The Muria Gonds (Gutthi koyas) are one of the indigenous tribes that inhabit Chhattisgarh. Being the most prominent sub-caste of the Gonds, they dominate the populace of the tribes in Chhattisgarh. The Muria tribesmen primarily reside in the dense forest zones of Narayanpur Tehsil and Kondagon Tehsil of Bastar District. Unlike the primitive social outcasts like the Abhuj Maria and Bison Maria tribes who live isolated in secluded corners of jungles, the Murias are more advanced and broad minded and live in the open, amidst the vast rolling plains and valleys. Muria economy is predominantly agrarian. They get their income by cultivating rice in the monsoons, working as farm labourers and supplement their incomes by selling the seasonal forest produce.
The Muria Gonds have been migrating into Andhra Pradesh for over a decade. They have mainly migrated into Khammam and Warangal districts. The Murias, though considered more advanced than a few of the tribes in Chhatthisghar, are still very socially backward and live in extreme poverty. A survey done by AID organization on the Muria’s suggests that, there are 1000 or more children in the 4th grade of malnutrition and some of the children who are nearly 3 years were still unable to walk. They lack access to proper health care or education. In the Warangal district the Murias have made their way in to the forests of the Eturnagaram Wildlife Sanctuary, a Protected Area. Our team from HyTiCoS went to study this place and understand the crux of the issue.
Eturnagaram wildlife sanctuary is one of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries in Andhra Pradesh. The sanctuary is 803sqkm of Dry deciduous Teak Forest and Riverine Forest with low hills on the banks of river Godavari. This sanctuary is home to the largest Gaur population in the state and is considered the sacred abode to the country’s most popular tribals gods; Sammakka Sarakka. These sacred and biodiversity rich forest are now under threat because of the migration of Muria Gonds from Chhattisgarh. According to The Times of India report dated June 9, 2013, we have lost a whooping 10,000 hectares of Telengana forestland only in the last three years. We have estimated that the migrations began 18 years ago. Taking these statistics into consideration, we suspect that the state of the forest in these areas is worse than what has been comprehended.
There are 39 settlements currently in Eturnagaram sanctuary with most of these settlements deep inside the forest. The numbers of settlements are increasing year after year and thus posing a grave threat to the forests and wildlife.
The migration of the gutti koyas into the forest has been portrayed as an unfortunate result of the naxal problems in Chhattisghar. We had conducted a ten day study of all the known gutti koya settlements. Through this report, we aim to explain and analyse the main reasons behind these migrations that is occurring in huge numbers even today. We will also explain the problems that this migration is causing to the local tribal populations and the forests.
During the survey, we observed that, Gutti Koya tribals are highly skilled people. They have the capacity to live deep inside the forest completely isolated from the world outside. They go in search of a suitable place close to a water body, clear the forest, construct houses and start farming. They have the ability to walk more than 20kms if not more, just to reach a town on the outskirts of the forest, making this is one of the main reasons for their successful migration into Eturnagaram Reserve forest. They are skilled in hunting wild animals. Though there are 39 settlements recorded in the forest, the forest department officials suspect that there are many more villages deep inside the forest which are inaccessible by a vehicle or even the forest officers.
The genesis of the problem can be seen as the need of land for agriculture and the demand for cheap labour. The estimates suggest that there must be around 1.2 lakh people who have migrated over a span of ten years into Andhra Pradesh. Although the percentage of immigrant population is more in the Karimnagar district than in Warangal, our study focused mainly on the migration of Gutti Koyas into the Eturnagaram Wildlife Sanctuary.
The Gutti Koya tribesmen are very hardworking people who are ready to work with daily wages as low as 25-30 rupees a day. Though this has now increased to Rs. 100 per day, it is less than the wages of the local labourers. Their willingness to work at such low wage made them a highly demanded group of agricultural labours. The farmers found it cheap to employ them on fields and encouraged their migration in larger numbers. The Gutti Koyas saw this as a good opportunity to earn a living and get easy access to forest land and thus began migrating in large numbers. This unrestricted migration has resulted in a wide variety of problems in the forest of Andhra Pradesh, especially Eturnagaram.
Myth versus Reality!
The Gutti koyas are migrating to Andhra Pradesh as a result of the atrocities they are facing in Chattisghar due to the Salwa Judam.
80% of the Gutti koyas settlements in Andhra Pradesh have come in search of land for agriculture and living .
