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From UP to Assam, disgruntled villagers choose poll boycott to protest govt apathy; NOTA finds no favour

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

Read more articles from the series here

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Kohlapur/Gorakhpur: At the entry point into Karjah, Aima and Katrai villages, about 30 kilometres from Gorakhpur district headquarters, flies a banner prohibiting the entry of politicians asking for votes. Falling under Bansgaon Tehsil and going to the polls on 19 May, the villagers have decided to boycott the polls because of the government’s decision to divert the Rapti river stream flowing past their villages.

They fear the diversion will adversely affect over a thousand people living in these four villages. Letters to the district administration and the chief minister elicited no response.

“We know elections are the biggest festival in any democracy and this is the time to raise our voices against the things being done against us,” said Om Prakash Shukla, former village head of Karjah. Shukla even led a Jal Satyagraha against the diversion plan. That same feeling saw voters in states such as Assam, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh refusing to vote in the four phases of polls.

The reasons varied from lack of basic amenities to poor implementation of projects and pollution. Be it villagers of Nagaraja Kandigai in Tamil Nadu who want an end to pollution of their locality by the local sponge iron plant, or those in Darupisa in Chhattisgarh who put up a banner outside the village taking a dig at politicians and public representatives for the lack of basic amenities like drinking water, abstaining from voting is seen as the last resort against government apathy. According to a report, around 165 villages from 14 states announced their decision not to vote this time even before the first phase of polling began.

 From UP to Assam, disgruntled villagers choose poll boycott to protest govt apathy; NOTA finds no favour

Empty booths at Ambarde village, Gaganbavada. Abhijit Gurjar

Gautam Bandyopadhyay, an activist working for electoral reforms and coordinator of Association of Democratic Reforms in Chhattisgarh, said, "People boycott elections to seek the attention of the government as they feel that voting is associated with developmental work. I think it is the way to start a dialogue with the authorities. The government should talk to its citizens and resolve their issues."

Whether a boycott serves a purpose beyond bringing media attention to their issues (and to what end) is open to debate. But every election, there are a few angry voters who believe that the threat to boycott polls is the best way to get candidates and governments to take note of them.

Unrelenting (non-)voters

Way down south from Gorakhpur, in Maharashtra’s Kolhapur constituency, 30,000 voters from 18 villages in the taluks of Radhanagari, Panhala and Gaganbavada also gave polling day a miss, protesting the lack of progress on the Dhamami dam which was promised over 20 years ago. The project sanctioned in 1995, comprising an earthen dam and canals, was meant to ameliorate the area’s perennial water scarcity.

With a budget of Rs 120 crore, the project, supposed to irrigate 1,500 hectares with the dam having a capacity of 3.85 thousand million cubic (TMC) ft, was revised twice: in 2000 which raised the budget to Rs 382 crore and again in 2016 with a revised budget of Rs 728 crore. But the project remains incomplete with issues such as rehabilitation and payments to contractors unresolved.

On 26 January, the villagers decided they would boycott the elections and informed the chief minister, governor and District Collector Gautam Desai, who tried to prevent the boycott by setting up meetings with officials from the irrigation department, land acquisition department, rehabilitation department and water resources department with the Dhamani Valley Action Committee.

In Maharashtra's Radhanagari, villagers fed up with the lack of basic amenities such as roads, sewerage and schools gave polling day a miss. Abhijit Gurjar

In Maharashtra's Radhanagari, villagers fed up with the lack of basic amenities such as roads, sewerage and schools gave polling day a miss. Abhijit Gurjar

He also assured the committee that work on the project will resume by October, but the action committee did not relent. “I sent an open letter to all villagers to come and vote and distributed the letters to approximately 5,000 homes in these villages,” he added.

“The district collector met with the villagers, but we are frustrated and we will not vote till the project starts,” said Tanaji Kamble, a member of the Dhamani Valley Development Action Committee. “The work has been going on for 19 years. Now we are left with only one solution, which is to boycott elections.” The villagers feel that they have to fight for everything. They had to fight to get the dam sanctioned, and they had to fight to keep it going.

A visit to the project site at Rai village in Radhanagari taluka where 90 displaced families have been rehabilitated in two colonies on the upper side of the mountain and have been allotted residential plots and agricultural land near the mountains. The two colonies are almost complete, but lack basic amenities such as roads, sewerage and schools. “I had 10 acres of land, but I agreed to move since the authorities promised me eight acres. However, till date nothing has happened,” said Tukaram Jingare, a displaced resident of Rai village. “We lost everything, our ancestral home and agricultural lands. We are left with no income source. I earn my livelihood by working as a daily wage labourer.”

