16, Jan 2023 | A Legal Researcher
Increasing forest cover has been advocated as one of the more important measures to deal with climate change related problems. To create carbon sinks, India is set to increase its forest cover from the current 25% to 33% of the total area and for this, different programmes have been initiated. In Telangana, a flagship government programme called Telangana ku Haritha Haram (literally translates, this means ‘A green necklace for Telangana’) has been initiated. One of the many impacts of this programme was that the farmers who were using the forest land for generations, in Bhadradri-Kothagudem district of Telanagana, were asked to give back the land to the government so that “forests can be grown”. This led to conflict between the formerly Podu (Slash and Burn agriculture) cultivators who are now settled in forest regions of the state and forest department.
Podu — a term that means ‘slash and burn mode of agriculture’ is now used to refer to all types of cultivation in the areas neighbouring the forest, and has been a recurrent issue in the region. While previously, some indigenous tribes used to engage in this practice of burning the forest, cultivating for a cycle and leaving the land, this practice actually ended long ago and people have settled down in their lands. The story of these Podu lands and the difficulties faced by the indigenous peoples in getting their land rights under the Forest Rights act, 2006 is something to be studied closely. This is one side of the story i.e., of the local forest dwelling people of the state. 
Among its four pillars of action, the land and livelihood rights of Adivasis and traditional forest dwellers, is one. CJP, with its expertise in navigating cases of human rights violations in the courts and beyond has been active on the issue; partnering with the All India Union of Forest Working Peoples (AIUFWP) since 2017 to battle any setback to these rights in the courts. This includes legally fighting back against malicious prosecution of leaders of the community and defending the Forest Rights Act, 2006 in the Supreme Court. We stand with the millions of Forest Dwellers and Adivasis whose lives and livelihoods are threatened. Please support our efforts by donating here.
Another story is that of migrants from, who have found themselves in one conflict after another. Gutti Koyas, a tribe originally living in Chhattisgarh (the tribe is known as Mura in Chhattisgarh)[i], had to escape the long-standing conflict that has ensued between Maoists and Salwa Judum- a counter insurgency militia consisting of tribal youth and backed by the Chhattisgarh government. They migrated to the nearby forests of the then combined Andhra Pradesh and Odisha and as a result, a considerable population settled in what is now the Bhadradri-Kothagudem district of Telangana.
Naturally, these communities which migrated needed land for sustenance and they also depended on forest in terms of minor forest produce etc. However, since these are relatively new communities to come into the area, their occupation of land has always been viewed as “encroachment of the land” which has to be taken back. There have been conflicts between all Adivasis in that area and the forest department regarding the reclamation of land. Gutti Koyas, however, had a weaker claim to the Podu land compared to other tribes of the region and this fact, too has strengthened the view that “Guttikoyas are encroachers who are illegally living in the area”. Moreover, although they are considered as STs in Chhattisgarh, they do not enjoy the same protection in Telangana. According to Article 342 of the Indian Constitution, the President, after consultation with the Governor of the state, notifies the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in that particular state. Therefore, the list for Telangana and Chattisgarh would be different and thus, the Guttikoyas’ ST status in Chattisgarh does not translate into ST status in Telangana.
Recently, a forest range officer’s death in the district involving two Gutti Koyas as the accused has attracted much attention, giving the Gutti Koyas notoriety. The media’s sensational coverage of the officer’s death worked to further vilify the community. This resulted in a gram panchayat passing a resolution to “evict Gutti Koyas under its jurisdiction and sent back to Chhattisgarh” post the incident.
This (gram panchayat) resolution was termed as bad in law by the Telangana High Court since the Panchayat does not have the authority to evict the Gutti Koyas. The government argued that the Gutti Koyas have become “habitual offenders and should be evicted”.
However, this is only a small respite for the community which is now facing an angry forest department, cautious politicians and a volatile future. There also have been demands from the Forest Department officers to grant them arms so that they can defend themselves. This demand is yet to materialise. According to officials, 30 acres of land has been “encroached upon” by Gutti Koyas in the Khammam district.
Why should Guttikoyas be Protected?
Essentially, even though Gutti Koyas are not STs under the Telangana law, they are vulnerable due to the special circumstances they are in. Neither can they go back to their state which they left some 20 years ago and nor can they find themselves a piece of land that will not be reclaimed by the forest officials. There were instances in which the Gutti Koyas were made to work for extremely low wages, so that their dependence on forest can be overlooked by the forest officials. Therefore, without the status of STs and without a place to call home, these Internally Displaced Persons (ISDPs) face violence, persecution and different forms of exploitation. And given that their displacement was a result of conflict- their trauma, and reasons to not go back to their state are huge. This calls for special protection of the community which is absent not in reality but also in discourse.
Different ways of solving the issues are being explored by the government but it does not seem like there is a consideration of Gutti Koyas as people who need to be protected. The death of the Forest Range officer has dominated the public discourse and opposition to Gutti Koyas living in the district has increased. It is therefore yet to be seen what decision the government will take on the repatriation of Gutti Koyas.
Image Courtesy: Rohit Jain
 Nichole Schwab, Bharavi Jani, Here’s why forest restoration is key to India’s ambitious climate goals, World Economic Forum, March 23 2022, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2022/03/forest-restoration-india-ambitious-climate-goals/
 VV Balakrishna, Why does podu land issue continue to simmer?, Indian Express, 23rd November, 2022, https://www.newindianexpress.com/states/telangana/2022/nov/23/why-does-podu-land-issue-continue-to-simmer-2521158.html
 Ayesha Minihaz, With no place to call home, the Gutti Koya tribe fights for survival, December 29, 2022, https://frontline.thehindu.com/social-issues/with-no-place-to-call-home-the-gutti-koya-tribe-fights-for-survival/article66281629.ece
 WRIT PETITION No.43618 of 2022
[i]Koya are an Indian tribal community found in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. Koyas call themselves Koitur in their dialect. The Koyas speak the Koya language, also known as Koya basha, which is a Dravidian language related to Gondi. Koyas are commonly referred to as Koi, Koyalu, Koyollu, Koya Doralu, Dorala Sattam, etc. Koya tribes can be further divided into Koya, Doli Koya, Gutta Koya or Gotti Koya, Kammara Koya, Musara Koya, Oddi Koya, Pattidi Koya, Rasha Koya, Lingadhari Koya (ordinary), Kottu Koya, Bhine Koya, Raja Koya, etchttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koya_(tribe)