Village No. 1 on Maharashtra rolls cut off from mainland, and poll fervour

Sandeep A Ashar
Manibeli, the first village on the electoral rolls of Maharashtra's Parliamentary Constituency No. 1 - Nandurbar - is a tribal pocket that has no road, and is accessible only by a two-hour boat ride on the Narmada. There is no electricity and no telephones. Prashant Nadkar

At a time when election fervour is at its peak across the country, 28-year-old Zeba Vasave, a resident of Manibeli village in north Maharashtra's Nandurbar, is unaware of the election rhetoric. Ask her who Narendra Modi is, she says she does not know. Ask her who Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi are. She does not know.

Bhika isn't alone. With no access to the basic facilities, tribal families residing in this village find the poll rhetoric irrelevant.

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Tucked away in the remotest corner of the district, Manibeli is the first village listed on Maharashtra's voter rolls. An election campaign in Manibeli is unlike most other places in the country because of two simple reasons - its geography and its people.

Situated along the Satpuda mountain range, the tribal pocket is inaccessible by road. A two-hour boat ride in the backwaters of the Narmada river is the only way to travel to the place. With no electricity and telephone connectivity either, the village is virtually cut-off from the rest of the mainland.

While election cavalcades are busy reaching out to voters across the country, Manibeli's first sarpanch, Narayan Tadvi (65), claimed: "No one (MP, MLA, top politicians) has ever come here. We're only identified as village number 1 in the voter rolls. But nobody really cares about us."

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According to Tadvi, the fact that the village has been declared as an "area under submergence" in the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) hasn't helped at all. "Each time the local gram panchayat has pushed for a power connection or for accrual of benefits of the government-run schemes, they've hit a wall. The proposals are turned down, citing the 'area under submergence' status. More than 240 families reside in Manibeli. But the authorities just refuse to acknowledge their presence," said Chetan Salve, an activist with Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) that has been fighting for the rights of the local tribals. "The situation is not dissimilar in 32 other dam-affected villages (in Maharashtra) in the vicinity," he added.

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Bhura Vasave (60) echoed his viewpoint. "India got Independence in 1947. But it does not feel that it has been good for our village."
Just as political parties have been lining up behind digitisation initiatives to rev up their poll campaigns, lack of community forces villagers here to use "rudimentary means of communication".

"We have no electricity. There is no telephone connection," said Natwar Tadvi, a local. Also, while the government has been pushing the project of building pucca homes and toilets in other tribal pockets, villagers here are yet to benefit from one.

For the record, Manibeli was among the first villages from Maharashtra to be declared as Sardar Sarovar-affected in the mid-1980s. When the dam waters were released in 1994-95, Manilal Tadvi (75) recounts how the entire village was marooned. "We lost our houses and livestock. Our crops were ravaged. While we rebuilt our homes but were never compensated adequately for it."

In fact, Jatar Vasave (58) alleged that the full compensation that was promised for acquisition of their farmland hasn't been released yet. Latika Rajput, another NBA activist, said that families rehabilitated in Gujarat have only been given 50 per cent compensation as land acquisition.

The dam's height has since been raised on five occasions. But dissatisfied with the total compensation package offered, many villagers in Manibeli and the nearby 32 others villages have refused to accept the aid. "We've relocated upwards four times since 1994. Each time, something has been left behind," said Jadiben Tadvi (65).

The village is also plagued with high unemployment and illiteracy. Ishwar Vasave (20) said the nearest secondary medium government school is 10 km away. There is also dearth of inhouse health facilities. While the state has a health sub-centre and a floating dispensary, villagers complain that these are understaffed, and mostly unavailable. While NBA has been running Jeevanshalas to educate children till Class IV, the state government, while recognising their existence, has refused proposals to give them grants.

The dearth of facilities is the toughest on the women, who have to walk up to the river or a spring carrying containers to fetch water. This journey can range between 500 m and more than 5 km.

Referring to the Statue of Unity, which is just 7 km away, Narayan Tadvi said, "People come to watch the statue, but nobody comes to see us."