Battlefield 2018

Telangana: Rights Reserved

Harsha Vadlamani
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Has the largest tribe in Telangana turned against TRS?

AS CARETAKER CHIEF MINISTER K Chandrasekhar Rao and other star campaigners of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) flit in and out of key constituencies in Telangana, plucking achievements out of whole cloth and making further promises, a community of over 2 million voters that backed the party in the 2014 Assembly polls is hunkering down and deliberating its status in this new state that it helped fight for. A thread of disenchantment runs through the fabric of Lambada society, which had hoped for greater autonomy in local government, representation in state legislature, progress in the form of employment opportunities and social reform in Telangana. The state’s dominant plains tribe of Lambadas, at over 8 per cent of the population, have traditionally voted for the Congress, but with aggressive campaigning by leaders of the Telangana movement who promised to double Scheduled Tribe (ST) reservations from 6 to 12 per cent, they were drawn into the TRS orbit. In the wake of unkept promises and sinister attempts at social engineering, however, a realignment is now in order, say community leaders.

Forty kilometres southeast of Devarakonda in Nalgonda district, Nerutla, a tribal hamlet of about 50 huts, falls in a rainshadow region that has always lagged behind on socio-economic indicators like literacy, sex ratio and per capita income. On the face of it, solar streetlights, 24x7 electricity and newly-installed drinking water taps under the government’s flagship Mission Bhagiratha project have brightened lives overnight. Young women in wispy polyester saris, distributed free by the government for Bathukamma, a festival endemic to the state, try to keep pace with the scamper of their children. Older ladies in traditional Lambada garb—heavy embroidered and mirrored blouses worn over long skirts—cook supper over open wood-fired stoves. Cows moo in the distance. It doesn’t take long to see through the facade of development in these parts. Look carefully at the young mothers and you see the fatigue and emaciation lining their eyes. Ask what ails them and they reveal realities you would not expect them to share aloud.

“I was ready to kill my baby,” says Sunita Khetavath, a 25-year- old mother of four. A child, her youngest at nine months old, chortles on her shoulder. Sunita’s face remains unrelentingly passive as she talks about abandoning her third daughter as a newborn two years ago. “I had no breast milk and there was no money to feed another mouth. My husband hasn’t been able to work after suffering an injury in an accident, and my daily wages aren’t enough,” she says, folding her calloused hands. Local Anganwadi workers rushed the five-day-old child, weighing 2.5 kg, to a government-run shelter for abandoned infants that facilitates their adoption. “We did not even have a scrap of cloth to wipe the baby after it shat on my arm,” says Devi Khetavath, 40, who works as a helper and cleaner at the Anganwadi centre in Nerutla. It was summer. Devi and Sharada Moodavath, the 30-year-old who is in charge of the centre, were worried sick that the baby would not survive the trip as they took a bus, then hitched a ride on a concrete truck to reach the Shishu Gruha in Nalgonda. The baby was nursed to health and the mother counselled to take her home. More than counselling, what worked was a timely offer by Gramya, an NGO with resource centres in Hyderabad and Devarakonda, to provide the family with food support for six months. The government-appointed Child Development Project Officer, too, made some promises—a house and a loan to meet medical expenses—but these were never to materialise. Upon further counselling, Sunita decided against giving up her third and fourth daughters for adoption but her husband still hopes for a boy. “This is the reality here,” says Devi, mother to three daughters, moved to tears. Ironically, dowry among Lambadas is an artefact of development and access to education. Tribal marriages involved paying ‘bride price’ to the family of the girl and dowry was normalised only in the past two decades or so with the adoption of Hindu practices. Now, poverty and the looming threat of dowry force Lambada couples to abandon, sell, and occasionally, to kill, girl children, who are seen as a drain on limited resources.

“I will have to spend to spend Rs 5-10 lakh on the dowry of each of my girls,” says Sujata Ramavath, 25, dragging a cot out of her hut, a leaky one-room dwelling she shares with her husband, their three children, and her father-in-law. “The problem with raising girl children, more than feeding or educating them, is dowry.” K Chandrasekhar Rao’s Kalyana Lakshmi scheme for the poor, which gives an assistance of Rs 1,00,116 at the time of a girl’s marriage, is billed by party workers as a vote-clincher, but is it enough to curry favour with a community that feels marginalised?

