At first sight, Sunnamvari Matka, a tiny tribal hamlet in the Vararamachandrapuram mandal of Khammam district, looks like it has been ravaged by a forest fire. Charred tree stumps, roofless huts, burnt bushes, scattered utensils and earthen pots present a picture of tragic destruction. But the fear in the eyes of the 40-odd Gothi Koya tribal inhabitants tells a different story. A team of AP forest rangers trekked here one afternoon recently and burnt every hut in the village. They then beat up the villagers with lathis, and threw their clothes and foodgrains into the bonfire.
Originally from the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, these Gothi Koyas have been periodically fleeing the crossfire following the tit-for-tat violence unleashed by the Salwa Judum against Maoists in late 2005. Since Khammam shares a 150-km continuous forest border with Dantewada, it has emerged as the most preferred haven for the Gothi Koyas who always live inside the forests. But their stay on this side of the border has been anything but peaceful.
Outlook finds the men and women huddled around the remains of their lives as the children look on listlessly. "They're friends," our interpreter K. Ramana tells the silent group in the Gothi Koya (Muria Gond) dialect. Madakkam Kosaiah is the first to speak. "The men were more than 10, in khaki. They told us they were forest officials. Without warning, they rained blows on us, including our womenfolk," he recounts.
Gothi Koyas traditionally live off forest produce, doing work like collecting mahua flowers (used to make a strongly flavoured local liquor), plucking tendu leaves (for beedis), collecting fruit or bark used in herbal medicines. They either sell or exchange these in the nearest market for cereal, chillies, dry fish and salt. Red ants found on forest trees are a major source of food. In the rains, they fish in the rivulets of the Godavari.
Tribal welfare activist groups like Sitara and Medecins Sans Frontieres working in Khammam district put the count of migrant Gothi Koyas upwards of 20,000. Termed Internally Displaced Persons, these Gothi Koyas seem to be caught between the proverbial devil and the deep sea. Leaving behind their lands and even close family after several disturbances in the Dantewada region (which has 60 per cent forest cover and 82 per cent adivasi populace), the Gothi Koyas seem an easy target for the forest department.
In Kothur village of the thickly forested Chintur mandal, forest rangers have burned dwellings of 30 Gothi Koya families thrice since January this year. Not even once were villagers served notice or given warning. Their clothes, money and paddy stock were burnt to a cinder.
When asked about the incidents of huts being burned by forest rangers, district forest officer (IFS) of the South Bhadrachalam division C. Sarvanan says, "Our main concern is to prevent encroachments as per the AP Forest Act, 1967. On receiving news of any encroachments, rangers rush to the spot and give tribals time to vacate. If not, the leaders in the group are arrested and produced in court. We cannot allow precious forest reserves to be lost to podu (shifting) cultivation tribals resort to. In this case of hut-burning, it appears that our staffers lost their temper. We are looking into the matter."
Sheikh Haneef, who has been running medical camps for migrant Gothi Koyas in Khammam, says it is wrong to accuse these people of deforestation. "Agriculture is not possible on such impromptu basis. And Gothi Koyas use the barter system to get paddy or other grains. Collecting forest produce and tendu leaves is their main occupation."
In Sunnamvari Matka, the tribals complain they are also forced to work for free as daily labourers. Madakkam Laxmi and Podiam Deva talk of how six of them worked in a forest department nursery in Yenkampalem village. They dug pits, planted trees and built fences. "When we asked for our payment of Rs 3,600, we were threatened," says Deva.
Patavinayakapuram and Billudigudem villages have some 500 Gothi Koya and Koya settlers from Chhattisgarh. Right on the state's border, these villages are Maoist strongholds which makes life twice as miserable for the tribals. "If government officials don't burn our houses down, Maoists come in the dead of the night to beat us up, calling us Judum informers," says Chodi Dulaiaya.
Pradeep Prabhu, activist of the Kashtakari Sanghatana, says the Scheduled Tribes & Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2006, has for the first time recognised the rights of adivasis living in the forests for centuries. However, the cut-off date for proving they're settlers is 2005. Many who've fled the Salwa Judum violence in Chhattisgrah can't prove their ownership of land. "The Gothi Koyas are the victims of a war which is not of their making," says Prabhu, "but a result of the state's approach to Naxalism: by creating Salwa Judum, the Chhattisgarh government has pitted brother against brother, community against community."
Prabhu laughs off the forest department suggestion that Gothi Koyas are cutting down forests. "We ignore timber merchants who clear hectares in no time. When Gothi Koyas grow crops in already existing forest clearances, we call it deforestation," he comments.
Nobody seems willing to do anything about the plight of the Gothi Koyas, least of all the Andhra government. Shashi Bhushan, district collector, Khammam, says that while the AP government has no policy specific to the migrant Gothi Koyas, "the forest department has the mandate to protect forests against encroachment—and these tribals tend to encroach". "Of course," he adds, "no one has the right to burn huts or beat villagers. I've asked the Bhadrachalam sub-collector to conduct an inquiry." And so the buck passes on, while the Gothi Koyas continue to live in terror.