Why does Andhra Pradesh covet Odisha’s Kotia Panchayat ?
Odisha was one of the first States to be carved out as a separate province on linguistic basis. Since its formation, the state has had border disputes with Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh, which involves 114 villages spread over an area of over 28,000 acres in 10 districts. The recent incursions by the Andhra Pradesh officials in the Kotia Gram Panchayat by way of distributing largesse to the inhabitants have raised the hackles of the Odisha Government.
In a historical perspective, Kotia Gram Panchayat has always been a part of Odisha.The Gazette of India notification issued on the 19th March 1936, clearly mentioned that the areas of new Province of Odisha, shall comprise of “the following areas in the Vizagapatam district, that is to say, the Jeypure (Impartible) Estate and so much of the Pottangi Taluk as is not included in that estate.” Kotia and the 28 revenue villages had always been a part of the Jeypore Estate, however during the subsequent survey, 21 villages were mistakenly not mentioned. After Andhra Pradesh’s separation from the Madras Presidency in 1955, these 21 villages were once again excluded; in fact both the States erred, resulting in the perennial dispute.
Deep within the LWE (Left Wing Extremism) region, this Maoist dominated area should have been the bane of any state. The undulating hills with rice terraces make the place a very picturesque one. The villagers are basically agrarian, coaxing rich harvests by a unique system of water management which has to be seen to be believed. This traditional agriculture system is the first in India to have been given the status of a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System by the United Nations for its outstanding contribution to promote food security, biodiversity, indigenous knowledge and cultural diversity.
The local tribal farmers use their indigenous knowledge, transmitted from generation to generation. They check the viability of seeds before sowing, maintain soil fertility and conserve the landraces of rice and other crops. They have knowledge of hundreds of varieties of indigenous rice and other crops.
The Botanical Survey of India and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources have identified the region as a reservoir of rich diversity, comprising 2,500 species of flowering plants, angiosperms and ferns. The agro-biodiversity recorded in the region includes 340 landraces of paddy, 8 species of minor millets, 9 species of pulses, 5 species of oil seeds, 3 species of fibrous plants and 7 species of vegetables, besides 1200 medicinal plants. Another important feature of their agricultural system is the tradition of maintaining sacred groves, which preserve plant genetic resources. Sacred groves are a biological heritage as well as a social mechanism through which forest patches are protected and worshipped by the tribes.
The Geological Survey of India conducted extensive surveys in the area in the early sixties and confirmed the presence of rich mineral resources like gold, platinum, manganese, bauxite, graphite and limestone in the area. The smart officials of the Andhra Government smelled the opportunity and laid their claim by making incursions in 1964. These were reported by the Tehsildar at Pottangi and the Odisha government deployed its police in the area. The Andhra Pradesh Government too deputed their police force and there was a face off for the next two years.
In 1968, the Government of Odisha approached the Supreme Court for the right, title and possession over the 21 villages of Kotia Gram Panchayat. The matter remained in the cold storage for the next twenty years until, in 1988, when the Court imposed a status quo till the disposal of the case. The Supreme Court appointed the District Judge, Koraput as Commissioner to record evidence on the disputed territory on its behalf.
In the year 2000 the District Judge, Koraput submitted the evidence of both the States before the Supreme Court. However, on 30 March 2006, SC passed a permanent injunction on the disputed area and the Court took the plea of Article 131 of the Constitution, citing that disputes of State boundaries were not within its jurisdiction and will have to be resolved in Parliament.
The general feelings after the recent reports of the border incursions were that the Odisha government was apathetic and that the Andhra officials were taking advantage of this. The official machinery of Odisha had gone into an overdrive after the news reports and knee jerk responses were undertaken.
I had gone to Kotia accompaniedby two former Collectors of the District. Both Mr. Sanjib Hota and Mr. Gadhadhar Paridahad had memorable stints,and are still remembered for their good work they did during their tenures. We spent a whole day there, visiting the different villages and met the people. While the overall impression that the dispute is a boon for the inhabitants of the village is correct, it is also true that they have an identity crisis of sorts. The villagers benefit from rations and facilities from both the states; they make the best use of the territorial confusion. The border dispute between the two states has led to their inclusion in the census of both the states.
