Voters' tactic

Orissa's forest groups want candidates to be answerable

By Satyasundar Barik
Published: Saturday 15 May 2004

forest protection groups of Orissa emerged as a force to reckon with in the build-up to the general and assembly elections in the state. The Orissa Jangal Manch (ojm) -- an amalgamation of these groups -- asked candidates to give in writing poll promises that dealt with problems faced by villages located on the fringes of forests, and made the aspirants affix their signatures on the documents. A member of one such group is even contesting the assembly elections.

"We have never seen a single legislator highlight the plight of villagers, who depend on forests, on the floor of the assembly. Now we want them to act in a more responsible manner," points out Laxmidhar Balia, secretary, ojm. Another ojm member, Srikant Sahoo, says the manch plans to keep reminding elected leaders about their signed assurances after the polls through efforts like postcard campaigns. "The authorities want us to protect forests, but during harvesting they drop in to demand their share. We want complete legalisation of our efforts and exclusive rights over forest produce," asserts Balia.

However, some political leaders are not entirely convinced. "I don't know if such problems really prevail. If so, there is no harm in promising. We will take care of the demands if they are found to be genuine," says Jual Oram, former Union minister for tribal affairs and a senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader of the state. All the same, the parties can hardly afford to take such groups lightly.

According to a forest department survey, 12,382 villages of 27 forest divisions are involved in protecting forests in Orissa. The people of these areas are likely to have played a decisive role in the elections to the state's 62 assembly and five parliamentary segments. At the end of the day, they may even have their own representative in the House. Saila Naik, president of the Talcher Block Jangal Manch, is contesting the assembly polls as an independent candidate from Talcher segment, Angul district.

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