Disenchanted Surjagad flaunts NOTA

The Hindu | Sharad Vyas | April 10, 2019

Nearly 25,000 voters to register protest against iron ore mining on forestland

A day after Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Bhima Mandavi was killed by Maoists in Dantewada, 70 gram sabhas along the Chhattisgarh-Maharashtra border have announced they will choose the NOTA, or none of the above, option in the Lok Sabha election on Thursday.

An estimated 25,000 voters living around the iron ore deposits of Surjagad in remote Gadchiroli took this decision in protest against the Maharashtra government’s approval of iron ore mining on 40,900 acres of forestland and the increased “militarisation” of 70 gram sabhas in the Etapalli tehsil, having a population of 81,700 spread over 180 villages in the highly sensitive security zone.

Hours after the killing of Mr. Mandavi, the local Maoist dalam announced a boycott of the election. Several banners dot the Etapalli-Surjagad road, urging villagers to ‘kill’ politicians asking for votes. “Boycott the Lok Sabha elections, kill any politician who comes asking for votes. We need a new Constitution,” reads one of the posters put up along the road to Gatta, the last village on the Maharashtra side and considered a highly sensitive zone by security forces.

The village, 160 km from Gadchiroli, is at the heart of the decade-long Surjagad anti-mining struggle.

“We do not want any money during elections, neither do we want poll promises of employment. These are our natural resources, our gods, our forests, our minerals, our pride. We want all of this back. The ruling government in the State has not only increased the military presence here but even given permission to private companies to mine large parts of our forestland. We will opt for NOTA as a mark of our protest,” Sainu Masu Gota, anti-iron ore mine activist, said.

Mr. Gota and his wife, Sheela, had won as Independents in the 2017 local body election, along with activist Lalsu Narote from Bhamragadh on an anti-mining plank and highlighting the alleged increase in the police atrocities in this region.

Mining was first permitted on the Wooria hills here in 2007, after the then government gave permission to Llyod Steel. The company stopped work owing to “local protests and a heavy naxal presence”. The Maoists shot down three senior company employees in 2013.

Mineral reserves

When inaugurating the project at Surjagad in 2016, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis had said that “additional security” was a necessity for setting up of industries and processing of the rich mineral reserves.

“We will either choose NOTA or vote against the mining project as has been the case in the past. The vote will also be against police brutality, and harassment by state machinery. We do not want to totally boycott the polls since that would seem to indicate allegiance to the Maoists,” said resident and activist Manohar Borkar.

Ashok Nete, the local BJP MP, admits complications have arisen out of the implementation of the Panchayatiraj Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) and the Forest Rights Act (FRA), both of which have created a divide between the tribal people and the Other Backward Classes. “Our intention (BJP government) is to make the most of the mineral-rich region to attract industries. I have raised the question of the divide (between the OBCs and tribal people) in Parliament and the resultant injustice,” Ashok Nete, BJP MP from Gadchiroli, said.

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