A year since the 200-km ‘long march’ of tribal cultivators from Nashik to Mumbai forced into the spotlight the issue of thousands of pending claims under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the mood among those who joined the protest has not changed. In addition, the February 13 Supreme Court order — later stayed — to evict nearly 12 lakh tribal cultivators of forest land on the basis of their claims having been rejected has caused consternation and outrage just ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
Last Thursday, 600 tribals from Thane, Raigad and Palghar demonstrated outside the office of the Konkan divisional commissioner. Indavi Tulpule of the Shramik Mukti Sanghatana, which works with tribals in Thane district, said: “There is neither political will nor administrative will. The only period when the processing of claims moved rapidly was around two years ago when the Governor’s office was proactively monitoring the process.”
On Sunday, a state-wide association of tribal students in Nashik declared that they would exhort young tribals to vote against the BJP-Shiv Sena combine. “None of the BJP MPs from seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes spoke up on the high rate of rejection of FRA claims,” said Madan Pathwe of the Adivasi Vidyarthi-Yuvak Samiti. Four of the 48 Lok Sabha seats in state are reserved for ST candidates. All four — Nandurbar, Gadchiroli, Dindori and Palghar — are currently held by BJP.
“The MPs also did not speak up on other issues that have seen agitations in the past few years, including the decision to replace canteen meals in government tribal hostels with cash transfers to student residents. This affected over 58,000 tribals,” said Pathwe.
The Adivasi Vidyarthi-Yuvak Samiti is currently in discussions with other adivasi organisations in Palghar and Nandurbar to plan a roadmap for mobilising support for candidates they choose to support. “We are going to exhort people to select the None Of The Above (NOTA) option if necessary, but not vote in favour of the Sena-BJP.” In the Assembly elections in 2014, NOTA finished at third place in Maoist-hit Gadchiroli, ahead of the Congress.
However, workers across party lines conceded that the FRA issue, while affecting lakhs of tribals and certain to be a topic of wide discussion during campaigning, will ultimately not impact the election outcome in any of the four ST-reserved constituencies where local political dynamics will be the decisive factor.
For the Congress, the loss of Nandurbar in 2014 would still sting sharply, for not only did the party hold the seat without a break since 1967, but it was also the Congress’s favourite launchpad for various UPA showcase schemes.
“Largely due to social media, youth in Nandurbar feel decades of Congress rule brought them no development. For these boys always on social media, Modi is a big hero,” said Govardhan Munde, a zilla parishad teacher at Kinwat in Nanded district, and a tribal activist working on non-tribals using fake caste certificates to access ST reservation in jobs and higher education. The local MP is Heena Gavit, daughter of former NCP minister VIjaykumar Gavit, who joined the BJP ahead of the 2014 state election. Congress MLA KC Padavi is expected to contest to wrest the seat back.
In Dindori, while BJP MP Harischandra Chavan is completing his third consecutive term, all eyes are on Jeeva Pandu Gavit, state’s sole CPI(M) MLA, who represents nearby Kalvan-Surgana and was the biggest mobiliser for the tribals’ long march. The CPI(M) is yet to announce his candidature. Palghar, where late MP Chintamani Wanaga built up BJP, is now with Sena but will be contested by Wanaga’s son Srinivas, who lost a bypoll against BJP in May 2018 by less than 30,000 votes.