Debating India


Democracy’s deep roots

Siddharth NARRAIN

Wednesday 2 June 2004, by NARRAIN*Siddharth

Governments and political parties often ignore the remote hamlets in Rajasthan’s Barmer constituency. Still the residents turn up at the polling booths in large numbers, after trekking for hours in the desert heat. For them voting is a moral duty.

recently in Jaisalmer

Photographs: V.V. Krishnan

DOLU KHAN’S camel ride to the nearest polling station at Shahgarh began the night before election day. For Shahgarh is situated 18 kilometres away from his desert hamlet of Adakiya. There are no roads connecting his area to Shahgarh and the only means of travel is the `ship of the desert’. Sixty-three-year-old Dolu Khan, whose occupation is grazing cattle, chose to travel by starlight to escape the scorching heat of the Thar by day.

The voters of Shahgarh, which is 180 km from Jaisalmer, and the neighbouring hamlets of Adakiya, Bhindamangaliawala, Geyraja and Bhindadeslawala, located 80 km from the border with Pakistan, in Rajasthan’s Barmer constituency, had absolutely no inkling about the candidates they were going to elect; no political party bothered to campaign in these remote areas; no posters and banners or others signs of electioneering were in place to introduce sitting Member of Parliament Sona Ram Chaudhary of the Congress(I) or his Bharatiya Janata Party rival Manvinder Singh, son of Finance Minister Jaswant Singh, to the voters. Still they travelled to exercise their franchise as a matter of course. Dolu Khan said, his wrinkled face betraying a smile: "We were told by the election officials that voting takes place on 5th [May], so we have come. The government has given us the right to vote and we will vote."

The Shahgarh region is inhabited mainly by Muslims and Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts), who have a record of a high turnout in elections in Rajasthan. The percentage of voting in this region is more than 80. Traditionally, Muslims in Rajasthan have voted for the Congress. In Shahgarh, the voters did not have any clear preference. "I’m not sure which candidate to vote for," said Ranu Khan. "No one came here to campaign, so I have to choose some name."

These villages are truly deserted. There are absolutely no signs of development: no roads, no water, no electricity, no telephones and no medical facilities. The only indication of state presence is the two watchtowers of the Border Security Force (BSF). Yet come elections, every registered voter in these areas values his or her franchise so much that they do not hesitate to trudge several miles to the polling booth.

The voters who queued up at an abandoned school building at Shahgarh, it appears, have not even had their basic education. Only 11 out of the 178 people who cast their votes by afternoon had signed their names. The school was once a Rajiv Gandhi School, the name given to informal schools started in Rajasthan on the lines of the EGS (Education Guarantee Scheme) schools started in Madhya Pradesh where the government hired teachers on a contract basis. Says Harka Ram, a teacher at the Rajiv Gandhi School in Adakiya village, "There are only two government schools in this area. A primary school at Langtala, 40 km from here, and a middle school at Bachichod, 70 km away. The Rajiv Gandhi schools, although more accessible, do have problems retaining teachers. Says Ameer Khan, "Thirty children go to the school in Geyraja but there is no teacher. We reported this to the sarpanch but no steps were taken to appoint a teacher."

Health care is another neglected sector in the region. The nearest hospital is located in Ramgarh, which is 75 km away. The only way to get to Ramgarh is by camel. "Anyone who falls seriously ill has no chance of reaching the hospital in time," says Isah Khan of Dhani village. The result of the lack of health facilities is the low health indicators in the region. The infant mortality rate in Jaisalmer district is 86 per 1,000 as compared to 79 for the State of Rajasthan. There are 807 women for every 1,000 men in Jaisalmer as compared to 922 for the whole of Rajasthan.

The majority of people in the region are dependent on livestock for a livelihood. Their main occupation is rearing sheep and goats and cattle. Says Amir Khan: "Those who do not have cattle work as labourers in towns, the closest being Ramgarh and Jaisalmer. It is difficult for us to get any other work as we are not educated." The land that they live on is owned by the government. "At least if we owned the land, we could cultivate crops," he says.

Even this precarious existence is likely to deteriorate. The BSF, which has a post at Shahgarh, recently began a survey to convert a 200-km stretch in the area into a firing range. Since the government owns the land the villagers live on, it need not compensate them. Shahgarh’s problems have yet to draw the attention of the political bigwigs in distant Jaipur. No reporter has visited this area as yet, although a local newspaper in Ramgarh published the government’s announcement.

