The hills of Odisha and Andra Pradesh are alive with the sound of dual voting

Kotia, a predominantly tribal gram panchayat that Odisha and Andhra both claim, seeks to vote differently — with two votes to a person, one in each State, in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections. Satyasundar Barik finds that even as the matter of territory is in the Supreme Court, people here claim rights from both States, making the duty to vote a logical corollary 

Updated - May 10, 2024 11:08 am IST

Published - May 10, 2024 01:02 am IST

Sundhuru Tadingi displays his voter card for both Andhra and Odisha at Madkar village, in the Kotia gram panchayat, Koraput district, south Odisha.

Sundhuru Tadingi displays his voter card for both Andhra and Odisha at Madkar village, in the Kotia gram panchayat, Koraput district, south Odisha. | Photo Credit: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Mushri Tadingi, 45, sits on a charpoy outside his just-constructed concrete house, at an altitude of 1,200 metres in the heart of the Eastern Ghats along the border of Odisha and Andhra Pradesh. As the sun beats down, relentless in a month that the meteorological department forecasts will have above-normal heatwave days, he contemplates his voting strategy on May 13, for the upcoming fourth phase of India’s Lok Sabha elections.

“In the morning I will cast my vote in Odisha, and in the afternoon, I will go to the Andhra Pradesh polling booths,” says Mushri, hailing from Madkar village in the Kotia panchayat that Odisha claims is part of the State’s Koraput district and Andhra claims is part of their Parvathipuram Manyam district. He is nervous about how he is going to do this though, considering the indelible ink will be marked on his finger once he votes the first time.

As 96.8 crore Indian citizens participate in one of the world’s most extensive elections, 5,510 voters will go to nine polling booths established by Odisha and three by Andhra, in the predominantly tribal Kotia gram panchayat. The jurisdiction of the area is under dispute between Odisha and Andhra Pradesh in the Supreme Court, and residents are set to vote differently from the rest of the population, with the anomaly of voting in both States. The States claim 21 unsurveyed villages across about 15 kilometres, with both undertaking infrastructure development and implementing social security schemes.

For Suka Himirka, 36, a Kondh tribesman living in Phatusineri village that also comes under Kotia, is also clear: “I will travel 3 kilometres to Phagunsineri, to the Odisha polling booth, to cast my vote. After lunch, I will make my way to the Sikhapurvu polling station, which is 12 km from my home, in Andhra Pradesh,” he says.

Spread across mountainous and forested terrain, Kotia is located approximately 70 km away from the district headquarter town of Koraput in southern Odisha, about 80 km away from Parvathipuram, the district headquarters for Parvathipuram Manyam town. Most people speak a mix of Odiya and Telugu, with the latter being the dominant language.

Despite the harsh summer conditions, perennial streams cascade down the hills to nurture paddy crops in terraced fields. Kotia hills, located not far from big bauxite deposits, serve as grounds for shifting cultivation by those who live here. Despite daytime temperatures at about 42 degrees Celsius, people go about their agricultural work — it is their lifeline. As is the understanding that voting in both Odisha and Andhra polling booths is important for double the benefits — Kotia’s population has two Aadhar cards and two governments offer them pensions, rations, and subsidies.

As October arrives, just after the rainy season, the 28 (seven villages have no dispute) remote Kotia villages turn cool and green. People cultivate a range of vegetables, while the terraced fields throw up sweet bananas and vibrant red strawberries. The area has not been consumed by tourists though, as there are scarcely any tourist amenities, and the serpentine road network presents a challenge even for experienced drivers.

The conflict and legal battles

According to the Koraput Gazetteer, a government document last published in 2015 that gives a brief about the area’s history, the jurisdiction dispute arose in March 1955, when some officials of the Andhra Pradesh government, part of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, tried to collect rent from villagers of Kotia. The Odisha government took up the matter with Andhra in August 1955. The Government of India took note of the dispute when both the States prepared for general election in the disputed villages in 1967. The mediation between the two States by then Union Home Minister, Y.V. Chavan failed to yield an outcome agreeable to both States. The Odisha government moved the Supreme Court on November 18, 1968.

The Supreme Court had, in 1968, directed the two States to respect the status quo. The Odisha government has always maintained that the status quo means the State is in control of these villages as all administrative units have been functioning since the Odisha’s formation in 1936. After 2015, Andhra Pradesh started implementing social security schemes vigorously.

While both State governments claim to offer many benefits, the area has largely remained underdeveloped. In 2018, under the leadership of S.P. Thakur, then chief administrator of KBK (Koraput-Balangir-Kalahandi), the Odisha government formed the Inter Departmental Committee to assess welfare activities. The committee observed that students from Kotia could only reach a high school after a 12-km journey, with some villages lacking accessible roads altogether.

With criticism growing within the State, of Odisha losing control of Kotia , the Naveen Patnaik government allocated ₹150 crore through a special package to enhance the infrastructure in Kotia panchayat. This led to the setting up of a community health centre, a police station, a bank, a residential English-medium school, separate hostels for students, and even a helipad.

The tension between the two States escalated when Andhra established polling booths in Kotia villages and conducted direct panchayat elections in select villages in 2021, disregarding Odisha’s objections. Then Koraput Collector Abdal Akhtar told his counterparts the matter was sub-judice and the A.P. should desist from conducting elections.

