Land and Exile

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The remains of the IDP settlement of Erragotta that was burnt down by the villagers of Maamillavaye on the 10th of November, 2009.

Maamillavaye at Aswapuram Mandal, at Khammam District is an Adivasi village that a road leads to – after that there’s nothing but the jungle.

There are some seventy Koya families at Maamillavaye and their ancestors first started to cultivate land here more than a hundred and fifty years ago. Recently, there has been a steady increase of Muria coming in from Chhattisgarh. There have always been two or three Muria families in the area but now there are about 16 families.

Most of them have escaped the Salwa Judum – Naxalite civil war, and a few families have escaped the recent upsurge in violence. All of them are classified as Internally Displaced Persons. They have no land rights, no ration cards, no voter IDs. The ones who have been living at Maamillavaye for over four years, recently got their NREGA cards with the help of the Koya villagers, but they barely get work.

They live in fear of being uprooting again – they have no promised land.

Now, resources are a matter of contention at Maamillavaye. The sixteen Muria families have to build their settlements on about 10 acres of land – ‘a gift’ from the Koya. Their settlement called Erragotta has a rivulet which is drying up – it flows from Maamillavaye. Even in November, they need to dig into the riverbed to get water – it truly is a drought year. Then of course, the water from the handpump at Maamillavaye also has a high content of fluoride – the rusted smiles of the Koya women are a perceptible symptom.

Eventually, the issue of land started to reach boiling point. The new IDPs began to cultivate land that the Maamillavaye Gram Sabha did not permit them to cultivate. Their grazing animals started to feed on their cultivated land. They started cutting trees that they shouldn’t have cut. They blocked passageways. They started petty fights. The Koya fears of the infamous Muria ferocity started to fuel xenophobia.

Irritations led to frustrations that led to further resentment.

The Koya are not quite affluent – not everyone in the village has land. The seventy families have to do with around 350 acres, that is, roughly five acres per family yet there are disparities in distribution. There is greed. There is a need for self-preservation – a need to feed ones own children that outweighs all other needs.

Eventually, their tolerance reaches breaking point – they go to the police to deal with the Muria. The police don’t do anything for a resolution or a compromise. The Koya are further aggravated.

They call a few Muria villagers to talk. Instead, the Muria villagers go to talk to another Sarpanch, annoyed that the Koya had gone to the police first. The Koya feel ungrateful.

One evening on the 10th of November, 2009, there was a confrontation between the Muria and the Koya, tempers flare, there’s still no compromise and eventually some forty of the Koya villagers burnt the IDP settlement of Erragotta – all the fifteen homes that housed the sixteen families.

The IDPs go to the police. They are now told by the police that nothing should happen to Maamillavaye. No more violence. No retaliation. If anything happens to the Koya, they will all be held directly responsible.

The Muria are furious that there’s no one for them.

When I reach the village, I find about forty angry villagers. I came to find out about what happened in Chhattisgarh and if any of the new IDPs wish to talk to me, they can. Unfortunately, they all lie. There are no new IDPs in the village when we all clearly see they are there. But they’re afraid that if anyone finds out about the new ones, they’d be sent back to Chhattisgarh, or informed to the police. The Muria can be fantastic liars at times especially when they’re afraid. And I don’t blame them – they have good reason to be scared.

A few days ago, at another village that I shall not mention, a long running land dispute between locals and migrants, led to a local villager informing the police that there’re naxalites amongst the migrant settlement. Truth was, this ‘naxalite’ wanted more land – and wasn’t heeding to warnings. He was eventually shot dead by the police and many of the IDPs were sent to jail and booked under the Andhra Pradesh Public Security Act.

Now, for the IDPs at Erragotta everything is about land – about this promised land in Andhra Pradesh – this temporary heaven. Hell with what happens in Dantewada.

A few of the families hope to return to Dantewada to cultivate their own land but that is a faraway hope.

