampok , and patta , and did not know the meaning of "reserved forest." Their reaction to any kind of difficulty was either flight or submission. Kolams of a disbanded village, whose inhabitants were scattered, easily lost all contact with each other and were ignorant of the whereabouts of close relatives. They had very few aspirations other than to be left in peace and allowed to find a bare livelihood. Many Kolams seemed to be content to live in the vil-


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lages of landlords whose patta land included a few hill slopes where they could cultivate in their old style, and if the landlord sheltered them from threats of expulsion by forest officials, they submitted to any demands for unpaid labour.

The standard of living of most Kolams was much lower than that of Gonds, and their settlements were much smaller than Gond villages. Even in 1941, they seldom consisted of more than twelve houses on one site, while in the days before the reservation of forests, hamlets of only three or four houses were scattered over the hills at points convenient for podu . Kolams shifted their houses almost as often as they shifted their fields; their houses were small, often containing only one room, and so to rebuild was not much trouble. Their economic resources were much more limited than those of the Gonds. The crops sown and reaped, consisting mainly of small millets, sorghum, maize, and certain vegetables such as beans, taro, and marrows, provided a family with sustenance only for about seven or eight months a year, while during the remaining months wild fruits, herbs, and roots formed the mainstay of the diet. Neither Kolams nor Naikpods grew any cash crops such as cotton or oilseed; for their cash requirements they depended on the sale of jungle produce and baskets, in the manufacture of which they were expert.

Where Gonds and Kolams lived in close proximity, the Gonds usually settled at the foot of the higher ridges and cultivated the valleys, plateaux, and gentle slopes, while the Kolams built their hamlets on ridge tops and cultivated the steep hill-sides below.

At the time of the first demarcation of forest boundaries, many Kolam and Naikpod villages were disbanded and the inhabitants compelled to leave their houses and the hill slopes they used to cultivate. Other settlements, particularly those in the immediate vicinity of Gond villages, were established as enclaves in the forest, and in these were included the hill slopes then actually under cultivation. Though nominally podu was here allowed to continue, the restriction of the land left to Kolams to that under cultivation at the time of demarcation virtually ended their traditional type of economy. After a very few years the slopes included within the enclaves were utterly exhausted, and the Kolams were prevented from clearing any more forest. Consequently they had to move away unless they were able to obtain some level land and learn from their Gond neighbours the art of ploughing. There were in 1941 some Kolam settlements where most inhabitants practised plough cultivation; the bullocks, however, were usually not their own, but were hired from either Gonds or merchants.

The extent to which the Kolams' economy and social organization was broken up by the forest policy of the late 1930s and early 1940s


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can be judged from the developments in the Tilani State Forest. This massif of hills, in many parts broken up by deep ravines, used to be dotted by numerous settlements of Kolams, who could subsist in areas too rugged for the Gond type of plough cultivation. But the policy of forest reservation compelled the disbanding of settlements, and many Kolams moved to Rajura Taluk, where at that time conditions were slightly more favourable.

The fate of those who had remained is exemplified by developments in the cluster of hamlets known as Boramgutta, near Pangri Madra.

In July 1942 Boramgutta consisted of three settlements: A, B, and C. None of the inhabitants had ploughs or cattle. In settlement A, which had existed for more than twenty years, there were eight houses. In 1939 a forest line had been drawn round the village, and only four podu fields were included within the enclave. Settlement B lay two furlongs from A, but outside the enclave. It consisted of four houses, whose inhabitants had moved there from settlement A and cleared a piece of jungle outside the enclave, because they said it was impossible for them to subsist any longer on the small area within the enclave, which after three years of cultivation had become exhausted. But hardly had they sowed on their new podu when the forest guard and the patwari ordered them to go back to settlement A. Tekam Burma, the nominal head of a whole group of Kolam villages, told me about his and his people's plight:

My father was headman [dodomankal ] of eight settlements including Boramgutta, but now most of them are deserted, for the forest officials do not allow the Kolams to stay there. The people of these settlements, who were all our relatives, were scattered here and there, and now we do not even know where they live and which of them are alive.

