Gujarat polls: Tribals remain at the margins
In the villages of South Gujarat, the rumbling in the sugar sector is dominating the political discourse. Ironically many of the seats in this region are reserved for Scheduled Castes (SC) and primarily Scheduled Tribes (ST). But the issues pertaining to their development remain on the back burner.
Ask anyone about the election issues and what one gets to hear is the building of bridges and roads as the main development indicators. Then the farmers are vocal about the state of sugarcane farming and milk production. But no one speaks of tribals.
“There are some well defined reasons why politically and economically influential people do not talking about tribals. They work in tandem to exploit the tribals. Tribals on the other hand are not articulate. They are away from the mainstream and have no access to the media,” points out tribal rights activist Dr Pradip Garasia who is based in Mahuva.
Mahuva is one of the high-profile constituencies in South Gujarat where former Union minister from the Congress Tushar Chaudhary is pitted against sitting MLA Mohan Dhodhia of the BJP. Tushar is the son of former Congress chief minister Amarsinh Chaudhary. The constituency has 2.15 lakh, primarily tribals.
Dr Garasia underlines that the tribals are not getting their due rights listed under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. On the other issue of malnutrition in the community that has come to light time and again, he says that the government has made some important interventions but the results are not optimum.
The general perception among the Upper Castes is that the tribals are themselves responsible for their plight. “They are prone to spending at least 50% of their income on consuming liquor. It is in their genes,” said Dr Kaushal Patel, a volunteer at the BJP office in Bardoli who is set to shift to the United States of America. Bardoli is a seat reserved for SCs and has a substantial number ST population too.
An issue that is being discussed at length among the tribals in this part is the state government notification extending reservation rights to pastoral communities of Charans, Rabaris and Bharwads under the ST category. The recruitment for 68 posts of deputy superintendents of police and deputy collectors reserved for the ST saw at least 35 seats being bagged by candidates of pastoral communities. This had sparked a series of protests some months back. The other tribal communities felt cheated and opposed the new entrants. The issue continues to simmer in the entire tribal best on the eastern side of the state.
Sources say that the BJP has been playing it up in the constituencies around the Gir forest areas that are dominated by the pastoral communities.
On the other side the influential class of the farmers in the tribal constituencies of South Gujatrat is more concerned about the sugar sector. The issue that is still dominating the political narrative is the Income Tax department having served recovery notices in retrospect to the tune of hundreds of crores to the sugar mills in the co-operative sector.
"The government should understand that those running the mills in the co-operative sector are farmers. The recovery amount of Rs 3,200 crore from 12 mills for four years cannot be paid even if we sell all our belongings,” is the common refrain. The issue is lying dormant for now but its political rumblings can be felt as both the Congress and the BJP slugging it out.
A video clip of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's rally in Navsari ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha polls is doing the rounds where he had reportedly said that he would not allow a 'Maa Bete ki Sarkar' take away the rights of the farmers. “But when a delegation of farmers affiliated to the BJP had gone to meet him on the issue, he said that with a Gujarati at the helm of affairs it is their duty to contribute the maximum for the country.
Nobody has bothered to go to him anymore. The issue is being negotiated at the ground level but there have been no results so far,” said a farmers' leader. The farmers in Maharashtra who faced a similar problem are learnt to have approached the courts on this issue.
“During his visit to this constituency a couple of days back, our national president Amit Shah promised to address the issue once and for all,” claimed Jigar Naik, the taluka president of the party.
This region had witnessed a massive protest last year with thousands of farmers protesting against the notices. The impact of Modi’s demonetisation is also playing a role. The farmers are still angry over how they had been unable to pay the labour in cash and how around 15 per cent of the workforce had gone back to their villages.
There had also been protests over the Reserve Bank of India's (RBI) decision to restrict co-operative banks from accepting the exchange of demonetised currency and the allotment of new currency.
“The BJP still has an upper hand despite all these factors because their members control most of co-operative bodies here. The voting is also done in a 'co-operative manner. This time around the sugarcane farmers are also happy because the sugar cooperatives in South Gujarat announced a 30 per cent hike in procurement prices over the last year. The sugarcane prices this season are almost double to those given to the farmers in 2015 because of less production, market deficit, higher recovery against crushing and higher rate for subsidiary products like molasses,” says a senior media person based in Surat.
But farmers' leader Sagar Rabari has a different take. “I have been traveling across the state. The farmers are not happy with the BJP anymore and I can see a Parivartan,” he said.
With the marginalised communities continuing to be on the sidelines, this is going to be yet another election where the influential and the powerful will slug it out in Gujarat politics.