With Panchayat elections in Odisha barely three weeks away, the spectre of Maoists looms large over Malkangiri, the district bordering Andhra Pradesh. Posters threatening people to boycott elections, particularly in cut-off areas of the district, have sent shivers down the spine of voters, candidates as much as the officials on poll duty. The little finger of the voters will be chopped off and the poll officials will be beheaded, say the warnings.
The rebels have already made their intentions clear by abducting five electoral officers from Jantri village, on 13 January, just as the process of nominations began. Though the officials were released after being threatened in a kangaroo court, some on the way to duty stations, fled to safer destinations and do not want to join work unless security is provided.
For the uninitiated, the nine gram panchayats in cut-off areas of the district function from outside the villages.
Close to 150 villages in Malkangiri district are affected by Maoists activities over the one and half decades. Despite assurances by the successive state governments, most importantly the 17-year-old Naveen Patnaik government, most places in the district, particularly in the cut-off areas (Jantri, Panasput, Gajalmundi, Dhuliput, Barpada etc) are bereft of basic facilities like hospitals, electricity, drinking water and schools, not to mention absence of roads which are defined by red soiled pathways and 60 km of waterway inside Balimela reservoir.
People of nine panchayats under Chitrakonda block are completely cut off from the hinterland, surrounded by Balimela reservoir on three sides and Andhra-Telangana border on the fourth. It has more than 20,000 population but people walk miles to sell their forest produce to eke out a living and women stride long distances to fetch water. This has made most villagers inert towards the government which has helped Maoists establish base and gain their confidence, first through coercion and later, support.
Counter-insurgency operations are conducted at regular intervals but that has not stopped these rebels from creating disturbances in the area. In October last year, 26 high cadre ultras were killed in a combined operation of Andhra-Odisha police which had weakened their base. But given the present threats and abduction of government officials, conducting polls doesn't seem easy. Add to it, the precedence of 2014 general elections when re-elections were conducted in many places as the Maoists had created disturbances and ballot boxes were destroyed. Though the deadline is over, only 12 people filed their nomination so far in these cut-off areas which have nine GPs.
According to DIG South Western Range, S Saini, the collector and the SP have submitted a joint report on the situation to the State Election Commissioner (SEC) and plans are being made to conduct free and fair elections. ''Alternatives are being sorted out and it is not proper to disclose the strategies but we will work according to the instructions of the SEC and ensure safety and security of all concerned,'' Saini said.
Elections will be held to 853 seats in the zilla parishads, 6,665 seats in the panchayat samitis, 6,801 sarpanches and 92,029 wards in five phases from 13 to 21 February in the state. Not only Malkangiri, Maoists have called for poll boycott in other districts like Koraput, Gajapati and Kandhamal but the situation is not as as bad as in Malkangiri.
As a first step for an immediate measure to conduct polls, the government should look for perfect coordination among the district administration, SEC and police who need to take people into confidence. The affected villagers and polling officers should be provided security prior to polls, on the poll day and post polls as well. Monitoring and logistics play important roles as it will keep the government officials on duty and ballot boxes secure plus, people are not harassed by the rebels after polls. Keeping in view the intelligence inputs, if necessary central forces can be sought by the government or the SEC can re-fix a date for Malkangiri, after elections are over in other places so that security mechanism can be strengthened.
On long term basis, its time the government and all the political parties think beyond vote politics and send their representatives to set base at the grassroots level in all villages. So that people feel connected, their grievances are heard and they are assured that their needs will be looked into. If the absence of development is the root of the malaise, the district administration too must convince people by showing its presence at regular intervals in these cut off and neglected areas. It is of utmost importance that intelligence inputs, coordination between bordering states dealing with the common problem, local participation, administrative zeal and grassroots level involvement of people can go a long way in restoring normalcy in the district.
Updated Date: Jan 19, 2017 19:32 PM