The road divides. On one side of the road in Narsapur village in Telangana’s Adilabad district are the thandas or the Lambada homes, usually pucca and many with cars and two-wheelers parked outside. Across the road are the kuchcha Adivasi hutments and sheds that lie in the shadow of the concrete Lambada homes.
As the mistrust between Lambadas and Adivasis – a collective term used to refer to Gonds, Thotis and other Scheduled Tribe groups, minus Lambadas – spilled over on December 16, with Lambada houses in Hasnapur village being attacked and their properties damaged allegedly by Gonds, many point to the road and the inequalities it represents. Not just in Narsapur village, but in Hasnapur, Heerapur, Dasnapur, Narnoor, all villages that make up the Lambada belt in Adilabad.
They also point to how the Lambadas own 60 per cent of the land in at least four mandals of Adilabad – Utnoor, Jainoor, Siripur and Narnoor – while the Adivasis work as farm labourers.
“Over the years, the Lambadas have become financially strong and it is much easier for them to take loans which they invest in their fields – to invest in purchase of seeds, fertilisers and pay for farm labour. A good harvest helps the Lambadas become richer while the Adivasi farm labourers stagnate,” says K Vivek Vinay, working president of Girijana Aikhya Vedika, an organisation that represents Adivasis.
He adds that the resentment is deeper because the Adivasis believe that all the land originally belonged to them and that the Lambadas, who came much later from Rajasthan and other states, usurped it decades ago.
The tussle is over the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status, with Adivasis saying Lambada youths corner the six per cent ST quota in jobs and educational institutions. They want the ST status for Lambadas, which the government instituted in 1971, to be withdrawn. There are an estimated 25 lakh Lambadas in Telangana, which makes them the largest tribal group in the state. The 30 tribal communities that make up the rest of the ST population, including the second largest tribal group of Koyas, together number about 5 lakh. Adilabad is the only district in Telangana where Adivasis outnumber Lambadas, who form 30 per cent of the population, according to the 2011 Census.
“You go to the thandas and you will see how well-to-do they are. They have pucca houses — 2 or even 3 BHKs. In every house there is at least one person who holds a government job: a teacher, a revenue official or someone in the judiciary,” says Sunke Yadaiah, 60, a resident of Heerapur village, who works as a farm labourer.
He adds that Lambadas are under the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in neighbouring Maharashtra “but lakhs of them came and settled in Adilabad decades ago and they were included in the ST list. Due to their large population and better education, they ended up taking all the jobs”.
While the Adivasis have issued a general diktat demanding that the biggest tribal group be excluded from the ST category, much of the anger and heartburn against the Lambadas is directed at their presence in teaching and revenue posts – much coveted jobs, which the Adivasis feel have lifted the Lambadas out of poverty — in the notified tribal areas of Adilabad.
In the notified areas, which are known as Agency or forest areas, only those on the ST list are considered for government jobs. With the government running nearly 400 tribal schools in the notified areas, most of these jobs are in the education sector.
C Kalyani and R Soumika – friends and roommates at the girls hostel at the Jawaharlal Nehru Technological University, Sultanpur, in Telangana’s Sangareddy district. The two girls realise that back home in Adilabad, their friendship would be frowned upon – Kalyani belongs to the Primitive Tribal Group (PTG) Thoti, while Soumika is a Lambada.
Both Kalyani and Soumika are products of Star-30, a special coaching programme of the state tribal students’ welfare residential schools in Adilabad district. Both cracked the JEE (Mains) exams earlier this year and were offered admission at JNTU Sultanpur.
“Both of us got admission in the ST quota. Both our communities are STs but while Adivasi communities are only now coming out of their backwardness and going for higher studies, Lambadas had a headstart because they realised the value of education much earlier,” Kalyani says.
An official of the Adilabad District administration says on condition of anonymity, “As only ST candidates can be selected in the notified areas of Adilabad for all government jobs, the quota is 100 per cent for the 32 tribal groups under the ST category. However, it is a fact that Lambadas get most of these jobs because they are better qualified, with most of them graduates or post-graduates. Almost all the Revenue Department officers in the notified areas are Lambadas.”
For instance, the 2017 admission data for the two-year BEd course at the College of Teacher Education (Tribal Welfare) at Utnoor, the epicentre of the tribal agitation in Adilabad district, shows that of the 100 candidates selected, 30 were Lambada, 23 Gond, 15 Kolawar, 14 Koya, 8 Naikpod; 7 Pradhan; 2 Kolam, and 1 from the Andh tribal community.
Soyam Baburao, ex-MLA and the man behind the December 16 Adivasi agitation, says that in the 36 medical colleges of Telangana, 64 per cent of seats under the 6 per cent ST quota have been taken up by Lambadas. “It is their better financial and academic background which makes them eligible while Adivasi students who really deserve the benefits of quota are left out. Over the last few years, Adivasi students from Gond, Koya, Manne, Thoti tribes have graduated from engineering and other colleges thanks to government schemes, but they don’t find jobs because of the high number of Lambadas that they have to compete with in the 6 per cent quota,” he says.
Lambadas, however, say the success of a few from their community should not be used as a yardstick to exclude them from the ST quota. “The families of teachers and revenue officials in Adilabad district’s notified areas and those who migrated to cities such as Hyderabad to drive cabs or become security guards may have done better than the Adivasis, but a vast majority of Lambadas still live in poverty. In remote areas of Nalgonda, Mahbubnagar and Khammam districts, Lambada couples still sell off or give up their newborns for adoption because they are too poor to take care of them,’’ says B Kotya Naik, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Dr Ambedkar University.
Experts say the visible presence of Lambadas in teaching jobs can be attributed to a policy decision in 1983. Then, as part of his plan to boost development in the tribal areas, then chief minister N T Rama Rao, who had founded the Telugu Desam Party a year before, issued an order to appoint SSC or Intermediate pass students as teachers in the newly-established tribal schools.
“At that time, only the Lambadas qualified. The Adivasis never went to schools then and even if they did, most of them dropped out. Hardly anyone passed SSC or completed Intermediate. Those Lambadas who became teachers at that time inspired others in their community to educate themselves,” explains Naik.
B Sanjeev Naik founder of Sevalal Sena, the biggest organisation of Lambadas, however, claims that unlike the popular perception, Lambadas have a lower literacy rate when compared to some of the other tribes. “While the literacy rate of all STs in Telangana is 6.3 per cent, it’s 7.7 per cent for Gonds, 6.5 per cent for Koyas and 5.6 per cent for Lambadas,” he says.
Though much of the Adivasi anger was directed at the visible presence of Lambadas in education, the immediate trigger, says Soyam Baburao, ex-MLA and the man behind the December 16 agitation, was “cultural”. The differences between the Lambadas and the Adivasis came to the fore after a statue of a Lambada deity, which went missing from the Kumaram Bheem Tribal Museum, was destroyed allegedly by Adivasis. “Lambadas are not tribals… why are they being represented in the museum of Kumaram Bheem (Adivasi leader) who is like God to us? In Hyderabad, the government is building separate community halls for Lambadas and Adivasis, then why did they build this common museum here,” he asks.
As the mistrust grows, so do rumours. “It has not been made public yet but we have come to know that the government is thinking of adding two new communities — Kaithi Lambada and Valmiki Boya – in the ST list,’’ says Baburao.
The Tribal Welfare Department, however, refused to confirm this, calling it a “sensitive issue”.