Settlement C was about a furlong from B and consisted of four houses. Atram Gangu told me of the inmates' experiences:

We used to live in the hills near Revalgudem and Goinna, cultivating now on this and now on that hill. But the forest officials stopped us cutting podu . Then we went to Mangi and cultivated with some Naikpods, but after one year we were once more made to leave. So one year ago we came to Boramgutta and the patwari collected Rs 12 revenue for four households. He did not tell us that we won't be allowed to stay. But a few days ago he and a forest guard came and said that we must leave. Why did they not tell us that before? If they had said so in the hot weather we might have been able to move elsewhere, but now with the maize sprouting and no chance of cultivating anywhere else—what shall we do?


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Similar was the fate of the Kolams of Pangri Madra, the site of one of the most sacred shrines of the Kolam deity Ayak, known to the Gonds as Bhimana. The hereditary priest of that shrine, where every year a festival attended by hundreds of people was held, told me that at the time of the demarcation of the forest lines the village site and all the land of Pangri Madra were included in the reserved forest, and the Kolams expelled. The priest of the shrine felt he could not desert the sanctuary, and he and some families were permitted by Gonds of Chintel Madra to settle on their land. But this was only a temporary arrangement, and when the Gonds needed their land the priest and eighteen Kolam families built a settlement close to the Gond village. But in 1942 the forest officials told them to vacate that site, threatening to burn their houses. These Kolams had neither bullocks nor ploughs, and since they were forbidden to do podu cultivation, they subsisted precariously by doing casual labour for Gonds and selling baskets.

In some places Kolams and Naikpods were able to remain in the reserved forest with the connivance of forest subordinates and patwari , but the price they had to pay for this concession in the form of bribes was usually high, and they knew that they could be told to leave their village and standing crops at a moment's notice.

Forest officers often complained about the Kolams' obstinancy in sticking to podu cultivation, but even those who took up permanent cultivation with ploughs and bullocks did not meet with the encouragement they deserved. This may be demonstrated by the example of Chinna Jheri in the Pedda Vagu Valley.

Chinna Jheri used to be a Kolam village of ten families who all cultivated with ploughs. They owned altogether 250 acres, and Tekam Bhima, who told me the story, possessed a patta and paid land revenue of Rs 35. When the forest lines were drawn he was told by the forest officers that unless he paid them Rs 100 he would have to give up his land. As he could not pay what was then a very large amount, they took away his patta document, and he and all the other households were forced to evacuate Chinna Jheri, without being given any alternative land.

The irony of this case lies in the fact that Chinna Jheri, like all the neighbouring villages in the Pedda Vagu Valley, is now in the hands of non-tribal settlers who have erased the entire forest and established intensive cultivation. No doubt they were rich enough to bribe the forest officers concerned.

Today podu cultivation is a thing of the past throughout Adilabad District, and nobody is concerned about the suffering and misery which the eviction from their ancestral homes and subsequent disper-


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Shrine of the Kolam god Ayak in the forest near Dantanpalli in Adilabad District. 
Idols and votive offerings stand in the shrine; at the back are wooden posts 
erected in memory of departed members of the community.

sal has caused to the Kolams, an inoffensive primitive tribe whose right to live in the wooded highlands was cancelled with a stroke of the pen. Far away from the people whose whole life-style was to be destroyed, the areas to be notified as reserved forest were entered on some map, only too often without any local inspection, which would have revealed that whole villages, inhabited since time immemorial, were thus included in the reserve and turned into forbidden territory.

In the years 1944–47 some Kolams were also allocated land on patta , and there now exist villages where ever since Kolams have lived as settled cultivators. But unlike Gonds, who were already in occupation of permanently cultivated land, Kolams qualifying for grants of land were not easily identified. They themselves did not know how to apply and were not as aware as the Gonds of the facilities then offered to the tribals of the scheduled areas. Hence, many were left out of the distribution of land, and it is these who even now are pushed around by the Forest Department whenever they try to settle in localities where their fathers or grandfathers had lived. When I visited Adilabad District in 1976 and 1977, I met many Kolams who for years had been driven from pillar to post, without finding any land where they could make their home. Two cases may briefly illustrate their conditions.


