Most voters in the Bhamragarh taluka of Maharashtra's Gadchiroli district couldn't care less about the upcoming Assembly election.
Despair and disillusionment reign supreme; without exercisable rights over the forest on which more than 90 percent of the Adivasi community depends for primary livelihood, the ballot box has become just another administrative formality to get done with. The Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006 was an effort to correct the "historical injustice" against generations of forest dwellers, whose culture and traditions are still closely intertwined with the environment around them.
"Most members of the community here live off non-timber forest produce (NTFP) like tendu leaves or mahua, since agriculture is almost non-existent. The NTFP is not only to be sold but is also for personal use, for food and medicine, and in some cases if the NTFP cannot be used directly, like bamboo, it is sold in various forms," says Sukhram Madavi, a local leader in Bhamragarh village.
Fundamentally, among other provisions of economic and social nature, the law provides a gram sabha with complete control over the resources in the forest. This provision is known as community forest rights (CFR).
However, in the Madia tribe-dominated Jhareguda, Idur and Bhamragarh villages of the taluka, the process of claiming and exercising the rights as prescribed by the law is on a different level of difficulty.
With a donga (dinghy) being the only way to get to the village, a group of men gathered in the courtyard laugh after being asked about which issues will form the basis of their vote when the state goes to the polls on 21 October.
"Any candidate who comes all the way here to ask about our demands will get our vote," 30-year-old Devu Podadi grins. "Varun yetat, ani varun jatat (they fly to the taluka headquarters and fly back)," he adds.
While the issue of implementation of FRA is likely to have weightage in Adivasi-dominated sections of the poll-bound state – especially with a demand for FRA-affirmative action being one of the focal points of several massive protests in 2018 — Jhareguda is still struggling on the first rung of the vikas ladder.
"Our settlement has not even been notified as a village, we are still listed as a tola (hamlet) of the neighbouring village, Golaguda," 40-year-old Sadhu Dongeshriram says.
"We applied to the District Collector's office for official recognition three years ago, but there has been no communication from them since. Every time we visit to check on the status of our application, we are sent away with assurances that they will look into it."
Meanwhile, the group says, benefits from various welfare schemes of the state and Central governments are being disbursed only to Golaguda. "They are supposed to direct some of the aid to us, but they keep it all for themselves," Podadi says.
The struggle is compounded by the Forest Department's 'fever patra' — local lingo for the notice of a penalty levied against perceived damage to the forest by the residents.
Podadi, who has been fined Rs 24,800 for allegedly cutting three trees in 2000, was paid a visit by an official this month, who threatened that a case will be filed against him if he is not able to pay the fine. "They said they will give me ownership of the land if I pay the penalty, but I have told the department that I cannot afford it," he says. The matter is currently at an impasse.
Twenty-five other people in Jhareguda have applied for individual forest rights (IFR), which would give them authority over the land their families have been tilling for generations, but only seven claims have been accepted, Irpa Madavi, a Bhamragarh Gram Sabha worker, says.
With the impending election, a fear of the police keeping check on who showed up to vote and who didn't, also looms.
"We are currently thinking of how to vote, but we are also thinking about whether or not to vote. No matter whom we vote for, no matter who wins, not a single politician will remember the promises they made during their campaign.
"But whether we have a definite choice or not, we have to be present and press some button on the ballot — the palm or the lotus — otherwise the police will forcibly make us go to the booth. It hasn't happened in our village yet, because we haven't resisted,” Podadi claims.
The group laughs again when he says, “Duniya-bhar chya parties ahet, amhala kay mahit (there’s all sorts of parties now, we don’t know any better).”
Jokes aside, Dongeshriram says that he will keep the issues in mind in the voting booth.
In Idur, a village 10 kilometres away, it's a fight – with a strong undercurrent of confusion – between the old and the new, and the omnipresence of the ‘fever patra’.
The sarpanch, Khopa Alani, has been given a list of 12 people who have been fined amounts ranging from Rs 64 to Rs 40,000. The alleged crimes are dated in the period between 1970 and 1983.
However, the locals contend that they do possess a ‘patta’ or title deed for the land they have occupied and/or used, albeit in many cases, it is the old document “from their grandparents’ time”.
Holding up the old and new versions of the document, Renu Parsa says that the Forest Department didn’t send a single notice to any of those fined about updating their title deeds. “We have been fined by the department even though we have this laal patta. They haven’t informed us about a change or updated document.”
“Now they are saying that if we don’t pay the fine, anyone can take over ownership of our land,” Limi Akka says.
Seventy-five-year-old Masa Aapka, meanwhile has been waiting for the title deed for his own plot of land for the last six years.
“Only after I visited the Forest Department office four months ago did they inform me that it hadn’t been accepted yet because there was a mistake in the spelling of my name on the official documents as opposed to the spelling on the proofs I submitted,” he says.
“They told me to take an acknowledgement slip of the change to be made, but still nothing has happened,” Aapka adds.
Kamli Parsa, who has paid the Rs 88 levied as penalty, has been given a receipt of the transaction and says that officials told her that the land is now not encroachable.
Locals in Idur echo the fear of police action if they are counted absent on voting day. “We have to vote jabardasti (forcibly) otherwise the police will come to the village and accuse us of being Naxals. If we are not present, they will cast doubt on whether we are connected to insurgent activities,” Keshav Parsa claims.
Allowing that there has been some development in the area, Keshav quickly dismisses deciding whom to vote for beforehand. “In this village, believing in the promises made by candidates during campaigning is like having andha-shraddha (blind faith). We don’t believe them when they say they will solve our land ownership problem,” he says.
“None of the houses in our village has toilets even though the government is saying toilets have been provided to everyone. Only two people have built the facility for themselves, using their own money,” Akka says.
She adds, “We have never got an opportunity to say ‘Okay, you’ve won and you’ve done this work for us’. Only those who have money, get work done.”
Joga Sendi and his wife Phulabai call the shots on the NTFP they sell from their own land. From unprocessed bamboo to ‘tora’ oil, Sendi decides the rate at which he will sell the produce to private contractors and only agrees to the deal if the buyer is also willing to undertake the expenditure of cutting and transporting the produce as well.
“The lowest I peg a tonne of my bamboo is at Rs 4,400. If a contractor is not willing to pay me that as a minimum amount, I refuse to sell to him. Last year, I sold 15 tonnes,” he says.
Sendi, who has the title deed for his 8 to 10 acres of land, says that all the NTFP products, “part of the Adivasi culture”, help him and his wife make some money for odd household expenses.
However, Devendra Fadnavis’ BJP government in the state has fallen short in ensuring the well-being of people, the couple states.
“Until we vote, the candidate is our best friend. Once they get the office, we get stuck like keedas (insects) between the police and the Naxals,” he said. “On a macro level, they might have done some work, but when it comes to us, not a single politician has come to ask after us, whether there is a drought or a flood.”
Bhamragarh taluka is included in the Aheri Assembly Constituency, which is one of the seven under the Gadchiroli-Chimur Lok Sabha constituency. The BJP is fielding Amrish Raje Atram, while the Congress is fielding Dipak Atram.
Prakash Ambedkar’s Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA) is likely to field local leader Lalsu Nagoti, sources said.
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Updated Date: Oct 15, 2019 14:47:07 IST