THE TRIBAL-DOMINATED Palghar district has been symbolic of the political tribulations and ever changing alliances which Maharashtra has been witnessing in the run-up to the polls. Leaders who were once at loggerheads are now being forced to break bread together, as BJP and Shiv Sena have decided to smoke the peace pipe. At the other end, the CPI(M), which speaks about the rights of tribals in the area, has thrown its lot behind the Bahujan Vikas Aghadi — a front floated by the Thakur brothers, who have often been accused of terrorising locals and land grabbing.
In a strange political twist, the Sena has been forced to loan itself a candidate from the BJP in the form of sitting MP Rajendra Gavit, after it reaslied that its initial choice of a party candidate may not be a safe bet. The Palghar seat fell vacant last year following the death of sitting BJP MP Chintaman Wanga. In the bypoll, the BJP and Sena, though allies in Maharashtra and at the Centre, fought against each other. The BJP had fielded Gavit, while the Sena gave ticket to Chintaman Wanga’s son Srinivas Wanga, who lost.
“In the past seven to eight months, I have worked hard for the people. It was for a short tenure, but people in the area want me to be elected again. The CM told me that every seat is important for Narendra Modi and hence, I have decided to join Sena,” said Gavit, who on Tuesday joined Shiv Sena, which nominated him from Palghar. While Srinivas Wanga was rumoured to be getting the Sena ticket, the party decided to give him a ticket during the Assembly elections to be held later this year. Wanga claimed that he wasn’t “ready” for the Lok Sabha elections. “The party has taken a decision upon my suggestion. I welcome it. Whatever future plans the party has, I am happy to go along,” he said.
The constituency, fairly nascent, is a culmination of six areas, each with its unique set of problems. While Dahanu and Vikramgadh are rural and mostly tribal areas, Nallasopara and Vasai are urban cities bursting at their seams. Adding to it, the bullet train and several other development projects pass from the area. While in some places, the voting would be done by urban dwellers worried about losing their houses, in the rural hinterland, there are no houses to leave and no party distinctions either. “Here, people follow names and banners. Their votes are for whoever’s name or banner was more visible to them,” said Vinayak Mhatre, an activist who works in Dahanu.
The Bahujan Vikas Aghadi, backed by CPI(M), has a strong hold in the urban areas with CPI(M) lending the rural support. The party, helmed by Hitendra Thakur, is a strong contender to both BJP and Sena, as seen in the past in the Vasai Virar Municipal elections. “We will declare the candidate by next month. It will be a mutually decided candidate,” Kshitij Thakur from Bahujan Vikas Aghadi said.
Vasai, Virar and Nallasopara are sister cities with similar issues. The illegal construction, lack of facilities for the ever increasing populace, and the flooding caused by both natural and man-made factors are the dominating concerns. The bullet train is also a sore point for farmers and landowners who worry that they will make way to the transition camps after they give up their land.
While the parties have made headway with their outreach programme, they have a host of unique issues to tackle. Not only are the tribals worried about their land rights and being thrown out of their homes, the recent discovery of an active fault line leaves them asking if they want their homes or not. “The villagers, who had never thought of leaving their land, are now open to the idea of moving. They want better future for their children, one in which they can at least sleep in their own homes,” Anant Ghoda, a social worker from Dhundalwadi said.
The bullet train has emerged as the hot topic, one which counts against the saffron alliance. “We have already lost our land once. If voting for someone stops the bullet train project, we will do it,” said Nishant Salve, a resident of Hanuman Nagar area in Palghar, from where the bullet train is expected to pass through.
Abject poverty, joblessness and poor health conditions still stand tall. Mokhada and Jawhar were hailed as the epicentre of malnutrition in Palghar. While the conditions have improved, the picture is still bleak. Moreover, Dahanu town in Palghar has been hit by 30 low-intensity earthquakes since November last year, leading to more than 10,000 residents of 40 villages moving out of their homes into tents erected by the district administration and NDRF.
An issue that ties all the six areas in Palghar is water. While the entire state goes through water shortages in summer, water shortage is acute in these areas. “We have managed to get water to many areas. When I come back, we will put more plans into action. Not only in the rural areas but also towards the illegal constructions in the urban areas,” Gavit said.