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Kolam priest with the symbols of the god Ayak: carved wooden staves 
holding peacock feathers. Various ritual objects lie in a heap at his side.

In December 1976 several Kolams of Raurnur came to see me in Kanchanpalli. There had been fourteen households of Kolams in Raurnur, who had lived and cultivated there for more than fifteen years. Though they had paid land revenue to the patwari , there was no record of their occupation in the tahsil office, and in 1973 the Forest Department evicted them and turned their land into a teak plantation.

The fate of the Kolams of Pauarguda was similar. They had cultivated the village land since the mid 1950s, but most of them were evicted by forest officials, with the explanation that their land had been included in the reserved forest. A few of them had money to bribe the forest guard, and they were allowed to continue cultivating, but all the others had to move away, and have since drifted about as casual agricultural labourers.

Another group of Kolams driven out of Yellapatar and Jamuldhara, which used to be old haunts of Kolams, settled in 1959 in Wankamadi and cultivated vacant land lying outside the reserved forest. However, in 1964 their village site and fields were included in the reserved forest, and they were evacuated to other villages. Yet the land in


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Wankamadi which they had cultivated now remains fallow, and the Forest Department has not used it for plantations.

In 1980, when I last toured Adilabad District, there were no major concentrations of Kolams left, and although some were settled in villages of their own, such as Pannapatar and Lendiguda, most were dispersed and subsisted as landless labourers, working for Gonds or nontribal landowners.

The Impact of Forest Policy on Gonds

The effect of the reservation of large expanses of forest on the Gonds was not quite as catastrophic as it had been for Kolams and Naikpods, but it disrupted their agricultural system by restricting the cultivation of light soils in rotation. The demarcation of forest lines drawn round the villages did not take place at the same time in the whole district, nor were the same principles everywhere applied. But the general idea was to include in the reserved forest all those areas which were not actually under cultivation. Thereby a great deal of land which had been cultivated on siwa-i-jamabandi tenure and was lying fallow at the time of demarcation was included in the reserve, and the Gonds were thus deprived of its future use. The grave disadvantage of this for the cultivators did not become apparent at once, but after some years when the Gonds wanted to follow their old routine of re-occupying the fallow lands, they could not do so, as in the meantime the land had been claimed by the Forest Department. In villages with a fair amount of permanently cultivated heavy black soil, this curtailment of the land with light soil did not result in very great hardship, but the Gonds had to lean more and more on the yield of the heavy soils cultivated in the rabi season. But there were other villages, situated on the tops of ranges, where the interference with the cycle of rotation created a very serious problem, for the Gonds of some of these villages, who used to move backwards and forwards between two or three village sites, alternatively cultivating the surrounding land, were now pinned down to the one site which they happened to occupy at the time of the forest reservation. In Konikasa, for instance, I found cultivated land which lay on the highest point of a ridge, so stony that it was hard to imagine how a plough could be drawn through the rubble, and the inhabitants told me that previously they used to cultivate there only occasionally and that land of much richer soil lay further down the hill, but just when the forest line was drawn they happened to be cultivating on the upper plateau, and now they could not move back to the better site and lands.

There is little doubt that the demarcation of the forest lines was


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done in a very haphazard way and depended to a large extent on the amount of money the villagers were able to pay to the forest officials. The Gonds of Harapnur, for instance, described the need of bribing the forest officials as follows:

When the forest officers came they promised to draw the line very far from our village if we gave them Rs 200 (equivalent to circa Rs 3,000 according to money values in 1979). To this we agreed and they set to work while two of us went to our sahukar to fetch the money. But we had had a bad harvest and he would not give us any money. When the two men returned empty-handed the forest officers, who had already drawn the line far from the village, became very angry, changed all the marks, and drew the line right through our fields.

While villages in which at least part of the cultivated land was held on patta were established as enclaves, a number of Gond villages which comprised no patta lands were included in the reserved forest and the inhabitants given a time limit to evacuate the village lands. In pursuance of the policy of forest conservancy, large-scale evacuations occurred in the 1920s, and mopping up operations continued until 1940, creating an atmosphere of unending insecurity.