In 2022, Odisha proceeded to conduct panchayat elections in the same villages, claiming a significant turnout from voters at xx%. In both state elections, the voters of Kotia participated and elected their representatives, with one representing Odisha and two representing Andhra.

In its 2021 panchayat poll notification, the A.P. renamed Talaganjeipadar to Ganjayibhadra and Phagunsineri to Paguluchennuru, thereby creating two new panchayats. Two sarpanches from A.P. approached the Supreme Court in 2022, seeking order to invalidate the Odisha elections and declare 21 villages as part of Salur mandal in Vizianagaram district, A.P. However, Division Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Surya Kant declined to entertain the petition. The dispute remained confined to written correspondence and legal battles in the Supreme Court.

The 2024 election battle

The Chief Electoral Officer of Odisha, Nikunja Bihari Dhal, says, “Odisha has been traditionally holding elections in the villages and Kotia had polled above 65% in 2014 and 2019 general elections.”

Keerthi Vasan, Koraput District Collector, says that elaborate arrangements have been made for smooth conduct of the election. “In the run up to elections, we had carried out voter awareness programmes by holding rangoli competition among women and taking the youth on a trekking expedition to Deomali mountain top,” he says.

The Parvathipuram Manyam district administration too has made preparation for holding elections in Kotia. The polling stations at Sikhaparuvu, Nerellavalsa, and Kurukutti are expecting 2,554 voters to travel even 20 km to cast their votes. While Nerellavalsa is located in Kotia panchayat, the two other polling booths are well inside A.P. Parvathipuram Manyam District Collector Nishant Kumar could not be reached for comment.

Meanwhile, the campaigning has gained momentum after filing and scrutiny of nomination of candidates. Political leaders from Odisha are campaigning in the area with commitments of preventing the area from slipping under the administrative control of another State.

Ramachandra Kadam, a Congress candidate for Pottangi Assembly constituency, the voting of which is also on May 13, says, “The escalation of the conflict occurred only three years ago. Odisha must seal its borders and ensure that no unauthorised people from the A.P. side influence voters.”

Prafulla Pangi, the candidate fielded by the Biju Janata Dal, sees no issue with the desire of Kotia voters to cast their votes twice on May 13. “The Naveen Patnaik government has already spent ₹200 crore for the improvement of physical infrastructure and the livelihood of Kotia villagers. I see no reason why the people of Odisha would not vote for us,” Pangi says.

Peedika Rajanna Dora, A.P. Deputy Chief Minister, who represents Salur Assembly constituency, says he had written to the Chief Election Commission and Chief Electoral Officer of Andhra Pradesh seeking deployment of separate force in Kotia for smooth conduct of elections. “I fear voters may forcefully be prevented from voting. It happened earlier and it could happen this time also,” Dora said in a video message, speaking to reporters, in April.

Two States, two votes

People in Kotia find themselves inundated with welfare schemes even before they demand them. Mushri, articulating the sentiments of many, says, “When we go to an Odisha polling booth on the morning on May 13, our only condition will not to be inked. If our index finger is marked by the indelible purple-black ink, we will surely lose the opportunity to vote for the Andhra Pradesh candidates later in the day.”

Sundhuru Tadingi of Madkar village says, “Our village has resolved to boycott the elections if coercion is exerted to ink us in the morning.” Residents across locations like Phagunsineri, Phatusineri, and Doliamba, raise a similar demand — the right to vote in both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh polling booths.

Kotia villagers get a number of welfare schemes from both States. A conservative estimate puts a family’s access to funds through livelihood and other schemes at close to ₹1 lakh annually.  

“From the A.P. side, we get annual assistance such as a study support of ₹15,000, a cash benefit of ₹14,000 per every individual forest rights card holder, and ₹20,000 for women between 45 and 60,” says Sundhuru. Besides, a monthly old-age pension of ₹3,000 per family, there’s also ₹3,000 per person per month for those in the region. Then there’s free electricity and interest-free loans for self-help groups.

The Odisha government focuses on physical infrastructure, and also pays a monthly old-age pension of ₹1,000 per person, an annual assistance of ₹10,000 under KALIA or Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation, a farmer-welfare package. Housebuilding assistance is offered from both States.

Sudana Arika, 70, a resident of Phagunsineri, says, “We couldn’t ask for more. The A.P. government supplies a comprehensive monthly ration, encompassing over 15 commodities, from sugar and dal to detergent and turmeric. Odisha government’s financial benefits are not bad either.”

Election managers laugh off the demand for double voting on a single day. “It is not feasible. No voter will be allowed to leave polling booths without being marked with ink. It leaves no doubt that this demand is absurd,” said N. Thirumala Naik, Additional Chief Electoral Officer of Odisha and nodal officer for the general election, 2024.

Sukar Himirka in Phatusineri village asserts, “We have been voting for candidates from both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh for decades. We will continue to do so.”

Gadadhar Parida, former District Collector of Koraput feels that land is not about just marking territory. “We must look at territorial integrity. The dispute must be settled keeping the history of geographical jurisdiction over Kotia in mind.”

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