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Many reserved seats remained uncontested in first-ever panchayat elections in Jharkhand
The rapidly changing demography of Jharkhand, a state carved out of Bihar in 2000, has given a disturbing twist to the panchayat elections held in the region after more than three decades. Perhaps for the first time in the country, there were no candidates even to file nominations in a large number of panchayat seats reserved for members of the Scheduled Tribes (ST). No nomination was filed for almost 2,000 posts in the first three rounds of the five-phased panchayat elections.
The reason is not hard to find. The official machinery relied on old population data to identify seats reserved for tribal candidates and failed to take note of the changed demography. As a result, many villages without any tribal population have all the seats reserved for ST candidates.
In Jarudih panchayat of Giridih district, for instance, 28-year-old Prem Besra won the ward member’s seat uncontested on November 27 when the first phase of polling was held. In a neighbouring ward of the same panchayat, there is tough competition between four ST contestants. Seats of mukhiya and ward member have been reserved under the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) of 1996.
The Act reserves all local bodies’ posts in Scheduled Areas for ST candidates. In non-Scheduled Areas, 50 per cent posts of local body members are reserved for ST candidates. Groups opposing PESA have been fighting it out in courts. This has been cited as the main reason for the delay in the three-tier panchayat elections, even though the State Panchayati Raj Act was notified in 2002 (see ‘PESA reservation’).
Rameshwar Kesu, a tribal mukhiya candidate from Madhupur block of Deoghar district, supports reservation. “I am able to contest the elections only because of reservation. But I am also aware that many seats will go uncontested or without any candidate because there are no tribals in the area,” he said. Of the 350 wards in Kanke block near Ranchi, 35 went without any nomination.
In the nearby Ratu block, of the 122 wards, posts of seven ward members remained vacant. In the first phase itself, the State Election Commission (SEC) received reports of 100 cases where nominations were not filed. Dumka district, which falls in the Scheduled Area, did not see polling in 32 booths. “General category people who are more in number than the reserved category boycotted these booths,” said Manish Tiwari, a resident of Jama block in Dumka.
The problem is not reservation, said Arvind Kumar, who has been working on tribal rights since 1982 through Lok Jagriti Kendra. “Instead of recognising village as a unit, officials have used block statistics to decide the population category,” he said. This data too is almost a decade old since the last census, held every 10 years, was conducted in 2001. While a block may have an overall tribal population, certain villages within it may not have any. Too many seats have gone uncontested and vacant.
Niraj Kumar of Sathee (Society of Advancement in Tribes, Health, Education and Environment) believes immigration is responsible for the changed demography. “The total tribal population of Jharkhand was 26 per cent in 2001. Now, that number has changed because of immigration from other states,” he said.
Till 2005, Godda town had around 30,000 families, but the number has grown to 80,000 families now, said Kumar. Over the last two decades, Sathee has conducted several social audits in the region on population and resource distribution.
But the SEC claims it never went wrong. Asked about the discrepancies in allotting reservation, State Election Commissioner S D Sharma said: “We have gone by the book. The district category lists were put up in 2002. There was enough time to rectify any problem. These are just gimmicks to derail the elections.”
Details of the seats that go uncontested, he said, will be studied in January and by-elections for these posts will be conducted in March. Despite PESA reservation and fear of Maoist violence, the average voter turnout in the first three phases was 70 per cent. “Numbers clearly reflect people’s will and enthusiasm,” argued Sharma.
Jal, jungle, zameen
The elections have rekindled hope of bringing about a change in Jharkhand’s image of a backward state. The candidates are talking about roads, housing, schools, hospitals and equal distribution of resources, while also raking up the issue of protecting “jal, jungle, zameen” (water, forests, land).
“The fight over these three was the soul of the struggle for a separate state. But it is forgotten now,” said Lokman Ansari contesting for panchayat samiti member’s post from Dalha village in Madhupur of Deoghar district. Ansari said if elected, he would focus on securing irrigation.
Shiv Lal Kishu, who used to be an NREGS rozgar sevak, resigned to contest for mukhiya’s post from Patharjud panchayat of Jamtara. “We need to focus on sustainable sources of irrigation. That will help us overcome all other problems,” he said. Education is the main concern for Prabha Devi, a zilla parishad candidate in Deoghar district. “When I come to power, I will ensure every village has a high school and access to a college within two kilometres,” she said.
But the main work will begin after the elections, said state Panchayati Raj secretary S K Satpathi. Panchayats will assume five crucial powers that are now vested in the block development officer (BDO)—public distribution system, primary health, primary education, water and sanitation and anganwadis. “The new members may take some time to start functioning. This is why from January 2011 our department will start holding capacity building workshops,” he said, adding that Rs 6 crore has been set aside for the purpose.
Sunil Kumar, the BDO of Madhupur in Deoghar district, describes elections as a landmark. “The polls will lead to a tectonic shift with democracy replacing bureaucracy,” he said.
In a state that does not give land rights to tribal women, the overwhelming participation of women in the elections has come as a surprise. As per the SEC data, 108,051 women are contesting, almost half the number of total nominations. Roshan Fatima, a panchayat samiti candidate from Nari village in Bedo block of Ranchi, has organised 10 local self-help groups in the past five years.
She comes from a BPL family. Roshan is very clear about what she wants to do if elected. “There has been misallocation of BPL cards in our village. This is the first thing I will change,” she said. There are some puppet candidates too. Dhadiya Devi, a Dalit contesting from Topatan village in Jamtara district, never stepped out of her house to campaign.
“My husband and relatives went around asking for votes. I only pray that when I get elected I will be able to save some money for my daughter’s wedding,” she said. She has six children, her eldest daughter studies in an intercollege in Jamtara.
Contractors try their luck
“Most contestants are contractors and middlemen. They enjoy good support due to the little work they have done for the community,” said Amar Nath Pathak, a stringer for a local Hindi daily. Prahlad Yadav, contesting for mukhiya’s post in Goradih village of Jamtara, owns a tractor that carries construction material from town to village. “Politics is my hobby. I earn very little from my land as agriculture is rainfed, so I have this side business,” he said. Seven candidates, five of them contractors, are opposing Yadav.
Badri Narayan Shah, who claims he has nothing to do with contracts, is one of them. Probed further, he admitted getting some village roads built. “My foremost concern is to build houses under Indira Awas Yojana because more than half the people here live below the poverty line and do not have houses,” Narayan says.
Contractors have brought in development. “In absence of local governance, enterprising contractors have worked for villages,” said Arun Vinayak, member of Judav organisation and Civil Society Election Watch.
In Jharkhand—often described as a failed state due to its history of political instability and corruption—panchayat elections have given hope of change. A change that will give impetus to democracy.
Photo Feature: Shades of Jharkhand's first panchayat election