The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Beer, not ballot, lures Bastar tribals

Bastar, Nov. 30: This tribal-dominated tail of Chhattisgarh holds a wretched record — the voter turnout in villages here has been the lowest in the country for the past two decades. On an average, 20 to 40 per cent of the electorate have voted in successive polls since 1980.

There seems to be little threat to the trend this time, too. Tribal Chhattisgarh is curiously cold to the election process.

“Nothing can distract the tribals from their love for folk dance and hadiya (the local rice beer),” slurred Hingoram, the 57-year-old mukhiya (headman) of Handakhodra village, comprising 60 families of Maria and Dhuruva tribes, in Dantewara, nearly 500 km from capital Raipur. He had been drinking since morning.

In the 1980 and 1983 elections, 23 per cent voters cast their ballots in Dantewara. The percentage rose to 38 in 1998. In Konta and Bijapur blocks, the percentage varied between 35 and 36 per cent in 1998.

Bastar has been indifferent to statehood. Still mired in illiteracy and battered by malnutrition, frequent epidemics and Naxalite violence, the first election in the new state has no relevance for the tribals.

Apart from the weakness for dance, drums and drink, their apathy towards politics can be attributed to an unnatural class alienation in tribal society. Six leading families rule Bastar through “dynastic” hegemony, a legacy of the Congress.

All of them were baptised into the power game by heavyweights like Arjun Singh, Madhavrao Scindia and P.C. Shetty in undivided Madhya Pradesh. Thus, the seventies and eighties witnessed the emergence of tribal leaders like Baliram Kashyap, Ganga Potai, Mankuram Sodi, Arvind Netam and Mahendra Karma.

“Although they are still in active politics and contesting polls, their offsprings and relatives are gradually taking over the second line of leadership, preventing fresh young blood (from the wider tribal society) from entering the arena,” said Prof. H. Netam, a research scholar in Bastar University.

Baliram Kashyap’s son Subhan and Mankuram Sodi’s son Budhram are also in the fray this time. Arvind Netam’s brother Shiv is a former Congress minister.

Although these leaders began as “voices to the greater tribal aspiration in the underdeveloped hill districts”, they drifted away over the years.

Basic issues like health, education and overall development were neglected.

Drunk on power, money and clout, once-popular leaders like Arvind Netam became embroiled in one of the biggest scams in Bastar — the malik-makbuja scandal pertaining to illegal grabbing of tribal land.

The statistics of human suffering are appalling. In Kota block alone, over 300 tribals died of cholera in 2002-03 after drinking contaminated water.

In Bijapur block, malaria claimed 125 lives in the corresponding period. None of these issues figure on the campaign speeches of the mainstream political parties, barring the CPI and the CPM.

In urban areas like Jagdalpur, the headquarters of Bastar district, the feeling of disenchantment is palpable. “We have given a lot to Delhi and the state, but we have not received much in return,” said senior Bengali settler T.K. Basu of Jagdalpur.

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