This policy of clearing large tracts of forest of all human habitation, including old, established villages inhabited for many generations, led to the only case of armed resistance by Gonds in the annals of Adilabad District. That mini-rebellion, as it may be called, is known as the Babijheri incident after the locality in which it occurred. As it clearly reflects the relations between the tribal population and the forest authorities and has found a place in Gond folklore, it merits description in some detail.

The leader of the Gonds at Babijheri was Kumra Bhimu, whose home village was Sankepalli, about five miles from Asifabad. He, like other Gonds of the area, felt a deep resentment that at that time any outsider, whether Brahmin, Muslim, or Komti, could get patta land, but Gonds could not obtain patta rights. Kumra Bhimu, who was an intelligent young man able to read and write, had repeatedly tried to get some land. In his home village most of the land had fallen into the hands of non-aboriginals. After staying for some years in various villages of Muslim and Brahmin landlords, he finally settled in Babijheri. This village was subsequently established as an enclave in the Dhanora State Forest, but those inhabitants who had no patta were told that they must vacate the place. As they had not left by the date fixed, all their houses were burnt by forest guards. Some Gonds and nine families of Kolams got permission to settle at Jhoreghat, a site east of Babijheri, and some land was measured and allotted to individual families by the revenue inspector and the patwari . The forest guard then came and told the Gonds and Kolams that they could clear as


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much forest as they liked if they paid him Rs 500. The Gonds and Kolams borrowed the money, paid it to the forest guard, and cleared some more land. But after some time the same forest guard came again and said that the Rs 500 was only for himself; if the Gonds wanted to stay they would have to pay Rs 2,000 for the forester and the forest ranger, otherwise they would be driven away and their houses burnt as had happened in Babijheri. (It must be remembered that in 1940 Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 were enormous sums for tribals.)

Then Bhimu and four other Gonds went to Hyderabad, and they are believed to have obtained there permission to cultivate fifty-seven acres at Jhoreghat. But when they showed the paper to the forest guard, he still insisted on the payment of Rs 2,000, and again threatened to burn all their houses. Bhimu therefore tried once more to approach higher authorities, and he sent by registered post a petition to the divisional forest officer, with a copy to the second talukdar (subcollector), in which he applied for permission to be allowed to stay and cultivate at Jhoreghat. But the forest ranger sent without the knowledge of the divisional forest officer a party consisting of the forester, several forest guards, and an Arab with a gun to enforce the evacuation of Jhoreghat.

As the party approached Jhoreghat they burned without warning several outlying settlements, and some cattle tied up in sheds were trapped and perished in the flames. The Gonds, enraged by the firing of the hamlets, opposed the party, but without fire-arms. The Arab, however, threatened to shoot Bhimu, and shot him through the hand. At that the assembled Gonds fell upon the party and gave them a good beating. Yet, all the forest officials made their escape and walked home.

It seems that Bhimu and the other Gonds of Jhoreghat decided to resist evacuation by force and that several hundred malcontent Gonds rallied to their support. This was a symptom of bitterness against the forest subordinates comparable to the exasperation of exploited and harassed tribals in Srikakulam District, who in the 1960s and 1970s joined the Naxalite uprising.

Bhimu and his supporters had no revolutionary aims, and their demands were simply freedom from harassment and extortions by forest subordinates, and the right to live undisturbed in their ancestral homeland.

Negotiations with Bhimu and his supporters by the district officers were clearly mismanaged, and were abortive because there was no one on the side of government who had the confidence of the tribesmen. Bhimu refused to give himself up, and when a police party advanced into the hills, where he and his followers had gathered, Bhimu fired a shot without wounding anyone. Thereupon the police opened


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fire, killed Bhimu and ten other Gonds on the spot, and wounded many more.

The incident left the Gonds deeply resentful of the policy of government and particularly of the forest officials, who intensified their oppression and exploitation, using the example of Bhimu's fate as a threat whenever Gonds resisted their exactions.

It was not until four years later that the measures taken for the rehabilitation of the tribals described in chapters 1 and 2 improved the atmosphere in Adilabad and restored the Gonds' confidence in the good faith of government.