Back in Uttar Pradesh

The villagers along Rapti in Gorakhpur have not been reduced to that state yet, but displacement is definitely on their minds as they plan to boycott elections on 19 May. Nikku Yadav, 24, a youth from the village who participated in the Jal Satyagraha said the diversion will affect the lives of more than 10,000 people from the surrounding villages. “We will not let them change the stream of the river at any cost,” said Yadav.

When asked if the administration sent emissaries to convince them to vote, he said, “Not even a single officer visited us but they are pressuring us through police and other senior officials of the district.” Added Ram Prakash Nishad, “The district magistrate has been assuring us that the work has been stopped, but the machines deployed by them are still digging the earth.”

But Gorakhpur district magistrate Vijendra Pandiyan said that it was not a diversion, but a dredging scheme which has now been postponed to next year because of protests by villagers. “The administration will not do anything without the consent of villagers,” he assured. “Our officials are trying to convince the villagers not to boycott the elections.”

But residents are convinced the government is lying to them and under the guise of dredging, the stream is being diverted to benefit a local mining baron. Gorakhpur-based activist Manoj Singh also insisted that the government is misleading the public. Magsaysay award winner and water conservation expert Rajendra Singh, who lent his support for the protest, said changing the course of the river will adversely affect the environment.

Gorakhpur BJP candidate Ravi Kishan said he wouldn’t shy away from visiting these villages. “I am not afraid of getting beaten up or being shooed away,” he said, adding “I will go there to tell them that I stand with their cause and will talk to the senior authorities about this matter. I will not make any false promises.”

The right to boycott

Considering abysmal turnouts in big metros such as Mumbai and Bengaluru,  where barely half the population voted, there has been a debate on whether voting must be made mandatory. But boycotts in India are older than democracy. In 1920, the British sought to set up a legislative council which would have 70 percent of its members elected by the Indian people.

While justice, peace and land revenue would be reserved for the British governor and his council, other administrative areas were to be handled by elected Indian representatives. Protesting against this proposal, Mahatma Gandhi, supported by the Muslim League, called for a boycott of the elections as the elected representatives would not represent the will of the people as they would have to function under British laws.

Madhya Pradesh is seeing its fair share of election boycotts this time with villages in Dindori and few in Shahdol during the fourth phase abstaining from voting. Abhijeet Agarwal, Joint Chief Electoral Officer of Madhya Pradesh, has some experience managing such problems and has worked with district officials. He said, "We have observed that normally local issues lead to election boycott and it affects a small area only. Our first priority in such cases is to send a team to convince voters that voting is their right and they must use it. People think that if they boycott voting the commission have to reorganise the poll, but that is not true. Boycotting an election is never going to help them as voting is their right and if they do not vote the commission will not conduct repolling."

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Also, voters' demands aren't always reasonable, Agarwal added. "I think every government official wants development in their areas, but some problems are just beyond their capabilities. Sometimes, the voters are misguided by some. We recently faced boycott calls in Tikamgarh district, where some people suddenly demanded a project the district administration was unaware of. We have seen demands of canals and big projects in Shahdol and Dindori districts, which need a lot of time and a proper process. It is very difficult to convince people as we cannot promise them about projects when the Model Code of Conduct is in effect. We try to convince them by explaining their rights as a citizen. If they are not happy with any candidate they may go for the None of the Above (NOTA) option."

Ultimately, Bandyopadhyay feels that participation in democracy is very important and boycotting the election is not the solution. "NOTA was introduced to bring people to the polling booth even if they do not like any candidate. Before NOTA, it was very difficult to assess how many people are active in democracy. Our goal is to make people aware of their rights and encourage them to participate in democracy," he added.

But NOTA needs to be given more teeth to make it a favourable alternative to outright boycotts. Since the Supreme Court directed the introduction of NOTA in 2013, a small number of voters have come to see it as an instrument of protest. But to inspire more people to use it, NOTA must provide for a ‘right to reject’. Because now, the candidate with the maximum votes wins the election irrespective of the number of NOTA votes polled. A PIL, seeking the full right to reject in place of NOTA, was filed in 2016 and is pending in the Madras High Court.

With inputs from Manish Chandra Mishra

The authors are members of 101Reporters

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Updated Date: May 03, 2019 22:17:22 IST