Poor rehab programmes a threat to forest dwellers

Thammaya and Basamma Malekudiya in Parapal Village, Narhe Grama Panchayat. -Photo/ Govindraj Javali

The woes of tribal communities, whether they are relocated from the forest or are staying in the forest, seem to be never-ending. A decade ago, Puttanna Malekudiya, a tribal activist, was in the forefront of a campaign opposing the State government’s move to rehabilitate tribal people residing in the forest. The harassment by forest officials forced him to compromise over his stand and relocate from Navoor, one of the hamlets within the Kudremukh National Park (KNP). Puttanna, today, has become a pale shadow of his former self.

Puttanna’s woes began when his family refused to share the compensation received from the government. The cash windfall resulted in the disintegration of a joint family culture. His application seeking title deed (evidence of legal ownership of land provided by the government) for his plot in Nallur Gram Panchayat in Karkala taluk, to where he was relocated, was rejected.

“Gram panchayat and gram sabha said his land was located in deemed forest area,” informs his neighbour Vasanthi Malekudiya who was relocated from Kuthlur in KNP. But, the same committee had issued title deeds to the members from the Koraga community who were residing in the same area, she adds.

“Village Forest Committee or Grama Sabhas are constituted in a manner such that no one speaks about the rights of tribals in the forest,” informs R V Chandrashekar Ramenahalli of Centre for Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, who has conducted extensive studies on the rehabilitation and re-settlement of tribal communities in Karnataka. 

Thus without a title deed, Puttanna was also denied door number, electricity and other basic facilities. Puttanna’s debts mounted as he was forced to dig a well by borrowing nearly Rs one lakh at a hefty interest from money lenders. “As the panchayat supplies water once in 45 days, I had to take a loan and dig the well,” he said.

Dinesh and Krishnappa Malekudiya who relocated to Kukkujebail in Shirlalu Gram Panchayat reveal being neck-deep in debt. “The entire compensation amount was spent on making the land cultivable. My application for a borewell under the Ganga Kalyana yojana is pending with the panchayat for years,” Krishnappa rues. His neighbour Vishwanath who relocated to a village near Peradka ended up buying a land that was registered in the name of another buyer.

Chandrashekar says National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had declared that alienation of land was a loss of the economic right to a tribal. Thus each tribal family under the FRA was entitled to a minimum of two to four hectares of cultivable land. As much as 30% of 1.5 lakh tribals residing in the forests across the state had been rehabilitated so far and not one of them had received four hectares of land, he told DH.

Sources in the Forest Department said 227 families residing in KNP (covering Dakshina Kannada, Udupi and Chikkamagaluru districts) were rehabilitated and Rs 68.95 cr was paid as compensation (until 2017). Karnataka Rajya Malekudiya Sangha General Secretary, Gangadhar Idu says, nearly 80% of the tribals relocated from KNP are in a pathetic state and are struggling for survival.

A comprehensive rehabilitation package for Malekudiyas promised by the State government in 2004 is still a distant dream. Malekudiya families from Kuthlur and Naravi in KNP were rehabilitated in 2004 to Girijanara colony, near Arasikatte in Naravi Gram Panchayat limits in Dakshina Kannada district. The colony still does not have basic infrastructure like water supply and street light. In 2010, Dakshina Kannada district administration had reserved 196 acres of land in Sulkeri in Belthangady taluk for Malekudyia families who were residing in the forests without any land records. But a major portion of the land was encroached by vested interests. 

Meanwhile, the legal battle between the State government and plantation owners who own acres of forest land in Naravi continues with no solution in sight.

Indigenous communities residing in the forests are not fortunate either. They have been facing endless harassment and are under the constant threat of relocation. “Kullule (sit down), lakkule (get up). We get to hear only these two words from the officials,” Thammaiah Malekudiya and his wife, Basamma, explain their situation in Tulu language. The elderly couple from the Malekudiya community had relocated to Parpala forest in Neriya Gram Panchayat in the 1960s after being evicted illegally from the Banjarumale forest by plantation owners. The elderly couple is in possession of the saguvali chit (certificate of grant) issued by the Beltangady tahsildar in the 1980s.

Yet, the forest rights committees at the gram sabha and divisional level rejected their application seeking title deeds for five acres of land and allocated 2.70 acres of land on a barren hill. Standing in the verandah of their tiled house, Thammaiah says suicide is the only choice if they are served an eviction notice.

Diog B Siddi, a leader of Siddi community in Haliyal taluk in Uttara Kannada district, says his memorandum on issuing title deeds to 1,100 members of the community, submitted to the government recently has drawn no response. 

On the high rate of rejection of title deed claims at the grabha sabha level (14,77,793), Karnataka Adivasi Rakshana Parishat President, M Krishnaiah, told DH that forest rights committees headed by an assistant commissioner and deputy commissioner are ignorant of the provisions of FRA.

No advocates for tribals  

“State ST welfare department has not provided a single advocate to help tribal people defend their claims,” Krishnaiah said. Incidentally, Ministry of Tribal Affairs had written letters to chief secretaries of states on June 29, 2018, on ensuring the right to appeal, review and re-verification by the gram sabha, which was not followed in a majority of rejected claims. 

Karnataka State Legislature Petition Committee report submitted to the government in 2012 and a study on the Malekudiyas in 2018 by Talasamudaayagala Adhyayana Kendra, NLSIU, had recommended the uplift of forest dwelling scheduled tribes through a support system and hand-holding agencies.

Former chairman of the High Court Committee on displacement and rehabilitation of tribals, Prof Muzaffar Assadi, says, “FRA recognises the right to land and culture of tribals.” 

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Poor rehab programmes a threat to forest dwellers

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