Chenchus set to vote, but woes remain – The Hindu 22-4-2009

K. Venkateswarlu
Andhra Pradesh tribals live in pathetic conditions, with little or no access to health care

Chenchus set to vote.
Photo: G. Krishnaswamy

For decades, democracy remained a distant dream for the aboriginal Chenchu tribes in the Nallamala hill ranges of Andhra Pradesh. They hardly had a chance to vote freely, caught in the crossfire between the Maoists and the police. Every time an election was round the corner, it sent a shiver down the spine of these backward tribals who still eke out a livelihood picking gum, honey, berries and roots from the forests. They dreaded elections because the Greyhounds, the special anti-naxalite force of the Andhra Pradesh police, would start hounding the Chenchus out of their conical bamboo huts deep inside the forests. Often, they would be dumped on the plains miles away and left to fend for themselves. The police had looked upon the Chenchus with suspicion, because of the belief that the Maoists relied on them for food and shelter. First time But now, for the first time in several elections, they look forward to voting on April 23, without fear of the police β€” and the naxalites. Relentless police operations over the last three years have forced the Maoists to shift their base from the Nallamala hill ranges to forests in Chattisgarh and Orissa. And, unlike in the past when they had to trek long distances to vote, polling booths have been set up close to their pentas (clusters of habitations). β€œYes I feel happy about voting in the booth near my home. I need not walk down to Chintala 12 km away as was the case earlier,” said Gangaiah of Chinna Arutla, a habitation just off the hilltop shrine of Srisailam, from where the Maoists emerged from their 20-year-old underground struggle to participate in talks with the government in October 2004. Voting rights Chenchu voting rights might have been restored, but that does not mean an end to their problems. Trekking through their habitations from Srisailam to Rollapenta one can see the poverty, squalor and pathetic living conditions. They trek 20 km to 40 km to collect forest produce and sell them, often only to be cheated by middlemen. A separate Integrated Tribal Development Agency for this Primitive Tribal Group has helped, but not to a great extent. An annual budget of Rs. 15 crore, though modest for a Chenchu population of about 40,000, should have made a perceptible change in their living standards. But it has not; with no monitoring worth the name, there is a lot of corruption and leakages in the schemes. The result is a mere five per cent literacy, despite having schools and buildings; malnutrition, infant mortality, scabies, gastroenteritis and malaria and now HIV afflict them, adding to the concern about their already dwindling numbers.