The Reality about the Naxal Problem and the Gutti Koya (Muria Gonds)-
Most of the Gutti koyas have migrated from three districts of Chhattisgarh (Bastar, Dantewada and Sukuma). These are districts which have been recorded as districts affected by Left wing extremism. The Tribals living in the Somaguda, S.T colony and Gondala cheru are the main areas in the Eturnagaram sanctuary where Gutti Koyas have migrated due to the naxal problems. The rest of the 30 villages we visited clearly stated that they came in search of land and not because of naxalism. They needed large areas of land for cultivation which they could not obtain in their state. Thus, when the land became insufficient for their family they migrated to the forests in Eturnagaram. During the survey, we interacted with one of the Gutti Koya tribals, Mr. Gangiah, he said “I have migrated to Eturnagaram due to the free and easy availability of land in this region. I am also planning to help my brother migrate to this region once I have occupied enough land in the forest”. This shows how they found this place to be suitable for farming. The local people and the officials are slowing beginning to accept their existence, thus encouraging further migration.
Through our study we’ve learnt that these Tribals have not migrated all at once. People have been migrating into the forest of A.P for over twenty years. Some have migrated before the Naxal problems began and a few after the introduction of Salwa Judam in their villages. But it is important to remember that most of them have migrated in search of lands and are continuing to migrate even today.
Most of the newspaper and civil/ human rights organisation reports have highlighted the suffering of the G.Ks. But they fail to assess the rampant deforestation and degradation caused to the forests which G.K’s consider their temporary home. The problems observed and studied have been listed below.
(according to the A.P state of forest report, 19.28sqkm of forest have been degraded due to encroachments in Khammam which is the highest in the State followed by 6.66sqkm in Warangal.)
The Gotti Koyas are engaging in very unsustainable farming practices. Once they settle down in an area, they begin to clear the forest around them for farming and expand the farm areas every year. They create pockets of open non-forest areas within the dense forest. They use the tree trunks as a whole to make houses, fences and for cooking. Even though they have been warned on a number of occasions by the forest department not to cut more trees and only collect twigs for cooking, they have paid no heed to these warnings and continue to destroy forests around them. They on an average cut one to five trees per day per person. And at this rate the forest will deplete drastically in a short time.
Land rights and Identification cards- Through our talks with the gutti koyas in the sanctuary , the officials of ITDA and the MRO office we drew the following conclusion. The gutti koya have strong political backing and this is helping them get the required identification cards and land rights.
As explained in the human rights organisations report The g.k have a right to get an identify and employment, but by providing them these services while they will inside the wildlife sanctuary cannot be a sustainable solution.
Koyas and the Gutti koyas-
The koyas, one of the local tribals in A.P have adjusted to the presence of gutti koyas in their area. They initially they were against the migration but over the years they have learnt to tolerate them. In some areas, people prefer to have gutti koyas around as they work better at lower wages, than the local laborers. Because of this reason in some areas the locals have invited them to live in the forests. But in other places the local resent the fact that the gutti koyas are able to cultivate acres and acres of land inside the forest whereas the koyas are force to be restricted to their field.
Gutti Koyas and Forest department-
The forest officers have been trying to evacuate the villages for years now. They have tried all means possible from verbal threats to physical abuse. There have been instances where the government officials have burnt houses and transported them back to the border. But the gutti koyas always find their way back. They refuse to leave the forest and are not scared of being arrested. (The Beat Officer Chiranjeevi ….? had booked a case against g.k in his beat for cutting trees inside the forest.) In most cases the arrests have been to an advantage for the gutti koyas. Whenever a member of the gutti koya gets arrested for cutting trees or encroachment, the politicians come to their rescue. They ensure that the gutti koyas are free. Along with giving them their freedom, the politicians ensure that they get some kind of benefits like a ration or Adhaar card. Thus, the gutti koyas have learnt that getting arrested puts them in the limelight which works to their advantage.
The department has been taking bribes from the gutti koyas as well. A confidential informant for the government told us how some of the beat officers are themselves aiding this encroachment and profiting from it. The problems that the forest department are facing with the gutti koyas don’t end here, as the gutti koyas encroach the interiors of the forests, the locals living around are cutting down the forests the from outside.
NGOs role- The Siri and the Lodhi foundation are the two main organizations working to provide education, medical aid and other facilities to the gutti koya villages. By providing these facilities the gutti koyas find no reason to leave the forest, as everything is being delivered.
The gutti koyas find the forests lucrative to live in. They have access to a water source, large areas of land, medicines, education, fire wood and food. The forest department needs to work with the ITDA and provide them lands outside the forest. They need to help the people who have been genuinely affected by the naxal problem and those people who are living in Eturnagaram for more than ten years. The gutti koyas are worried that they may not get jobs outside the forest and fear the language barrier. The ITDA should take up the role of education and provide them jobs when they leave the forest. A further detail assessment needs to be done regarding this problem and the problem needs to be tackled from the roots.
Swetha along with the Murias
Links for news reports-
with inputs from Swetha