Politicians from both the states come to the place during the elections. The spate of promises made by the candidates from each state has become a routine farce. The people of the area had obstructed the polling staff during the 2004 elections, seeking redressal of the border dispute. Senior officials had to intervene to allow polling, which however could not cross 15 per cent due to a delayed start.
It will be wrong to say that the Odisha Government has neglected the area. Kotia has a Primary Health Centre since 1968; the Revenue Inspector’s Office was set up in 1963. The Police Outpost of 1968 was moved away to Pottangi in 2004 due to the Maoist problems. But the Gram Panchayat Office, Village Agricultural Centre, Veterinary Centre, a residential school and an Anganwadi Centre are very much visible. The Government of Odisha has implemented poverty alleviation schemes like MGNREGA and distributed 831 BPL cards to families along with job cards to 1811 families.
British era map shows Kotia in Odisha
Odisha’s claim on the Kotia villages is substantiated by a 1945 map prepared by the British administration. The former Collector Gadhadhar Parida, who is also the Convener of the Ama Kotia Sanghatana, has produced this map which he has retrieved from Alex Tanner, the daughter of the first district Collector of Koraput, RCS Bell. She had visited Koraput recently to explore links of her father’s memories and written about his days in a book. She sent the map from among her grandfather’s papers after returning to Australia.
Parida claims that the map clearly indicates Tadivalasa; the last village in Kotia group of villages comes under Odisha. If Tadivalasa is within Odisha’s boundary, all the other villages from Neridiwalasa to Kotia Panchayat naturally are also in Odisha.The former Collector has also rediscovered the old road British built that had been made by RCS Bell to facilitate traders from both sides. He walked the entire stretch of the 15 kms road from Pottangito Neridiwalasa and found that it could be once again restored . Hopefully, the district administration took a keen interest in the road and began a survey to start repairs.
However, the crucial areas of housing, electricity, water and roads connectivity have been neglected. Only nine villages have been provided with electricity, while the Andhra Pradesh provides electricity to fifteen villages. There is a dearth of teachers in the Schools, which the Telegu officials take advantage of. Andhra Pradesh has opened ten schools in the Telegu medium. While the Andhra Pradesh Government gives an assistance of Rs 90,000.00 for construction of Indira Awas, Odisha only sanctions Rs. 45,000 per unit, that too after palms are well greased. These types of disparity in assistance generate a sense of alienation.
The Andhra Pradesh Government is recently carrying out constructions of a 15 km road from Naredabalsa village to Kotia village via Dhulipadara village. They have already completed 8 kilometers road out of the 15 kilometers from Naredabalsa village to Uparasembi village. They have put up Telegu signboards and milestones. The day we were there, a mobile health unit of Andhra Pradesh was doing the round of the villages. When we contacted the Chief District Medical officer at Koraput, he explained that for the Odisha Unit to visit the villages meant a detour of 70 kms through the Salur Ghat, while for the Andhra doctors it was just a 15 kms trip.
The knee jerk reaction of the Odisha government after the incursions were first reported recently, and highlighted in the press, was to send a high level team to the disputed Kotia Panchayat. The people of all the 21 villages had come to meet the team, but what we gathered from them was that the team members didn’t give them a hearing. They asked the villagers to go to Koraput, a good 70 km away, for discussions with the Collector. The insensitivity and apathy of the officials towards the people of the disputed zone is prodding them in favor of merger with Andhra Pradesh.
We found a big Church in the elevated portion of the Kotia village. Surprisingly, nearly 90% of the villagers have now been converted to Christianity and the lone Jagannath Temple in the village is hardly visited by half a dozen villagers. Both the Collectors recollected that the village was an entirely Hindu one in the years before. The role of the missionaries in fanning these disputes too cannot be ruled out.
The problems of the villagers need to be addressed in a more holistic manner. A bus service has been started since the last two months, but the road conditions are precarious. Odisha will have to provide to all the revenue villages and hamlets. The vacant posts of teachers in the schools should be filled up immediately and if possible the local educated girls and boys should be given chance as Sikhya Sahayaks. The local MP and MLA should use their LAD funds for developmental work. Koraput should have an Odia Collector, one who empathises and understands the problems and needs of the people. The present Collector, K. Sudarshan Chakravarty is the son-in-law of the TDP MP of Amlapuram in Andhra Pradesh, P. Ravindra Babu. In this border district, an Odia Collector should be posted.
By Anil Dhir in Kotia, Koraput