In the four years since Lambada tribals voted for K Chandrasekhar Rao’s party, the government has failed to redefine their notions of progress, community and gender

Seven-month-old Sribhagya hangs off Sujata’s waist, and a chubby boy of four, Dinush, drools over my notebook. Sujata had all but given up her youngest. “When she was two days old, my husband said we should give her away to someone who can raise her well. It’s the right thing to do, there is nothing to feel bad about. We don’t even have a pucca house to live in, although I hear that the government promised it would give two-bedroom houses to the homeless,” says Sujata, who was counselled into taking her child back. She is waiting, she says. Not for a government scheme, but for her youngest daughter to turn one so she can go back to work. Her eldest daughter, seven, is almost old enough to go to work herself, says Sujata, who started going to the fields to pick cotton when she was just eight.

Like most women in the village, Sujata only speaks when spoken to, receding into the background when the men of the village start talking politics. “YS Rajasekhara Reddy gave us pattas for our lands and built houses for tribals under the Indira Awaas Yojana. The Congress’ Arogyasri scheme is what made modern healthcare accessible to people like us living in thandas. What has the TRS done? There is no water in the borewells, what will we do with unlimited power?” says Hanumanthu Ramavath, 30, who is fortunate enough to own two patches of land totalling seven acres. In this thanda, Ramavath, who benefited from the yearly Rs 8,000 per acre farm investment subsidy under the Rythu Bandhu scheme, is an exception rather than the rule. Tenant farmers and landless labourers, who make up the majority, bemoan the rise in prices of diammonium phosphate and pesticides. Since drinking water, directly from the tap and free of fluoride content—notoriously high in the district, and the cause of skeletal deformities—reached the thanda a week ago, residents no longer have to hike over a kilometre to the nearest pond.

For five months of the year, over 20 of the 50 houses in the village remain locked. “They have migrated to Andhra and to Hyderabad for construction work. They will only return for Holi,” says Hanumanthu, who has lost Rs 60,000 on his crop this year. There are no teenagers in the village—they go to the government residential school 10 km away. “Most of them, especially girls, drop out after class 10,” says Hanumanthu. The Kalyana Lakshmi scheme could further aggravate the situation, argues Rukmini Rao, founder of Gramya, which empowers Anganwadi workers, forms village-level child protection committees and focuses on educating Lambada girl children from two of the most backward mandals in Nalgonda. “The scheme has replaced the Congress’ progressive Bangaru Thalli scheme under which financial incentives for girls were linked to education and not marriage,” she notes. Bangaru Thalli, launched in 2013, envisioned supporting the family of the girl child from birth to graduation, culminating in a payout of Rs 1 lakh upon completion of a degree. “The new scheme, on the other hand, only encourages early marriage and the benefits are meant for parents, not the girl children,” Rao says.

Lambadas supported the struggle for Telengana hoping for a bigger chunk of the reservations pie for tribes in the new state. Yet, several still can't afford basic education and healthcare

At the NGO’s residential bridge school for vulnerable girl children—from single-parent or migrant households—Rao, who has worked in the region since 1995, says that the TRS government, under its plan to restructure the schooling system, wanted to shut down 28 primary schools in the Devarakonda division that were deemed unviable because they only had a handful of children on the rolls. “We raised a cry. The region has an abysmal sex ratio of 835 girls to 1,000 boys. And if you don’t support education, attitudes towards girls are not going to change anytime soon,” Rao says.

Child Development Project Officers and supervisors admit they often turn away mothers who come asking after government schemes. “Under the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahayog Yojna piloted in Nalgonda district, mothers were receiving Rs 6,000 upon the birth of a child in a hospital, for the first two children. After the scheme was scrapped, locals became hostile towards ASHA workers,” says Radha Nanavath, 43, supervisor incharge of 100 CDPO centres in Devarakonda. “The KCR kit for new mothers, modelled after Tamil Nadu’s Amma kit, should be given not just for the first two children, but for subsequent institutional deliveries as well,” she says. ASHA workers keep close tabs on newborn girls and attempts to traffic them are reported without fail, she says. “We had three such cases in the past few months where we had to file FIRs. Usually, a warning is enough.”

