Thrown out of forest, Chenchus rot in hunger, penury
Though the government boasts of the ST subplan and thousands of crores allocated for the welfare of STs every year, the ground reality is stark as thousands of the eligible tribals dont receive any fruits of those schemes
Giddalur (Prakasam district): Though the government boasts of the ST sub-plan and thousands of crores allocated for the welfare of STs every year, the ground reality is stark as thousands of the eligible tribals don’t receive any fruits of those schemes.
The pathetic condition of Chenchus is an example to know why they are still digging earth for five to six feet deep to get tubers to eat for survive and why they are sleeping in shifts in front of their huts beside the campfire.
The Chenchus in Nallamala forest, spread across around 4,000 square kilometre in five districts in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, are forced to flee from the forest into plain areas by the National Tiger Reserve Authority orders, in the name of protecting the wild animals in the Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR).
According to the 2011 census, there are 64,227 Chenchus in the Prakasam, Kurnool and Guntur districts of Andhra Pradesh and erstwhile Nalgonda and Mahboobnagar districts in Telangana.
The Chenchus are used to live in the forest in hamlets with population of around 100 to 150 and are dependent on the forest produce like leaves, roots, tubers, soap berries, gum and honey along with agriculture in small plots. They sell the produce at meagre prices once in a week to purchase essential commodities.
Caught in the crossfire between naxals, smugglers, poachers and the forest and police officials, most of the Chenchus migrated to plains leaving their natural habitat. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006 or simply Forest Rights Act, recognised the rights of Chenchus over the forest produce and collection of it became the major livelihood for them.
The Andhra Pradesh government even distributed about 7,500 acre land in the forest bordering plains to a few Chenchus for agriculture purpose. But in 2017, the National Tiger Reserve Authority issued orders that the Chenchus living in the NSTR region, which is also notified as the critical tiger habitat, has no right to call the forest as their home and have no right to enter it for even collecting the produce. Since then, the forest officials are not allowing the Chenchus into the forest and even booking cases occasionally.
The Chenchus living in the tribal hamlet at 3 km distance from Jillela Pullala Cheruvu village in Racharla mandal is an example of how their lives have been shattered after the banishment from tiger reserve. After several warnings from the forest department, about 20 Chenchu families agreed to leave the forest last year.
In 2018, the Giddalur division forest range officer Nageswara Rao and tahsildar Elizabeth Rani tried to help them and provided pattas for two cents of land and ordered them to construct a hamlet and notified it under the JP Cheruvu village. In the place bordering the forest, the Chenchus received just a piece of land to stand, but the officials forgot to provide a livelihood to them.
The males in the houses go to Giddalur and nearby villages and towns in search of work while the women take care of the children and elders in the hamlet, apart from spending two to three hours of time to fetch a pot of water from a tank at 3 km distance.
The panchayat sends a water tanker to the hamlet once in four or five days, but it is not enough for the use in daily chores. Yadagiri Ramanamma explained that the women make two to three trips, spending four to five hours on water only. Though the government helped them have a hut, the officials forgot to pave a road and provide electricity or any other basic amenities.
Pamula Chenchu Vijay Kumar explained that the people are bringing odorous and coloured water with worms from the open tank and using it for drinking purposes after filtering. The people are suffering from diseases due to the water and wild mosquitoes, but have no road to shift them in emergencies. He also mentioned that as they are living beside forest, there are instances of wild animals spotted near by them.
Due to the fear for life, he said that the half of the elders in the families stay awake in the night as guards in shifts at night. He said that they make camp fire in the middle of habitat and use torches to scare away the wild animals. Yadagiri Balakrishna said that if the claims of governments was true on ST sub-plan, their habitation would have been provided with basic infrastructure.
A few Chenchus living in habitations under Markapur, Yerragindapalem, Giddalur Assembly constituencies confessed that they were forced to venture into the forests owing to meagre earnings in work. Though they do seek the forest produce, their main purpose of venturing into forest is food. They said that the Chenchugadda, a type of root and a type of gum are saving their lives at the times when they have nothing to eat.
They explained that they dig the earth for five to six feet to cut the roots and collect the gum from the trees. They boil the fresh roots like sweet potatoes and dry them to make powder for later use as starch. The gum is also mixed with water to dissolve and consumption of which would them kill hunger for a few hours.
Chenchus demanded that Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu see his orders are implemented at the ground level. One of the Chenchu leaders said that they read in newspapers that the Chief Minister ordered the officials to purchase five acre land for one family even by spending Rs 10 lakh and give it to Chenchus for agriculture purpose.
He said that though they met the MLA and local officials multiple times, no one received at least one acre of land. He said, if they have the land, they can eat the millets or rice by cultivating them and even save it for future to save their family members from hunger.
This situation is not only limited to one habitation in Prakasam district, but almost all habitations formed in the last few years are in the same state. It is also the pathetic story of other tribal families in all states where they lost the right on the forest due to several orders and Acts.
By Naresh Nandam & PY Khan