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Indian villagers still stranded a decade after Maoist clashes

Tribals victimized by rebel land poachers and government apathy

Indian villagers still stranded a decade after Maoist clashes

Displaced tribal villagers fled to Andhra Pradesh state due to a Maoist insurgency in their Chhattisgarh state home

Shawn Sebastian, Hyderabad

April 7, 2014

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After more than a decade of living in exile, the tension and mistrust between tribal villagers, who fled a Maoist insurgency in central India, and local officials in Andhra Pradesh state continues unabated.

A variety of social and cultural issues have prevented the displaced from fully integrating or being accepted by the local government, leaving tribal families unable to receive government services, such as education, healthcare or infrastructure support, while leaving them vulnerable to disease and malnutrition.

The displaced villagers seem to be victimized twice – first by Maoist rebels who encroached and then claimed their land, and second by Andhra Pradesh officials, who believe that since the villagers come from rebel-controlled areas that they must remain under Maoist influence.

Makamarishu fled his Chhattisgarh state home with his family and 51 other villagers in 2001 after Maoist insurgents slowly took root in their forest and began demanding a greater share of the region’s scarce resources. Eventually Makamarishu’s group crossed into Andhra Pradesh state, making a portion of a reserve forest their home. Now, they are part of a larger tribal migrant community of about 20,000 people settled in the thick forests of Andhra Pradesh’s Khammam and Warangal districts.

Two serious incidents that occurred over last few months highlight many of the problems faced by displaced tribals in Andhra Pradesh.

In one, a tribesman from the Sunnamedukka village, picked up on charges of theft was later found dead in police custody, which the police said was suicide.

In another incident in Chimilavagu village, forest officials destroyed 23 tribal houses citing illegal occupation of forestland.

Most of the stories are under-reported due to the inaccessibility of the region as well as the reluctance of local media to report on controversial issues that involve the state.

Most migrants were compelled to leave their homelands due to the Maoist insurgency in Chhattisgarh, which reached its peak in 2005. Local activists say that since the migrants come from a Maoist-infected region, police in Andhra Pradesh look at them with suspicion and forest officials charge them with illegally occupying government forestland. Local officials want the displaced to move back to Chhattisgarh.

“There is a case against me for illegally occupying the forest land; I have to visit police station every week,” says Bhimrao, village head of Sodepadu, who has made a small patch of forestland his home since 2003 along with 23 other families.

He says harassment by police and forest officials have persisted since the time they arrived.

"It is a warlike situation in some of the IDP settlements, with frequent visits by paramilitary forces doing things as they wish," says Janrela Ramesh Babu, a research scholar in Osmania University, Hyderabad.

The Maoist movement, known locally as Naxalism, began in 1967 when mostly tribal peasants in eastern West Bengal state began an armed struggle against feudal lords, demanding land rights and basic dignity. Fighting then spread across central and eastern India. Thousands have been killed during the insurgency as the violence continues to make headlines. Last year, 394 people were killed, with 110 deaths recorded in Chhattisgarh, the Times of India reported.

Meanwhile, water scarcity and health care remain serious issues among the tribal villagers.

“We are forced to walk for 2 to 3 kms to fetch water as most of the natural water sources in the forest get dry during peak summer,” says Makamarishu, a resident of Sunnamedukka village.

Lack of potable water means the displaced are vulnerable to disease and illness, such as malaria and chronic diarrhea, local officials say. In addition to social insecurity, Babu says the displaced also are victimized by a loss of livelihoods and a lack of access to education. Since they are not recognized as state inhabitants, they do not benefit from welfare schemes. Government officials very often use this very same reason to neglect the displaced.

“Since they are not officially recognized as a tribe in our state, we are not in a position to help them,” says D. Divya, the Project Officer of Integrated Tribal Development Agency in Andhra Pradesh. However, she stressed that since the tribal community fled due to humanitarian reasons, the authorities will not ask them to leave, placing the community in a sort of Catch-22 limbo.

Many local NGOs have been aiding the community by helping them obtain identity cards and land titles. But the process is tedious, time consuming and often unsuccessful, due to apathy among the local administration.

Gandhi Babu of the Agricultural and Social Development Society, a grassroots level organization aiding displaced persons, told that the tribal communities have a constitutional right to freedom of movement.

“No one can question this,” he said.

However, cultural and social issues have inhibited the tribal community’s ability to integrate and for the local community to accept them. For example, tribals do not speak the local Telugu language or Hindi, making it difficult to communicate with local authorities. Identified as outsiders by local tribes, the migrants lead a reserved life deep inside the forest, Gandhi Babu said.

But he and other activists say that the absence of a larger policy framework on a national level to address the concerns of displaced persons remains the larger problem.

The recent death of a fellow villager and growing insecurity has not made the residents of Sunnamedukka village think of returning home and believe they will not be received there anyway.

“We have been living in this forest land for the last 13 years and this is our home now,” says Makamarishu, holding his three-year-old daughter.

"I wish to send her to the local school here," he said. 

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