Kavita Megavath, a 25-year-old mother of five from Megavath thanda, a hamlet of 15 huts that is 20 minutes from Devarakonda, gave away her fourth, a girl, within three hours of birth, to a well- meaning, childless woman from a neighbouring village. “She gave me Rs 3,000 for medical expenses,” Kavita says. The next morning, ASHA workers found out and reversed the ‘transaction’. “We don’t own any land. My husband makes Rs 400 a day working as a mason in the city and the rest of us pick cotton. We are in debt to the tune of Rs 2 lakh because of medical expenses incurred for my youngest child, a boy,” says Kavita, watching 10-month-old Hathiram play under the neem tree, his back to the cotton fields flanking the village. “It costs Rs 10,000 a year to send a child to private school,” Kavita adds. Education and healthcare put a big strain on Lambada tenant farmers like her and Telangana is yet to make major strides in either direction. Kavita’s family does not have a PDS card but they do know that they are entitled to three acres of land under KCR’s promise of empowering every tribal family in the state. In the four years since the residents of this colony voted for a party that promised to deliver them from crushing poverty, the government has failed to redefine their notions of progress, livelihood, community and gender.

Ethnic hill tribes like Gonds, Kolams and Nayakapods have been accusing Lambadas of cornering all benefits. In June, these tribes erupted in protest, boycotting Lambada government employees, especially teachers and policemen

LAMBADAS SUPPORTED the struggle for Telangana— scores of them were martyred in the flame of revolution—hoping for a bigger chunk of the reservations pie for tribes in the new state. The Lambada community, classified as BC or SC in other states, was given ST status under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Order (Amendment) Act, 1976, and its population in the state has since been steadily growing. Considered more developed than other Adivasis, Lambadas are the single largest tribe in Telangana, which has a tribal population of 3.1 million, or 9.1 per cent. The remaining communities, including ethnic hill tribes like Gonds, Kolams and Nayakapods, have been accusing Lambadas of cornering all the benefits. In June this year, these tribes erupted in protest, boycotting Lambada government employees, especially teachers and policemen, from their hamlets. In the hills of Adilabad, now carved up into four districts, the communities came to blows on the streets and tribal schools remained shut for weeks, which will no doubt impact results this academic year.

“Lambadas have not just been cornered over reservations under TRS rule, they feel cheated by KCR who promised to double ST reservations from 6 to 12 per cent. The Gond-Lambada confict is perceived to have been engineered by the TRS to paper over the real issue. Forget giving Telangana a Dalit chief minister, he could not manage to get the Centre to sanction commensurate reservations for Dalits,” says Lambada leader and researcher Bellaiah Naik. Thousands of acres of land cultivated by tribals have been reclaimed in the name of Haritha Haram, the government’s large- scale tree plantation scheme. “The state is not even interested in implementing Central Government schemes for Dalits such as setting up an ST corporation, and getting assistance from the National Scheduled Castes Finance and Development Corporation (NSFDC) in the form of loans to small business,” Naik says. “Naturally, Banjaras are considering their options.”

The community holds sway over 63 seats in the 119-strong state Assembly. One promise where the TRS did come through was the passing of the Telangana Panchayat Raj Act 2018, under which 4,380 new panchayats have been created to better administer villages. Many of them are thandas that have now been conferred gram panchayat status. “The government stopped short of declaring them revenue villages, however. With the result, they are only panchayats in name; they still have to depend on the village administration for funds. Thandas will see no development under the new system,” says S Ramulu Naik, rebel TRS MLC from Narayankhed who has been demanding dedicated polling booths in 1,300 thandas that stand upgraded to gram panchayats. “The TRS has failed the Banjaras at every step. How can they expect votes now?” Ramulu Naik says. “In October 2014, the Chief Minister promised, in the presence of 12 ST MLAs, an MLC and six IAS officers, that he would set up an ST industrial tribal welfare organisation. There has been no talk of it since,” he says. “Give us free healthcare and education, we don’t need your Rs 8,000 farm input subsidy.”

When Ramulu Naik asked KCR to give away two cows to each Lambada family as an extension of his populist sheep distribution scheme, the Chief Minister laughed. “Why cows, why don’t you ask for elephants,” he said. “Elephants will eat us up,” the MLC replied. Even in the safety of its stomping grounds, TRS would do well to remember these words.