Rarely does a village in India have two ‘elected’ sarpanches wielding their authority and implementing welfare schemes. However, when Kushe Harka, the 45-year-old woman sarpanch, and Liu Gemel, the 40-year-old male sarpanch, walk through the dusty lanes of Phagunasineri village, they command equal respect, and villagers on their part also get developmental works implemented under their leadership. While Liu Gemel represents Odisha, Kushe Harka represents Andhra Pradesh.
In Phagunasineri village, tucked away in the forested hilly areas along the Odisha-Andhra Pradesh border, Tila Pangi flashes two land pattas (record of rights) issued separately by Odisha and Andhra Pradesh under the Forest Rights Act 2006.
A few houses away in Phagunasineri, Tulsi Pangi sends her three-year-old son to an anganwadi run by the Odisha government while her six-year-old elder son would learn Telugu and pursue school education with the Rs. 15,000 financial support extended by Andhra Pradesh.
At the heart of the ‘dual citizenry’, lies an over seven-decade-old Odisha-AP border dispute that has peaked in recent times and is getting wider with every passing day. Both States are busy flooding welfare schemes at mere mention by the tribals.
Odisha and A.P. have challenged each other’s administrative control over Kotia gram panchayat or Kotia group of villages comprising 21 revenue villages. The Supreme Court has ordered status quo over possession over Kotia.
For the first time in 2021, Andhra Pradesh set up polling booths in Kotia villages and held direct panchayat elections in some villages. A year later in 2022, Odisha held elections to three-tier panchayati raj institutions in the same set of villages. On both occasions, hundreds of villagers, who possess two separate voter identity cards issued by Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, happily exercised their franchise – a rare voting right enjoyed by them.
The double bonanza is not confined to voting rights only. A significant size of tribal population in the Kotia panchayat avail subsidised food grain under the National Food Security Act from the two States. Eligible elderly population get old age pension separately from Odisha and A.P.; similarly, pension for widows, destitutes and differently-abled persons flow from two sources.
The Odisha government has announced a special package of Rs. 150 crore for the forest region. About Rs. 120 crore of the fund has already spent on physical infrastructure in the Kotia panchayat. Not many panchayat headquarters in Odisha can boast of a community health centre, police station, bank, residential English medium school, separate hostels for students and a helipad.
A.P. is also investing heavily in social security schemes for Kotia villagers by deploying officials who have been assigned to personally deliver government benefits at their doorsteps.
Recently, Andhra Pradesh carved out a new district called ‘Manyam’ from Parvatipuram, including disputed Kotia as its own.
In 1936, Odisha was the first state formed on linguistic basis in the country.
According to Koraput Gazetteer , after formation of the province of Odisha, it had all along been having revenue, criminal and civil jurisdiction over Kotia.
The boundary dispute actually arose in March 1955 when some officers of AP Government tried to collect rent from Kotia, which was a group of un-surveyed villages. Odisha protested the move. No solution emerged. “When both the states prepared to conduct general election in the disputed villages in the year 1967, the then Home Minister Y.V. Chavan mediated between two CMs on September 12, 1968,” says the Gazetteer .
As the matter remained unsolved, Odisha moved the Supreme Court in 1968. The SC has since then ordered maintaining the status quo. In Kotia GP, there are 28 villages.
Of these villages, 21 are disputed while seven are undisputedly Odisha villages. In early 2021, Odisha government again moved SC challenging panchayat elections in three villages of Kotia by Andhra Pradesh.
In last few years, Andhra Pradesh has mobilized its administration and ensured that villagers from about 100 Odisha villages (under six different tahsils) take part in their elections. The neighbouring State is building documentary evidence to stake claim on more Odisha villages
Former District Collector, Koraput