At the time when the revenue and social service officers kept a close watch on the subordinates of all departments, harassment of tribals and the extortion of money and farm produce by forest officials diminished considerably, and the discipline then enforced shows that oppression of tribals by minor officers is not an irremediable aspect of Indian village life. It is depressing to record, however, that the period of freedom from exploitation was relatively short and that in the years 1976 to 1979 I heard of many cases of high-handedness and corruption of forest officials similar to those I had observed and reported in the 1940s.

A particularly brutal action by forest officials occurred in February 1979 in Utnur Taluk. Five families of Gonds had settled at Gari Sitakarra, a hamlet of Adesara. The site on which they had built their houses was allegedly in the reserved forest, but for five years they lived and cultivated there without being disturbed. On 23 February a team of forest officials, including the divisional forest officer, came to Gari Sitakarra and rounded up the five Gond families. Without allowing any of the Gonds to enter their houses, the forest officials set fire to the five houses, burning them to the ground. The Gonds had recently sold minor forest produce, such as gum, to which they are entitled, and hence had Rs 1,500 in cash in their houses. As the forest officials prevented them even from re-entering their houses, this money was lost in the flames. When a few days later I talked to the Gonds, they were destitute and were camping under trees.

One of the reasons for the tension between the tribal population and the forest officials is the uncertainty about the status of a considerable amount of land allotted to tribal cultivators on patta by the local revenue authorities but claimed by the Forest Department as reserved forest. Whenever I visited Utnur Taluk in recent years, many Gonds and some Kolams showed me documents on official forms headed "Final Patta" which had been regularly issued by the Utnur tahsildar , but which the Forest Department did not recognize. For years cultivation on much of this disputed land was tolerated provided the tribal occupant bribed the forest guard or forester. But in 1978 the forest au-


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thorities started a campaign to evict tribals from such land and collected fines of Rs 200 per acre on land on which cash crops had been sown and Rs 100 per acre on land under sorghum. These fines were collected irrespective of whether there was any yield and also irrespective of the economic position of the tribals fined. As this campaign coincided with the almost complete failure of the kharif crops and very poor yields of rabi crops, the inevitable result was that the Gonds had to take loans from moneylenders. Nearly all such fines related to land which for years had been in the possession of tribals and for which they had regularly paid revenue. Even some land held on patta long before 1940 has been included in the reserved forest during recent adjustments of the forest lines. Thus, eighteen acres at Marlavai which were the patel's patta land as early as 1941 may no longer be cultivated, but no compensation in either cash or kind has been granted to the owner. It is clearly not possible for illiterate tribals to understand the reason why one government department issues them patta and collects year after year the revenue for the land in question while another department fines them for cultivating such land. Hence they feel themselves to be victims of gross injustice and have lost all faith in the fair-mindedness of government.

An example of the confusion created by the claims of the Forest Department to land long cultivated by tribals is the case of Jamuldhara, on the eastern edge of Utnur Taluk. The Gonds of this village, which I first visited in 1942, have not been given permanent rights to the land they have cultivated for decades, and the Forest Department is disputing the legality of their possession. In an appeal to the magistrate's court in Both, the Gonds won their case, but the Forest Department appealed to the High Court, and there too the decision went in favour of the Gonds. However, no action to legalize the possession of the Gonds by the grant of patta was taken, and the forest officials continued to threaten the Gonds with eviction. It seems that the Forest Department picks on the weakest section of the population and leaves the big non-tribal despoilers of forests in possession of their ill-gotten gains.

The sense of injustice felt by Gonds and Kolams is all the greater as within the past twenty years thousands of acres of forest have been cleared and occupied by affluent non-tribals, most of whom had only recently immigrated into Adilabad District.

Thus in Jamni, a village refounded in 1945 by the Gond Maravi Moti and since then inhabited by about fifty Gond families, people from Maharashtra, mainly Marathas but also some Muslims, occupied part of the village land in 1962 and cleared a great deal of forest. Though they encroached on reserved forest the forest officials accepted substantial bribes and did not object to the illegal felling of


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forest. A similar situation has arisen in the nearby village of Gauri. There fifty Muslim families recently immigrated from Udgir in Maharashtra, settled next to the original Kolam village, and now cultivate land in the reserved forest from which the Kolams had been evicted by the Forest Department. The Muslims were presumably affluent enough to buy the good will of the local forest officials.

