The last resistance


For the Kondareddi tribals of Kondamodalu the fight – for land that is theirs, for survival – has been the same for centuries. Only, instead of the British, now they are up against the State of India.
Photos: R. Uma Maheshwari

Drawn-out struggle: Kondla Gangaraju, one of the leaders of the movement (left) and the village of Kondamodalu on the banks of the Godavari.

Kondamodalu is one of the most beautiful places on earth. A panchayat of 12 hamlets in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, where have settled the tribal group of Kondareddis, it lies nestled between the Papikondalu Hills and the Godavari river. Forget the cell-phone, not a single telephone line exists here. No doctor has lasted more than three months at the single primary health centre. Now it is slightly better — a doctor is expected every Sunday, for an hour, but it is at his / her discretion.

Roads don’t link these hamlets. But Godavari does. Old boatman Mutyam of Sivagiri (a village on the west bank) and his family are the “ford makers”. Yet another lifeline is the State bus, twice a day, linking Sivagiri with Polavaram, 35 km away. Not during the monsoon though. You don’t mess with time here. A minute lost here or there and you miss the boat, and the bus. Here, you can’t miss the poetry of pathos and an affirmation of survival and life. The place lends itself to drama.

Last post

This had been a region of tribal fituris (revolts) against the British. And today, in independent India, it will be about the last post of tribal resistance to the Indira Sagar (Polavaram) dam. The Kondareddis of Kondamodalu have taken a collective decision and rejected the R&R (Resettlement and Rehabilitation) compensation for displacement by the Polavaram dam. Officials have been unable to coax or coerce the Kondareddis to yield. This dam, when built, will submerge over 94, 357 acres of land (officially) in the Scheduled Areas including Kondamodalu. Officially, 276 villages are listed for submergence in three districts in Andhra Pradesh, besides over 3,223 hectares of forest area, especially within the Papikondalu Wildlife Sanctuary.

Administration in the Agency Areas — a term coined by the British, with an Agent managing affairs in these tribal-dominated pockets — meant shrinking access to the forests from colonial times. Later, regulation of their land — meant to “protect” their interests — intensified their problems. The Kondareddis have accessed the judicial system for the longest legal battles over land and forests, some fought by different generations of a single family.

Since 1960s Kondamodalu has locked horns with the administration in independent India. Through a long drawn agrarian movement between 1960 and 1982, the Kondareddis reclaimed around 3,000 acres of land, grabbed by non-tribal landlords from the plain areas, in Devipatnam mandal (East Godavari) alone. Two young tribals fell to police bullets in 1982 during that struggle. Since then, the Kondareddis have sought legal rights and pattas to that land, but in vain.

llla Rami Reddi, former sarpanch of Kondamodalu panchayat recounts, “In British times the government was always in conflict with girijans on podu. They brought in the reserved forest system. Our grandfathers told us they would demarcate a boundary line we were not to cross. Our people opposed it even then… Many Kondareddis stood up against them, such as Karukuntla Venkata Subba Reddi. We heard once there were revolts for seven long months (in the 19th century). Subba Reddi stopped supplies to the British forces coming in boats between Cheduru, Thutigunta, and so on. Finally, they caught him and executed him at Polavaram and another one of us at Buttaigudem. Vetla Subba Reddi was also hanged in Polavaram. In the past Kondareddis were hill chieftains of Reddi Polavaram until the zamindari estates were set up and Polavaram passed into non-tribal hands.”

“Even after independence our government continued the reserve system,” says Rami Reddi. They used to charge us Re. 1 for kondapodu (two annas before that); we had to give pannu to the forest department and they would give us receipts. We were agricultural labourers on our own land and if we did kondapodu we got into trouble with the forest department…”
In 1917, the Godavari districts came under the Agency Tracts Interest and Land Transfer Act. Barring exemptions granted at the highest level, this made invalid all transfer of immovable property to a non-tribal. The 1959 the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation (APLTR) made null and void any transfer of immovable property in the Agency Areas by a member of the Scheduled Tribe. Transfers could only be affected to other tribals or a registered society of Scheduled Tribes. Things were tightened up still further with Act 1 / 1970. In 1988 the Supreme Court declared the LTR provisions as constitutionally valid.

Against the law
Yet, according to reports of Department of Tribal Welfare, AP, non-tribals are now holding more than 48 per cent of land in Scheduled areas. Madi Muttemma (MPTC member from Kokkarigudem) says, “Non-tribals from Tuni and Samarlakota came here, set up small shops, first, became moneylenders. They took lands when even small loans could not be repaid. Sivaya Patrudu (who was the largest landowner) once invited a few of our people for lunch, and took (in return) over 15 acres! Gradually he became owner of around 300 acres.” The Kondareddis used to labour for the non-tribals for paltry sums such as Rs. 9 or 10 a month; or for free if the landlord happened to be a money lender, too.

Ironically, the Polavaram project makes this further transparent; as most non-tribals have received compensation for the submerged area lands and R&R colony lands.

The Kondareddis got organised in this context, in 1969, under the Agency Girijan Sangham and started working on these issues. Alluri Sitaramaraju was an inspiration. With all their lands in non-tribal control they thought it just to occupy and cultivate them.

The Polavaram dam further complicates things. They want the government to recognise these as tribal lands and not give compensation to non-tribal patta holders. “We do not need R&R colonies,” says Rami Reddi. “We need lands first. We seek pattas on lands. We have been cultivating. What use are colonies without land to feed us? Our homes have a place for everything, cattle, goats, hens… Most R&R houses are made like they were meant for slum-dwellers in cities like Hyderabad! Displaced tribals from the Bhupatipalem, Surampalem, Musirimilli and Kovvada projects are yet to get land. NGOs had thronged like ants over a lump of sugar then, but finally the girjians are left fighting court battles. We have fought a long battle without arms. We seek implementation of the Acts meant for tribal people.”

Godavari the picturesque (for the tourists) and Godavari as money (for those building the dam) are twin realities of today. For the tribal people, it is the same old struggle — land, forests and everyday survival; with Godavari, the lifeline.
Till date, Kondamodalu remains in the “black books” of the Government functionaries. Things always reach late here, so also the officials with their “cheque books”, even as the Kondareddis continue with their stand on the Polavaram project. With the project being cleared and being pitched as one of the high points of the “farmer-friendly” (read “irrigation-projects- friendly”) YSR Government, officials are busy clearing the field in all other villages except these few in Devipatnam mandal, including Kondamodalu. This mandal is particularly known for a mind-boggling number of disputed tribal land cases. It would be interesting to observe the election campaigns and promises in these parts as the tribal communities become choosers and not beneficiaries, at least during the election process, if not later.

The article is based on the author’s work on tribal land alienation and is supported by the NFI Media Fellowship