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By Shubhranshu Choudhary

When violence suddenly escalated in Chhattisgarh due to a government-supported anti-Maoist programme called Salwa Judum in 2005, according to some government figures, around 55,000 tribals had escaped to then Andhra Pradesh leaving their homes behind.

Economic migration of Gutti Koyas (known as Muria in Chhattisgarh) to the southern part of Dandakaranya forest in Andhra Pradesh (now also Telangana) is an old phenomenon. But as per migrated Gutti Koyas, around 80% of migrants today are here due to ongoing violence.

Remains Neglected

The film “The Kashmir Files” has brought the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits to the limelight but Gutti Koya’s displacement remains neglected. Like Kashmiri terrorists, Maoists here have also been killing people who want to return to Chhattisgarh lately but that has not made headlines.

The Telangana High Court had ordered in 2018 that the status quo should be maintained till a permanent solution is found. But the Telangana government has been using the otherwise widely acclaimed Haritha Haram programme to reclaim the forest lands occupied by migrants during the corona time.

Migrants do not own any of the encroached forest lands but taking back these lands for plantation can be a clear contempt of the court that has not been challenged. The State has been giving an explanation that these forests were cut after the court order in 2018 which is not true.

Just before the corona, the Central government announced a Bru rehabilitation plan after consultation with the States of Mizoram and Tripura. Due to ethnic violence in Mizoram, Bru tribals were forced to move to Tripura a long time ago. Some Brus decided to go back to Mizoram, some did not and accepted cash compensation from the Centre.

Complex Problem

When migration is still a hot topic, it is the right time to demand from the Centre that they initiate discussions with all the States concerned to plan a final rehabilitation for Gutti Koyas living in Andhra Pradesh and also Telangana. Chhattisgarh is not bothered much because it probably thinks that this problem is not in its court.

Recently, however, the Chhattisgarh government announced that it will make all arrangements for the migrants who want to return to the State. Maoists were prompt to scuttle the move because they want to use the migrated Gutti Koyas for their future possible return to AP and Telangana exactly the same reason why police here want to push them back to Chhattisgarh.

It is a complex problem. Most of the migrants do not want to go back to Chhattisgarh mainly because the violence is still on, to escape which they have come to southern States leaving their homes. And secondly, a new generation has come up in the last 15 years which sees more opportunities in AP and Telangana than back home in Chhattisgarh.

Expectation from Telangana

As most of the migrants now live in Telangana, the State will have to take a lead role in pushing the Centre for the final resolution of the problem. Officers in Chhattisgarh say like southern States have exported their “terrorists” to our land they have got migrants” problem as a return gift. But this blame game does not help.

There is not much data available to understand the extent of the problem. In an official reply in the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly during the Budget session of 2021, the Home Minister said not a single person had moved out of the State due to the naxal violence, hence there was no question of their rehabilitation back in the State.

Survey Needed

Though Telangana has the maximum number of migrants, no proper survey has been done yet. There are lots of stories about migrants cutting a lot of forests but a District Forest officer recently told me that migrants have done only 1/8th of the illegal forest land encroachment in his district.

The National Commission for Scheduled Tribes had asked Chhattisgarh to do a survey to find out the exact numbers and other details in 2019. Chhattisgarh says they got no help from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana on the subject.

There is a clause of the Forest Rights Act called 3.1.m which can be applied here which talks of alternative land to be given to the tribals when they are “illegally displaced or evicted from forest land under their occupation”. More than 1,000 migrants have applied under this clause in Chhattisgarh but there has been no movement on those applications for years. Telangana lately has asked all the tribals to apply fresh for Forest Rights Act, including the migrants from Chhattisgarh. As the migrants are not treated as tribals in Telangana due a spelling mistake, their applications will be rejected in scrutiny. But if Telangana gives them alternative forest land as per the 3.1.m law against the forest land they left behind in Chhattisgarh that will be a pioneering work in the field of tribal welfare and correcting historic injustices as the Forest Rights Act claims.

Though the 3.1.m clause of the Forest Rights Act has been in place since 2006, Telangana will be the first State to use it to help the poorest section of our society. Telugu Maoists have moved to Chhattisgarh because it has more forest. It is an extension of the conflict in Telangana only. Gutty Koyas coming to Telangana at the time of their distress is an extension of the same old problem and relationship which should not be ignored.

India does not have an Internally Displaced People’s (IDP) policy. We have not signed any international protocols on the subject. It may be the right time to raise this issue during the 75th year of our independence: why should migrants be at the whims of individual States instead of a holistic national policy? Maybe Telangana can take the lead here too by putting pressure on the Centre to demand a national IDP policy which will help all migrants in future.

It is time to demand the opening of Bastar files.

(The author is a peace activist working on conflict resolution)



Author: Howard Caldwell