In an election where every vote will count, the decision by over 12,000 voters from 24 Kalu dam project-affected villages around Murbad in Thane district to boycott elections has left political parties in a tizzy.
In a terse letter, to the returning officer of Bhiwandi parliamentary constituency, the villagers have questioned, "Why should we trust the nation's largest electoral exercise when it continues to negate and ignore the smallest elected unit – our gramsabhas?" and added, "We have passed unanimous resolutions in all gramsabhas to cancel the project but disregarding that, work on the dam was illegally begun without a single permission in place."
Mangal Mahadu Nimase of Kharshet village, one of the signatories on the letter and who was present at a meeting where the project-affected converged on Saturday, told dna, "We could've used the 'None Of The Above' option button on the voting machines but that doesn't affect the parties. Now they'll realise how angry we are."
According to government data, 24 revenue villages and 62 hamlets with a total population of 19,456 will be submerged. While this includes homesteads and agricultural land, it doesn't take into account loss of individually or community-owned forest land which are used as grazing grounds. The tribals have records showing communal ownership rights over these land since the 1950s.
Actually 42 villages (33, totally adivasi), will be completely cut off as the approach roads will be submerged. "Applying for a ration card, registering a police complaint or seeking health care at the Murbad rural hospital, will mean a trek up the Naneghat hills into Pune district, and finding some mode of transport back," says Vithhoba Jadhav, 65 of Khutal village. "With no access to school, our children will be forced to drop out."
All parties are wooing the villagers even while showing sympathy for the boycott. "Politicians know this issue will galvanise voters across the region, given its emotional appeal. That's why they are chasing us," joked Kisan Alam, a local panelist on the Kalu Dharan Viruddh Kriti Samiti.
Rebel returnee to BJP and ex-MLA Digambar Vishe, said his party is against displacement of advasis and blamed state for its 'aggressive push for this illegal project'. On the Kalu dam being on the agenda of BJP's ally Shiv Sena, he said, "Shiv Sena should think of other alternatives to augment Mumbai's water supply."
Sena's Subhash Gharat, whose party thinks the dam will solve Mumbai's water problems, said, "The top leaders can bother about the conflict of opinion. As a local, my concerns are here."
While Congress' Harishchandra Gholap put the ball in NCP's court saying irrigation is their responsibility, sitting NCP legislator Kishan Kathore was smug. "This letter has only gone to the returning officer. Unless they send me a written request how can I look into this?"
It is this "arrogance" that embittered locals says Alam. He remembers Ajit Pawar's reaction as the then irrigation minister during a November 2011 Mantralaya meeting. "We spoke of our difficulties. He kept talking of our greed for more and more compensation."