Seeking the tribal vote

Seeking the tribal vote
Scheduled tribes, who account for 45 lakh or over 12 per cent of Gujarat's electorate, dominate areas that traditionally used to be Congress strongholds. However, the party's sway is no longer total, as seen in 2002 when the BJP won more reserved seats.

This time, with the BJP facing resentment in the Saurashtra-Kutch region and staring at possible losses there, it has sensed the need to tap the ST vote bank spread across 34 constituencies, 27 of them ST-reserved, in Valsad, Navsari, Dangs, Dahod, Narmada, Vadodara, Banaskantha and Sabarkantha districts. Chief Minister Narendra Modi announced several sops for tribals just a few months before the Assembly polls.

Of the 26 ST-reserved seats in 2007, the BJP had won 11 to the Congress's 14, ceding some of the ground it had snatched in 2002 with 13 seats to the Congress's 11. In 1998, the BJP had trailed the Congress eight seats to 15.

"Today, a large number of tribals support the BJP unlike in the 1980s when the Congress would hold sway over the adivasis," said social activist Achyut Yagnik. "The change has come over time with a number of factors such as penetration of the Hindutva ideology in tribal regions, emergence of middle class among small groups of beneficiaries of reservation, and some tribals joining modern Hindu sects. Realising the possible offset it might face in Saurashtra, the BJP is clearly trying to increase its tally in the tribal belt this time."

Modi recently announced that over 75,000 applications under the Forest Rights Act, submitted by tribals with claims to forest resources but rejected "on technical grounds", would now be reassessed. Further sops included the formation of two districts, Chhota Udepur and Aravalli, both tribal-dominated, besides new taluka of Poshina in Sabarkantha.

The government's Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana, launched in 2007 for tribal development with a Rs 15,000-crore budget, has been extended for another five years. The government has claimed that it has so far spent around Rs 13,000 crore under the Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana on skill development and employment, helping 3.4 lakh tribal households rise above the poverty line, providing concrete houses to 2.7 lakh BPL families, and giving pension to around 2 lakh tribals.

Tribal activist Ganesh Devy, who runs the Tribal Academy at Tejgadh, says a lot more needs to be done. "Government expenditure on tribal development has been massive, but development efforts lack focus, and expenditure alone is not the yardstick of development." Devy said. "Migration of tribals as construction labourers to bigger cities has not gone down. Public transportation in tribal regions remains poor as ever. Not a single railway line has come up joining tribal regions in the state in the last one decade. Despite constituting 14 per cent of the population, tribals hardly account for 1 per cent of faculty in Gujarat's universities," Devy added.

The Congress, wary of the BJP's efforts, has been attacking the government for alleged lapses in allocation of funds meant for tribals and for failing to implement various Central and state schemes in tribal regions, a key one being the Forest Rights Act.

"Of 1.9 lakh claims to benefits under the Act within my constituency, 1,900 have been settled so far; the applications of all other claimants were rejected by state government officials," said Amarsinh Vasava, Congress MLA from ST-reserved Dediapada constituency in Narmada district.

Opposition leaders have attacked the BJP for failing to implement schemes, including MNREGA and Indira Awas Yojana, in tribal regions. "The state government has not provided us funds that we have been demanding under various schemes for development of my constituency," said Chhotu Vasava, JD(U) MLA from Jhagadia in Bharuch. "We have asked for funds to construct bridges, irrigation facilities, houses, but got none."

The BJP MLA from ST-reserved Sankheda constituency, Abhesinh Tadvi, sought to highlight how much the government has done for such areas. "In these five years, the state government granted us Rs 70-80 crore to set up bridges and water supply facilities," Tadvi said.

The Congress says there may be many schemes for tribals, but attacks the government over their implementation. In a 12-point manifesto, the Congress has emphasised that it "will make sure proper constitutional allotment of budget for tribals...Tribal budget will never be allowed to lapse or be diverted".

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