Anxious adivasis of Dewas await CM's visit

By C. Rammanohar Reddy

BAGLI (M.P.), APRIL 20. Close to three weeks after police firing took four lives during a village-to-village operation to recover wood in this adivasi pocket of Dewas district, the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr. Digvijay Singh, has finally found time to visit the area on April 22, to get a first-hand account of the events that led to the tragedy. With an angry and sullen mood still prevailing among the adivasis, how soon life returns to normal will depend on what Mr. Singh says and does during his one-day visit.

In Katukiya, a hamlet of about 600 tribals in the middle of the forests, erect poles and fallen walls are all that remain of the more than dozen houses destroyed during the search operation. The district administration says no completed houses were destroyed. ``Wood was taken only from houses under construction,'' said Mr. Ashok Varnwal, District Collector, in an interview in Dewas town today. But the broken roof tiles on the floor and the remains of household goods strewn around suggest a different story. That in the drive to recover wood the adivasis had collected from the forest, the task force - comprising forest officials, police and labourers - entered houses, pulled down wooden rafters and beams and in the process shattered the mud and thatched walls.

With the Government refusing to admit that houses were destroyed, the tribal habitats remain as they are even weeks after the operation. Since the adivasis have neither the money nor the wood with which they can rebuild their homes, reconstruction will depend on the view the Chief Minister takes during his visit.

The situation is the same in all the villages visited by the task force. No house has been rebuilt and the adivasis insist that no relief has been provided in any village. However, Mr. Varnwal said drought relief work has been in progress in the area.

Six villages were covered by the government operation between March 28 and April 3, which was the culmination of months of efforts to end what the Government says is illegal felling of forest trees by the adivasis. While the adivasis in the first four villages say they had fled into the forest on hearing of the task force's intentions, the police firing occurred at the fifth village, Mehndikheda, where a few hundred villagers had gathered in protest against the attempt to seize wood.

The district administration says the adivasis were armed with slings, bows and arrows and country-made guns, but in the firing it was four of the villagers, including three adivasis of the area, who were killed.

The five independent and citizens' committees which visited the villages after the police firing have criticised the administration for its actions, and also pointed out that the task-force had looted the adivasi homes. Mr. Dileep Singh Bhuria, Chairman, National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, said after a visit to the area that action under the SC and ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989, should be initiated against the officials responsible for the adivasi deaths.

Informed sources say a committee appointed by the Chief Minister toured the affected villages and recommended earlier this week that strong action be taken against the administration for the way it handled the issue and urged the Government to provide substantial relief and compensation.

The Collector said 280 cubic metres of wood was confiscated during the operation and another 125 cubic metres voluntarily surrendered by the adivasis.

He said no further search operations were planned but said arrests would be made soon of the leaders of the adivasis who had urged the local people to resist the Government and continue felling the forests.

Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: April 23, 2001
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