Telangana’s Kawal Tiger Reserve is nowadays getting a new kind of visitors, not the typical nature-loving tourists, as assembly election candidates of different political parties are thronging this place to woo tribal voters settled deep inside the Jannaram forest.
The 42nd tiger reserve zone in India, located over 250 kms away from the state capital Hyderabad, falls under the Khanapur assembly constituency which has 1.83 lakh electorate and is reserved for scheduled tribe (ST) candidates.
Spread over 893 kms, the reserve is one of the richest teak forests in the state and is home to animals like tiger, cheetal, sambar, nilgai, barking deer, chowsingha, and sloth bear, as also various species of birds and reptiles.
“Campaiging is not easy in jungle,” said Thodasam Nagorao, who is contesting from little-know Prem Janata Dal party, as he got down from a Safari car that got stuck in the forest and he had to walk to reach the Dongapalli village in Jannaram Mandal.
He said reaching ‘Lambada’ tribes is relatively easy in Khanapur as they have come out of the forest area and are doing other works, but the ‘Gondus’ adivasis continue to stay in secluded areas deep inside the jungle.
After delimitation, Jannaram now falls in Khanapur assembly constituency.
With the election campaign peaking, candidates from different parties including the TRS, BJP and Congress are begun frequently visiting these areas with promises to do better work if they come to power.
But adivasis in Dongapalli and other villages appear to be disenchanted with what they call “false promises” made by the present government.
“We are not getting Rs 4,000 per acre incentive from the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) government under the Rythu Bandhu scheme because we don’t have title deeds for our forest land,” said a tribal woman, Rekha Nayak.
She wants the government to give title deeds for the land parcel she owns to avail benefits like other farmers.
“Our land issues have not been solved yet. But the TRS has done some good work and that we cannot deny,” Malyala gram panchayat ex-sarpanch Manik Rao told PTI.
Senior tribal citizens are getting a pension of Rs 1,000 per month and those who have title deeds of forest area are getting Rs 4,000 per acre for two crop seasons under the Rythu Bandhu scheme, he added.
The tribals are keen to come out of the forest life if the government gives them house and the similar land parcels that they own.
Another tribal woman, who makes cane-based products using bamboo from the forests, had a different problem to share.
“We received a free cooking gas cylinder from the government but we are unable to refill as prices have shot up to Rs 1,070 per cylinder,” she said.
As a result, most tribal women have gone back to old ways of using dead wood logs found in the forest for cooking purpose.
A forest department driver D Ashok said, “They have refilled their cylinder only once so far. Normally, the entire village collects the empty cylinders for refilling at a time.”
Some need to hire a vehicle and travel 60 km to get the refill and the transportation charges adds to their burden, he said, showing empty cylinders outside a tribal family’s house.
According to Ashok, there is no grocery store in the village and adivasis have to travel 6-8 km to buy daily-use items and it becomes more difficult in the rainy season to step out of the forest.
Outsiders are not allowed to visit these adivasi settlements without permission in order to check wood felling and smuggling, he added.
As per the state government data, there are more than 26 lakh tribals in Telangana. Besides dominant tribal groups of Lambadas and Gonds, other tribes include Koya, Yerukala and Pradhan.
For this state assembly election scheduled for December 7, a polling booth is being set up in their village for the first time.
“The polling booth will be set up here for the first time,” the ex-sarpanch said pointing out at the gram panchayat office in the village.
Two independents and 10 party candidates are trying their luck from Khanapur. These include Ajmeera Rekha from Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), Ashok Satla (BJP), Ramesh Rathod (Congress), Ajmera Hair Naik (BSP) and Thodasam Bhim Rao (CPI-M).
TRS’ Ajmeera Rekha defeated Telugu Desam Party’s Rathod Ritesh in the 2014 assembly election by a margin of 38,000 votes.