Low voter turnout in Gadchiroli was result of misinformation spread about Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, say activist
Non-tribal people from 13 villages in the tribal Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra boycotted the state elections to register their protest against the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act. The villages, located in the Chamorshi tehsil, saw no more than 15-20 per cent polls.
In the last couple of months, Gadchiroli district has been seeing a lot of non-tribal opposition to PESA Act. The situation, said Satish Gogulwar of the non-profit Amhi Amchya Arogyasathi, which works with tribal people of the district for their health and rights, has arisen out of a misunderstanding following a directive issued sometime ago by the state governor Vidyasagar Rao.
“In this directive, governor has asked state government to reserve posts in government services in the area of health and education for local tribals in areas covered under PESA,” said Gogulwar. The step was taken to curb the phenomenon of absenteeism on the part of government employees.
Gogulwar said that while the directive is yet to be assessed by the state government, misinformation was spread to the effect that PESA has to be revoked to protect the rights of non-tribals.
“Instead of opposing the directive, the non-tribal population started opposing the PESA Act itself,” said he. While the major population in the district is tribal, it also has a sizeable non-tribal population, comprising mostly of traders and government officials. Non-tribals are also politically powerful and occupy many elected posts at the local level.
After low turnout was reported from the area, district officials rushed to the village and tried to talk to residents. But the effort yielded no results and the voter turn-out remained low.
Nizamshay Katenge, a Gond tribal community leader from village Salhe, said that the Korchi tehsil in the district also saw a lot of political upheaval over the issue initially. “The non-tribal trader community, which has lived here since generations, was incensed as the news about the directive spread.” Fortunately, however, thanks of timely intervention by non-profits and tribal groups, the situation was defused in time, says he, “We organised a meeting in Korchi between prominent tribal and non-tribal community members, explained the situation to them, and made them aware that other genuine elections issues like forest rights were likely to be derailed by a major move on PESA.” The opposition stopped after the meeting. A similar process was undertaken in the Kurkheda tehsil, too, informs Kanwar tribal community leader Kumari Jamkatan.
Katenge said that tribal and non-tribal people have lived in harmony in Gadchiroli for several generations. “In Korchi tehsil, tribals and non-tribals have unitedly opposed environmentally destructive development projects,” said he, “Panchayat members, both tribal and non-tribal, have resigned together over issues like mining and police violence in the name of Naxalism.” He said that this was the first time a tribal-non-tribal conflict has shown up in the area. He said that district administration should act promptly to dispel the tension so that harmony between communities can be restored.
District collector Ranjeet Kumar could not be contacted for comment.
Boycott over water, roads
Several other areas in the state also saw poll boycott, mostly over local issues. In village Mohgaon in Bhandara district, just three out of 1,800 voters cast their votes. Residents were protesting against administration’s neglect of their request for dam water for their crops. Vithpur in the same district boycotted polls over their damaged road, while in Sitekasa, the issue was the relocation of 900 families displaced by the Bawantadi irrigation project. Talegaon Wadner, Talegaon Pachurda and Babhulgaon villages in Akola district saw 4,000 people not exercising their right to vote over the absence of roads and other civic services in the villages.
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