An interesting facet of the Gujarat assembly election has gone largely under the radar of the media—the adivasi electorate that comprises 15 per cent of the state’s population. Of the total 182 seats, 27 are reserved for the scheduled tribes, of which the ruling BJP won 11 in the last election. Fourteen of the reserved seats are in south and central Gujarat, which go to polls in the first phase, on December 9. In these parts, most adivasis belong to the Bhil, Kunbi, Warli and Gamit communities. The battle for votes between the BJP and the opposition led by main rival Congress has brought some rare salience to the long-standing issues and ignored aspirations of these communities, some of which they share with adivasis elsewhere in the country.
Prominent issues in the region range from general themes like implementation of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, aimed at empowering adivasi-dominated areas to protect their socio-cultural distinctiveness, affording a degree of autonomy, including over forest rights, to local, topical issues such as a chit-fund scam in which the adivasi labourers invested their hard-earned money. The candidates and other leaders are making all attempts to bring it all together.
“Some of our concerns are related to displacement of villagers when the Ukai dam was built across the Tapti river in the 1970s, but we are also seeking better access to healthcare and education. The chit-fund scam is also a serious and ignored issue,” says Romel Sutariya, an activist of the Adivasi Kisan Sangharsh Morcha, who claims more than three lakh people are affected by the scam. For example, take adivasi villager Sunita Gamit’s example. “I started by depositing Rs 20 in each instalment and got some returns initially. Then I raised the amount to Rs 100 and ended up losing almost Rs 2.5 lakh,” she says.
“We don’t know how to go about this. It has been so long,” says another villager, Ashish Gamit, who got into a bigger mess when he agreed to collect money from fellow villagers on behalf of the default company. Sunita and Ashish’s cases are representative of what the scam has done to a large number of adivasis in the region, who wish it could become an election issue. To tackle this and other concerns, such as better land allocation and facilities for those displaced by the Ukai dam, they are planning agitations and memorandums.
Rahul Gandhi at a rally in Narmada district
Some of the adivasis also speak about reservations. Recently, there was a controversy over a notification allowing persons from three pastoralist communities traditionally settled around the Gir forest—Rabari, Bharwad and Charan—to get ST certificates. The Bhilistan Tiger Sena, which has been demanding a separate state of Bhilistan, has called the three communities “fake tribals”, who should get reservation under the OBC and not the ST quota.
“People from these three castes have cornered much of benefits in employment and other spheres that rightfully belong to the STs,” says Congress leader Tushar Chaudhary, who was MoS (Tribal Affairs) in the erstwhile UPA government at the Centre, and is contesting from the ST-reserved Mahuva constituency in Surat district. “The BJP government has failed to deliver on its promises such as jobs for the youth. Educated tribals are not getting jobs. The BJP started a new policy of jobs on 11-month contracts, which is exploitative. Gujarat was projected as the best state, but if it was really so good, then why would so many people protest?”
“For the longest time, successive governments have ignored the Constitution as far as the rights of adivasis are concerned, and we do not expect Narendra Modi’s BJP to change that,” says Chhotubhai Vasava, six-time MLA from Jhagadia constituency in Bharuch district, who famously went against his then party JD(U) to support Ahmed Patel of the Congress in the recent Rajya Sabha election, the critical cross-vote that ensured Patel’s win. “We want to ensure that benefits meant for us actually reach us. That is why we are supporting the Congress.”
PM Modi inaugurates a tribal museum in Narmada district
After splitting from the JD(U), Vasava formed the Bharatiya Tribal Party, which has entered a seat-sharing arrangement with the Congress and will be contesting the polls from five seats, all reserved for STs—Jhagadia, Dediapada, Mangrol, Morva Hadaf and Waghodia. Though detractors point out that many of Vasava’s adivasi supporters may get confused by the new symbol (an autorickshaw), the MLA rubbishes the thought, saying his voteshare won’t be dented just because he has lost the JD(U)’s arrow symbol.
Ex-JD(U) chief Sharad Yadav, who is campaigning for Vasava, told Outlook a day before he too was disqualified from the Rajya Sabha: “Gujarat is a state with the fourth largest population of tribals in India. They have no houses and little access to health or education. The tribals are exploited at many levels, be it the loot and extraction of mineral wealth by companies, or budget allocations for their welfare never reaching them. Besides tribals, Dalits, unorganised workers, small traders and farmers have all been affected. It has broken their backs and so they are coming together.”
Baiju Darawda’s three sons, all migrant labourers, are away from their village in Dang district
Beyond the talk of unfulfilled promises and pending proposals lies the stark reality of abject poverty and little hope. Most of the sugarcane-cutting labourers in prosperous areas such as Bardoli—which has the oldest cooperative sugar factory in Gujarat (and the largest in Asia)—come from Maharashtra and elsewhere in adivasi south Gujarat.
At a temporary settlement for labourers at Palsana village, about 10-12 km from Bardoli, a group of adivasi workers are waiting for the rains to stop. Huddled together and wrapped in thick shawls, the workers from Dang and Songadh areas, speaking in the Bhili language, talk about elections as an alien concept. “We need houses back home. We still live in kuchha houses,” says Bhimsingh, one of the older men. Only two or three are able to write their names and have any idea about Forest Rights Act, PESA or the Fifth Schedule. All of them have children, some school-going, some breast-feeding, who will spend six months with them on these sugarcane fields. When asked about the election, they simply point to their contractor, who, in turn, will wait for some politician to ferry them from Bardoli to their villages. “In panchayat elections, our votes are important. About this election, I am not sure,” says Shivabhai, their contractor.
“I don’t even know who the candidate is. If they take us to the village for the election, we will vote for someone or the other,” says Fusliben, holding a baby. The children hover around her, giggling when asked about schools. Actual voting behaviour shows traces of collective decision-making: gram sabhas (under the Fifth Schedule) do tilt votes. And, if anything, it often reveals a deep awareness. The 2014 election saw 4.20 lakh NOTA votes in Gujarat, and adivasi belts accounted for a bulk of them.
Cut to the place in Dang district the labourers come from—a protected forest, currently engulfed in cyclonic rains, mist and cold, where more than 90 per cent of the population are adivasis, who survive on four months of farming and working as migrant labourers the rest of the year. The houses are beautiful, thatched with mud coats and buffaloes wandering about. Inside, it is pitch dark—a lone CFL bulb hangs waiting for electricity. At Kakarda and Bhangodia villages, whose populations exceed 800 each, not more than few old people can be seen. The able-handed have been away since November, for sugarcane-cutting jobs.
Among those who are working as migrant labourers are three sons of Baiju and Thakurbhai Darawda. Another son is at home, recuperating from some disease, while two grandchildren go to a school that offers classes up to seventh standard. Baiju talks about water woes. A couple of neighbours talk about the pending claims under the Forest Rights Act, which they had made in 2009. They throw up their hands when asked about reservations and jobs. They know of just two persons in three nearby villages who have completed graduation and work as teachers. The terrain, the atmosphere and the villagers are reminiscent of India’s Oscar entry, Amit Masurkar’s Newton set in the forests of Bastar. Elections here are but a two-day blip in their lives.
Suddenly, the social media campaigns and plans for grand election rallies that got washed away because of the cyclonic rains seem to assume a different level of futility. And yet, there is no denying the significance of these 27 seats and the marginalised 15 per cent of Gujarat’s population they are reserved for. The hapless adivasis may indeed help the “tough contest” swing one way or the other, although with little expectation from either side.
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Bardoli and Dang