Displaced from Chhattisgarh due to violence and excluded from all social security benefits, a number of tribals living miserable lives in neighbouring states are hopeful of a better future, thanks to a "lesser-used" provision in the Forest Rights Act.
Social activists claim thousands of tribals fled Chhattisgarh around 2004-05 due to Salwa Judum, a militia deployed as part of anti-Maoist operations in the state from 2005 to 2011.
"These tribals are living in deplorable conditions in forests of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, without any access to drinking water and electricity. They get lower wages. Most of them don't have ration cards or voter IDs and cannot prove their citizenship," social activist Raju Rana says.
"These states don't recognise them as tribals. They have no right over forest land and remain excluded from all social security benefits. On a number of occasions, police and forest officials have burnt their settlements to push them back to Chhattisgarh," he claims.
There are around 30,000 people living in 248 such settlements in the forests of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and Telangana, close to the Chhattisgarh border, tribal rights activist Shubhranshu Chaudhary says.
Now, some of these people want to return to their state, pinning hopes on the new government in Chhattisgarh and a "lesser-used" provision in the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which recognizes people's right of settlement in forests and gives them a legal document of ownership of their traditional habitation, he says.
"Since their original villages are in the deep jungle, miles away from the main road, and Naxalism continues to be a threat there, these tribals will ask the government to consider their request for land under the FRA provision for 'in situ rehabilitation', wherein alternative land can be given against the one they were forced to leave before 2005," Chaudhary says.
Clause 3 (1) (m) of the Act states, "Right to in situ rehabilitation including alternative land in cases where the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers have been illegally evicted or displaced from forest land of any description without receiving their legal entitlement to rehabilitation prior to the 13th day of December 2005."
Chaudhary claims the provision remains "untouched, as no claim for land titles has so far been made under it".
Facilitated by activists, over 300 such tribals, now living in Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, gathered in Sukma district on June 12 and 13 and filled up forms seeking land rights.
"We have so far filled around just 150 forms for 'in situ rehabilitation' of these tribals. It's a difficult exercise because most of the displaced tribals don't have proper documents," Rana says.
Suresh, 26, a tribal displaced from Bastar, says, "Many people who fled Chattisgarh are living in scattered settlements in Rangapuram panchayat in Telanaga. The Telangana government doesn't recognise us as Scheduled Tribes. We do not have any land there. There's no water or electricity... We make our ends meet doing manual labour."
Vattikosa, 30, who accompanied Suresh to the meeting in Sukma, says they had come with the hope that the government would give them land somewhere else against the land they were forced to leave before 2005.
The Ministry of Tribal Affairs had earlier said it will ask the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh governments to identify tribals who allegedly fled Chhattisgarh due to the Salwa Judum movement and settled there.
"We received a complaint on May 12 stating that a number of tribal families fled to Andhra Pradesh and Telangana from Chhattisgarh due to Salwa Judum. We have to take all state governments on board and verify these cases," a senior official of the Tribal Affairs Ministry had said.
"Once the verification process is completed, we will sit together and decide the next course of action. We will have to see the stand the Chhattisgarh government takes... whether it acknowledges that these were families were displaced due to Salwa Judum," he had said.
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