The discrimination in favour of non-tribals is borne out by figures provided by the Forest Department in 1976. In the Forest Division including Adilabad, Utnur, and Both taluks, 43,330 acres had been found under illegal cultivation, and of these 39,856 acres had been released from the reserved forest. As hardly any tribals had recently been given new land in forested areas, this large area must have been released to accommodate the large influx of settlers who came from Maharashtra. From 3,474 acres cultivators had been evicted. These were largely Gonds and Kolams; no cases of Marathas, Banjaras, or Muslims being evicted have come to my notice.

Illegal Exactions by Forest Officials

Apart from the problem of tribal land claimed by the Forest Department, which is a frequent source of friction between tribals and forest officials, there is also the continuous irritation of illegal fees collected by forest guards from the villagers. It is an old practice of forest guards to demand from the cultivators annual contributions, usually calculated according to the number of ploughs a man uses for cultivation. In Hyderabad State there was until 1944 a tax on ploughs collected by the Forest Department on the grounds that wood had been taken from the forest for the making of ploughs and other agricultural implements. Though this tax was abolished as part of the liberalisation of the government's policy vis-à-vis the tribals, forest guards continued to extort from the cultivators annual fees which went into their own pockets. The amount of these illegal fees varied from area to area and from forest guard to forest guard. In 1976–77 the forest guard of Kanchanpalli demanded Rs 17 per plough and some small contributions of grain, but the forest guard of Hasnapur exacted much higher fees, demanding for each plough Rs 40 and in addition from each household twenty-five kilograms of sorghum, twelve kilograms of red gram, five kilograms of black gram, and ten kilograms of paddy. Those who did not have these grains had to buy them in order to satisfy the forest guard's demands. Anyone who refuses to pay the illegal fees is certain to be harassed by the forest guard, who can prevent those in his bad books from collecting even legally permitted forest produce and may charge the defaulter with forest offences which had never been com-


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mitted. Today the tyranny of forest guards is certainly as bad as it was in 1940, and there is no indication of any action on the part of the higher forest officers to curb the illegal activities of their subordinates. Much of the Gonds' hard-won cash has to be used to pay such illegal fees to forest subordinates and other minor government servants habitually preying on tribals, as the weakest and least articulate sections of rural society.

In the districts of Warangal, Khammam, and East Godavari the exactions by forest guards are very similar to the practices in Adilabad. It is only in Srikakulam, the district most affected by the Naxalite insurgency, that tribals have become conscious of their rights. There minor government officials are very careful not to arouse the resentment of the tribesmen by illegal demands, and the tribals now have enough self-confidence to resist this type of oppression.

Another form of exploitation of tribals by officials of the Forest Department is recruitment for virtually unpaid labour, both in plantations and for clearing the forest lines. Thus in Tekluru, a Konda Reddi village in the Rekapelli Block, the Reddis told me in 1978 that every year thirty men of the village have to work for several weeks in the teak plantations and that in the end they are given only Rs 30–40 to be shared between all of them. The forest officials exact this unpaid labour under the threat that any Reddi refusing to work would be charged with the offence of having cleared the forest for podu cultivation, which in this area has to be tolerated because its total abolition would condemn the Reddis to virtual starvation. The case of the Reddis of Tekluru was by no means isolated, and I heard similar stories from several other Reddi communities.

It is ironic that the state has not only asserted its absolute right to the forest which its traditional inhabitants always considered their own tribal property, but that the servants of the state, such as the officials of the Forest Department, have no compunction in compelling the original owners to work for a pittance in the forests of whose resources they have been largely deprived. From such a position it is a long way to the scheme envisaged by B. D. Sharma, who suggests that "the local tribal community which provides the labour should be accepted as a partner in the management and sharing of profits. They should not be taken merely as casual wage-earners whose services can be dispensed with at will."[2] It is obvious that the realization of such an arrangement would require a complete change of heart on the part of forest officials, most of whom evince little consideration for the interests of tribals.


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