Eventually, at Erragotta, a team of social workers and lawyers from Sewa, ASDS, the Human Rights Forum and Telangana Rashtriya Samiti arrive. From a fact-finding mission, it turned into a need to find compromise between the two villages and two tribes – they were going to take the angry villagers to angry villagers.

Slowly, with tentative demeanour, they began to walk towards Maamillavaye. A small group of Muria villagers from Erragotta followed. The women walking ahead.

Maamillavaye is less than five hundred metres away from the IDP settlement of Erragotta. One Muria villager from the IDP settlement told me ‘I’m not going so far’, when I asked him if he would get water from the hand pump at the village when the river dries up. There is genuine intolerance here. Good fences don’t make good neighbours.

Walking across, two of the oldest friends – one migrant and one local, both senior citizens come together first, and mumble to one another, wary of the other crowds. I’d give a million acres to find out what they were thinking.

One of them was Ramaiya, a Muria man who has lived at Erragotta for more than ten years. He has 25 acres bodu land, and is the spokesperson for the Muria families.

Finally, a few local villagers begin to get chairs for their distinguished guests. The village elders are also seated. Yet it takes time for the villagers of Maamillavaye to arrive.

The migrants all sit quietly at one end of the road, blocking it entirely. The locals arrive, slowly, and sit too far away from them. There is very little eye contact. Eventually the local crowd outnumbers the migrants. Yet they’re still sitting too far from one another, talking amongst themselves as children run amok in the background. We finally coaxed them to sit closer to one another as we told them that we need to take a picture. That was a cheap trick.

Eventually, it begins. First the complaints, heard one by one, every person is given a fair chance. Yet it didn’t take more than five minutes before Ramaiya – stood up, shook his fist, screamed at the whole Koya lot, and gestured to all of his people to leave. Tempers hit the sky – everyone was screaming vociferously – all the activists and the lawyers were standing in the middle of two opposing tribes rushing at one another – trying desperately to mitigate the crowd. This was exactly how the huts at Erragotta were burnt down.

‘No compromise.’ Said Lawyer Advinarayan, as I watch the Muria walk down the long road leading away from Maamillavaye. The swan-white marshmallow clouds would begin to blush – it was dusk now. The hills that curved across the road were darkening. Oddly enough, that was all forest department land.

As of now, there are corporate land grabs further marginalizing marginalized communities – what more needs to be said about what is happening at Chhattisgarh? 99 SEZs have been approved in Andhra Pradesh alone. There are always going to be a thousand more Maamillavayes and a thousand more Erragottas.

Back to Maamillavaye, Ramaiyas discrepancies were exposed for all the villages to know. A few of the Muria did return to talk. And I noticed, some of them didn’t leave. Everyone would now be speaking in separate groups about different things. My translator vanished. And I wish I could understand what everyone was saying – so much was even lost in translation before, now there was too much too translate and no one to do it for me.

Eventually, I find out that Ramaiya even went so far as tell the village elders of Maamillavaye that he’d get rid of all the IDP families and keep all the land to himself. This happened when the elders of Maamillavaye raised concerns about the increasing number of new families. Apparently, Ramaiya was encouraging the cutting of trees and cultivation of land. According to some villagers, Ramaiya had around twenty five acres for himself and wanted more.

The Koya and the Muria agreed to a compromise once Ramaiya was out of the picture. Two acres for each IDP family. The Koya even promised to help rebuild the homes of the Muria. There would also be no more indiscriminate of cutting trees. No more blocking of passageways. Two acres is enough for the Muria who hope to return to their land in Chhattisgarh someday.

A tentative happy ending.

Meanwhile, Ramaiya would be sitting on his haunches at Erragotta before the remnants of destroyed homes – his family sitting quietly behind him. He would calmly say that he has land elsewhere and would leave this place.

A very tentative happy ending.

(7) Comments Write a comment

  1. Woah, Javed,
    very very good report. I liked the writing so much. I like the way you explain, slowly, gradually, all the complexity of the situation. I like the micro angle, because it helps to understand the macro phenonmenon, much, much more.
    I’ll wait for the next piece of omelette…

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