Tide turns in Agency as tribals defy Maoists to elect their sarpanch for the first time in 15 years
Gram panchayat elections were last held 15 years ago in Balapam panchayat, an interior area in the Andhra Odisha Border (AOB) region of Chintapalli mandal, in Visakha Agency.
Though Assembly and Lok Sabha elections were conducted here, tribals did not come out to vote for fear of reprisals from Maoists who have a strong presence in the region.
However, all that changed as tribals defied the Maoists to come out in large numbers and elect their sarpanch in the gram panchayat elections that were conducted on February 17 (Wednesday).
Fifteen years ago, the Maoists had killed the then sarpanch candidate, sending shockwaves among the tribals. The Chintapalli area is a stronghold of the Korukonda Area Committee of the CPI (Maoist) and is headed by Kora Nageswara Rao, who has a notorious reputation among the locals.
Even during the recently-held elections, the Maoists had given a call to boycott the elections and even held a meeting at Diguvalasapalli. They threatened the tribals with dire consequences, but despite that the tribals came out in large numbers to cast their franchise. Sources say that the tribals had even questioned Kora Nageswara Rao why he and the Maoists were opposed to the villagers casting their vote, which is a basic democratic right.
“This indicates that the tribals are rejecting the Maoist ideology and are wishing to join the mainstream. The tide is turning,” said Additional Superintendent of Police (Chintapalli) Vidyasagar Naidu.
Balapam recorded around 50% polling while Chintapalli recorded over 55%.
In Visakha Agency, there are 11 mandals, all of which are LWE-affected.
But despite the ban call from the Maoists, the 11 mandals recorded close to 70% polling, with Dumbriguda reporting the highest polling percentage of 81.13% followed by Hukumpeta with 78% and Araku Valley with 76.24%. Paderu mandal reported 73.42% voting. G.K. Veedhi mandal witnessed the least voting percentage of 56.09% among the other mandals.
After a long gap, the tribal areas witnessed a sizeable turnout, despite voting time being limited only till 1.30 p.m. In some areas, people were seen standing in the queues by as early as 6 a.m., before the scheduled time of 6.30 a.m.
The entire Visakha Agency covers about 6,200 sq km, which is thickly forested. There 3,637 tribal habitats, and 1,136 villages are inhabited by particularly vulnerable tribal groups or earlier known as primitive tribal groups.
Of the 3,637 tribal hamlets, around 1,200 do not have any form of road connectivity.
Of the 244 gram panchayats, 237 had gone for sarpanch polls, the remaining being elected unanimously. Polls were also held for 1,465 ward members. The total number of voters in Visakha Agency, which is categorised under Paderu revenue division, were 4,36,103.
The number of polling stations earmarked were 2,386 and in some of the panchayats, the nearest polling station was 5 to 6 km away.
“Trekking long distances has become part of our daily life. We trek for over 20 km at times to reach a PHC (public health centre) or a shandy (weekly market) or to a ration depot. So, trekking a distance of 3 to 6 km was no huge task for us,” said Rama Rao Dora of Girijan Sangham.
According to District Collector V. Vinay Chand, over 543 vehicles were deployed for the polls. They were used not only to carry men and material for polling, but also to facilitate the movement of the tribals.
There were some difficulties faced by elderly and pregnant women, but wherever possible, we used our own resources to reach the polling stations, said Kilo Surendra of Girijan Sangham.
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