Yet, the people take their franchise sincerely. Their unwavering participation in democracy, though, has not helped improve their lives. Dola Mahr of Bakhri ki Dani asks: "How can we hope to get basic facilities without voting? There are no roads in our village. Transport is a huge problem. We have a doctor but he does not do his job." Says Aliv Khan of Dhani village: "The government has given us the right to vote and we will use it."

"There are too few inhabitants in this area to lobby for State transport. For that to happen, the government will first have to build roads here," adds Isah Khan.

Water is a huge problem in this parched land. Rainfall is deficient and the only source of water is the traditional well. Both people and animals are dependent on the well, and the level of the water is a constant source of worry. "In summer the wells dry up. There is barely enough water for us to drink. Even to reach the well we have to walk up to 15 km, " says Ramaan Khan. "The Indira Gandhi Canal does not extend to these areas," he says. Water harvesting methods could ease the problem but this would require investment, which is not within the people’s means.

However, the contrast with areas nearer to Jaisalmer is clear. In Asootar, the polling station 25 km east of Shahgarh, people began voting at 7 a.m. Men and women with children walked up to 10 km to reach the booth. The lucky ones managed to get a lift in the jeeps plied by supporters of political parties. In Bandha, east of Asootar, there was confusion about the use of the electronic voting machine. The voters did not know which button to press. "What is the use of a spoilt vote?" wondered Sorabh Mehr. "I have not been allowed to vote because I forgot to bring my photograph. I walked 10 km to reach the booth. How can I go all the way back?" Soda Khan asked.

The problems of Loonon ki Basti, 6 km from Jaisalmer, are not very different from those of Shahgarh or its surrounding hamlets, but there are signs of the state there. Although the village is not connected by a proper road, it is not far from the main road connecting Jaisalmer and Sam, a tourist spot. The 200-odd residents of Loonon ki Basti have a one-teacher government school offering education up to Class V and having a student strength of 80. Since the village is nearer to Jaisalmer, the villagers have access to the government hospital. However, Isaac Khan feels: "Our village needs a government dispensary." The most striking difference, though, is that people of Loonon ki Basti at least know their candidates and the parties in the fray. And there is a clear expectation from the electoral process. "I have traditionally voted for the Congress, but am voting for the BJP this time because we need a change in government," says Dhannu Khan.

The reason why Shahgarh is not on the map of political parties is its sheer inaccessibility. Of the 10 villages that come under this polling station, three are uninhabited. The high voter turnout at Shahgarh can be attributed to a combination of factors - a concentration of Muslims and S.Ts, who have traditionally voted in large numbers, and an acute awareness among the people that they are part of a democratic system where each vote is important. But there is a strong sense of disquiet with communal politics. "Being a Muslim has become a problem nowadays. We are not looked upon favourably as a community," says Ranu Khan, adding an important dimension to the disadvantages they have to cope with.

Says Mangal Singh Puniya, the electoral officer in Shahgarh: "People here are politically very advanced. They know that the more they vote, the better it is for democracy."

Voting is a tradition here. It is a combination of a moral duty and an awareness that it is a right that must be exercised.

See online : Frontline


Pic 1: Voters from Geyraja cover a distance of 15 km through the desert to reach Shahgarh.

Pic 2: At a polling booth at Shahgarh in Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan on May 5.

Pic 4 : Outside polling booths in Shahgarh.

Pic 5: Outside polling booths in Langtala.

Pic 6 : The village panchayat head blesses voters in Shahgarh.

Pic 7 : An elderly person being assisted to cast his vote at a polling booth in Suthar in Jaisalmer district.

Pic 8 : A poll official with the thumb impressions of voters in Shahgarh.

Pic 9 : Villagers being taken back in a jeep after voting.

Pic 10 : Braving the afternoon sun after casting their votes at a polling booth in Bandah. These residents of Astore hamlet near the border covered a one-way distance of 20 km to the booth.

Pic 12 : A shepherd family at Shahgarh on polling day.

Pic 13 : At a hamlet in the Thar desert.

in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 11, May 22 - Jun 04, 2004.

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0