In the second week of October, a meeting was organised in the southern Odisha district of Koraput attended by politicians from Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. Though they hailed from three different States, they were united on one common goal — a union territory for tribals.
Decades of reported neglect by the Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh governments have made these politicians join hands on one platform and demand Dandakaranya Union Territory.
Dandakaranya, synonymous with poverty and underdevelopment, has been a so-called division of the outlawed CPI(Maoist) rebels, who used to hold sway there almost for three decades. However, their influence is on the decline now following massive deployment of security forces.
In late 1950s, the Indian government had settled displaced persons from Bangladesh (East Pakistan) and named it the Dandakaranya Development Authority. They were settled in Odisha and the present day Chhattisgarh.
Jayaram Pangi, a former Minister, four-time MLA and once Member of Parliament of Koraput, recently decided to end his association with the Bharatiya Janata Party and work towards the cause. “The tribals are never given due importance in policies and their implementation. Neither the State nor the Central government has worked for their development,” said Mr. Pangi.
An umbrella body has been formed — ‘Dandakaranya Parbatmala Bikash Parishad’ (DPBP) — to carry the movement forward. During the past several months, the group has been fighting for a permanent solution to the Kotia gram panchayat in Koraput district disputed by both Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
The people are reported to be disheartened by the alleged apathetic attitude of the Naveen Patnaik government and other mainstream political parties towards their cause.
When a meeting of the DPBP was convened on October 10, the group received a ‘pleasant’ surprise when the former Central Minister and prominent Chhattisgarh tribal leader, Arvind Netam, and Gangadhara Swamy Setti dropped in to extend their support. Mr. Setty had unsuccessfully fought the Assembly election in Araku valley in Andhra Pradesh.
Former District Collector of Koraput Gadadhar Parida, an active member of the DPBP, said, “Big dam projects in undivided Koraput district have rendered thousands of people displaced and villages submerged. The hydro-power generated from here illuminated urban area . But the people in mostly tribal areas remained in the shadow of development.”
“Similarly, the big mining industrial project by public sector NALCO and defence project by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited did not benefit the local people, who had parted with their land,” he said.
“The only development the local tribals saw were roads, hospitals and schools meant for Bangladeshi settlers. The Sri Lankan refugees were settled in Malkangiri. But, the tribals felt alienated because nothing was done for them. The fault-line between local tribals and setters is widening,” Mr. Parida added.
The undivided Koraput district, which was constituted in 1936, decided to stay with Odisha, Mr. Parida said, adding, about 85 years have lapsed, neither the Odisha government nor those at the helm of the affairs have accepted them.
“It is a hard reality now that the Odisha government would not come to our rescue. There is no option left for us but to start demanding the UT status for Dandakaranya. We don’t want a separate State,” he said.
Mr. Pangi said, “Demanding UT is the right step towards safeguarding the future. Like the British, the present-day government is taking away valuable mineral resources using gram sabhas.”
Mr. Netam said, “The region has a homogeneous population. They speak Disari language and their culture is the same. We have invited the DPBP leadership to hold meetings in Chhattisgarh and if the people wish to have a separate identity, what can the government do?”
Mr. Setti appears to be more ambitious. He said, “The tribals living in bordering areas of Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Telangana should have a separate State. They can decide on abundant mineral resources available in their region.”
The confidence of Mr. Pangi stems from the fact that majority of population in Dandakaranya area is tribal. “My tribe – Kandh — constitutes 40% of the total population. They will definitely get united for the cause.”