Elections

In Maharashtra's Gadchiroli, Madia Gonds Seek Democracy Through NOTA Vote

The Madia Gond tribe in Gadchiroli-Chimur, one of the largest Lok Sabha constituencies going to polls in phase 1 of Lok Sabha election, have been unhappy with successive governments.

Photo by Dinesh Parab/Outlook
Vilas Talande and wife Anita Talande Photo by Dinesh Parab/Outlook
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The faint outlines of a blue-inked tattoo on the wrinkled face of Rupi Mura Talande, a 73-year-old Madia Gond tribal living in the Pandewahi village of Etapalli taluka, are as much a mark of her culture as a tale of exclusion.

A blue polka-dotted saree loosely wrapped around her body and falling from over her shoulders, Rupi adorns the traditional nose ring. She has lived all her life in the ancient ways of the Madia Gonds, one of the three notified particularly vulnerable tribal groups in Maharashtra.

Rupi Mura Talande, a 73-year-old Madia Gond tribal living in the Pandewahi village, Gadchiroli.
Rupi Mura Talande, a 73-year-old Madia Gond tribal living in the Pandewahi village, Gadchiroli. Photo by Shweta Desai/Outlook
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The indigenous tribe inhabiting the dry deciduous forests of eastern Vidarbha region’s Gadchiroli district, located along the eastern border of Maharashtra, has been cut from mainstream for centuries, remotely exposed to the latest developments in infrastructure and technology.

Sprawled across 500 kilometres and largely covered by thick cover of bamboo, teak and mahua trees, Gadchiroli-Chimur is one of the largest Lok Sabha constituencies that goes to poll in the first phase of the general elections on Friday, along with Chandrapur, Bhandara-Gondiya, Ramtek and Nagpur.

Rupi’s house stands across the Zilla Parishad school that was converted into a polling booth for Pandewahi and the surrounding cluster of villages in Etapalli. Just a few steps removed, a lonely banner, that of Congress candidate Namdeo Kirsan, flutters in the centre of the village.

Conversing only in Madia Gondi, a form of Dravidian language, Rupi will cast her vote, she indicated raising her index finger with a shy laugh.

"We will all vote for NOTA (the 'None of the Above' option at the bottom of the Electronic Voting Machine)," her son Vilas Talande said.

The young Madia tribal, educated till class four, is well aware of his democratic right to exercise NOTA, to demonstrate his lack of trust in any political party or candidate. Considered a neutral vote, the next candidate with the second-most number of votes to NOTA is declared the winner.

Vilas said he voted for different political parties in the past, but the family’s hardships have remained unchanged. “No political party or candidate works for us, there is no point in casting a vote for anyone,” he said disillusioned, adding his family has been excluded from all government schemes meant to benefit Adivasis, including free ration, for the last three years.

Vilas Talande cutting firewood at his home.
Vilas Talande cutting firewood at his home. Photo by Dinesh Parab/Outlook
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His joint family of nine has four voters apart from him—mother Rupi, wife, brother and sister-in-law— who have all decided to go with the NOTA option.

The Madia Gonds are among the poorest tribes in India, with low life expectancy, high illiteracy and poor standard of living. Most people from the tribe are unfamiliar with Marathi, the state’s official language or the national language Hindi, and speak a broken mix of both languages to converse with outsiders. The Talandes live in a semi-kaccha house with a thached roof and brick walls, with the bare necessities.

The dish antenna atop the house is broken as is their television set inside. A stove sits silently with no gas cylinder. The family is dependent on fuelwood for cooking. The electricity they get is used to light three bulbs when the sun goes down and don’t own smartphones.

Vilas said he wanted to construct a pucca house under the state government’s ‘Modi Awas Gharkul Yojana’ but is not qualified for it. He is yet to get payment for the ten days of civil construction work done last year under the MNREGA employment scheme. “We don’t get any benefits or money from the government. Our sustenance comes from the forest and agriculture,” he said.

As a matter of routine, the family, barring Rupi, leaves for the jungle every day at the crack of dawn to farm, collect fuelwood and forage wild edible leaves, berries, seeds and the mahua flowers, which are in full bloom in April. The dried mahua flowers, which taste and look like resins, are spread in the interiors and the courtyard of the house and will be used to extract alcohol.

The family collectively owns around 15 acres of land and cultivates rice mostly for for domestic consumption. The little excess is sold in the market. Vilas’s wife Anita said the family used to get a monthly supply of rice, chana dal and sugar when they owned a Below Poverty Line (BPL) ration card. “They (district officers) took our BPL cards and gave us new saffron-coloured ration cards, and since then we haven’t received any ration,” she said.

The new ration cards issued on 1 October 2021, mention the family’s income as Rs 25,000 and have listed them in the Above Poverty Line (APL) category. The BPL limit in Maharashtra includes only families having an annual income of less than Rs.15,000 are eligible as BPL.

Jayashree Jarate, a Madia activist and leader of the Peasant and Workers Party, said the family’s ration card is not linked to Aadhaar, which has excluded them from the monthly ration scheme. “There are major network connectivity issues in the region, because of which many households still don’t have their Aadhaar linked to the ration card.”

Pandewahi village, Etapalli where voting is taking place on April 19.
Pandewahi village, Etapalli where voting is taking place on April 19. Photo by Dinesh Parab/Outlook
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There are nine other families from the Pandewahi village who face similar deprivation. The families claimed they had visited local authorities several times to link the card so that they could avail food supplies. “It is the same response every time, come tomorrow or next week. The officers intimidate us and fight with us, we stopped going thereafter,” said Chinha Talande.

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Hemant Gangurde, who recently took over the post of tahsildar, Etapalli, said he was unaware of the issues faced by villagers in Pandewahi and assured his office would look into the case post-election. “The priority right now is conducting the polls. It is a challenging job here because of the large jurisdiction and because of the presence of Naxals, we have to observe strict security restrictions,” he said.

Jarate said, families like Talande, ideally should be covered as BPL beneficiaries of government schemes for tribal welfare. The state government should raise the income limit of BPL families and not base the poverty parameter solely on financial income, but also on other socio-economic factors, like primitive background, education and health of women, children and elders.

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“The government wants to take away our jungles and cut trees to allow mining of minerals. We oppose such development, which destroys the environment, displaces tribals and only benefits the rich. The Madia Gonds are the poorest citizens of this country but their upliftment and progress are not a priority for any government,” she added.

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