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Forest dwellers demand franchise

File picture of a rally demanding voting rights to forest dwellers

Guwahati: The demand for voting rights for 50,000 people living in forestland in central Assam's Sonitpur district has gained momentum as the state plans to hold panchayat elections later this year.

The voters, mostly Bodos, Garos and Adivasis, are allowed to caste votes in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections but not in the panchayat polls as they have "encroached" upon forestland.

"The Assam governor had issued a notification in 2016 for inclusion of forest dwellers (in voters list), as per the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006. But nothing has been done yet. Since there is no panchayat in these areas, there are no roads, schools are in a deplorable condition and there are no Anganwadi centres or electricity. We demand that indigenous people be allotted land as per the Traditional Forest Dwellers Act and allowed to vote in the next panchayat elections," Khaneswar Boro, adviser of the Sonitpur district unit of the All Bodo Students' Union (Absu), told The Telegraph on Tuesday.

Most of the forest villages are situated in Rangapara, Bhalukpong, Balipara, Dhekiajuli, Belsri and Hograjuli under Dhekiajuli and Sootea Assembly constituencies. At least 12 villages are situated in the Sonai Rupai wildlife sanctuary but Boro said the villagers are willing to vacate the wildlife sanctuary areas if they are allotted land outside.

"After Gunotsav, the government appointed a teacher in each of the 42 schools. But how can one person teach 40 to 50 students?" Boro asked.

Raju Kymar Narzary, executive director of the Northeast Research and Social Work Networking, an NGO based in Kokrajhar, said, "It is surprising to see such a huge number of people being deprived of their voting rights in panchayat elections although they have been casting their votes in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections for decades."

Sonitpur deputy commissioner Manoj Kumar Deka, when asked, said these villagers remain deprived of franchise in panchayat polls as the Assam Panchayat Act 1994 does not allow setting of panchayats in forest land. "Efforts are on to provide land to encroachers but there are many new settlers on forest land," he added.

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