Will Nilgiris repeat its NOTA record this time?

Updated 3:06 PM, 12 April, 2019
Gujarat, by-polls, Gandhinagar, 2 Rajya Sabha seats, Lok Sabha elections, Assembly, MLAs
Voting for the by-polls to the two Rajya Sabha seats in Gujarat, which began at 9 am, will continue till 4pm. Representational image: Pixabay.

With the Blue Mountains gearing up for the 17th Lok Sabha elections, buzz has it that the district may register the highest number of NOTA (none of the above) votes among SC constituencies in the country, for the second time in a row. The district recorded 46,559 NOTA votes, the highest in Tamil Nadu in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. It was also the highest number of NOTA votes cast in all SC constituencies across the country.

In 2004, the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) filed a public interest litigation against the constitutional validity of Conduct of Election Rules and 49-O (which doesn’t ensure the secrecy of a NOTA voter). Hearing the litigation, the Supreme Court in 2013, passed a landmark judgement on NOTA. The option gave citizens the liberty to not vote any of the contesting candidates on the electoral list.

Implemented for the first time in the 2014 general elections, more than 60 lakh NOTA votes were cast in the country. According to ECI, this accounted for 1.3 per cent of the total votes cast. Media later reported that NOTA votes were recorded highly in the reserved constituencies. It was not a surprise when the Nilgiris, which was made into SC constituency in 2009, recorded the highest NOTA votes in 2014.

But what triggered so many NOTA votes in the Niligiris? Experts speculate that the maximum resistance would have come from the Badagas, a native tribe of the district. It is improbable that the tribe that has been seeking an ST status for many years, will vote for an SC candidate.

“Considering themselves the sons of soil, Badagas are not ready to cast their votes for an outsider” says, Venugopal Dharmalingam, director, Nilgiri Documentation Centre. Since, Badagas are now kept under OBC category, they are unable to field a candidate from their own community.

“Apart from caste, issues like minimum support price for tea also played a role in that election. One cannot be surprised if the trend repeated even in this election” he said.

D Radhakrishnan, a senior journalist who has spent decades covering stories from the district has a different view. He says unkept promises made by politicians in the past have forced people to choose this option.

“People are tired of the false promises of politicians. In the past, most politicians elected from this constituency did not take any solid steps to address the problems of the people. But when elections came, they successfully convinced denizens to vote for them again, with their false promises. The irate masses have now expressed their dissatisfaction through NOTA votes,” he said.

Radhakrishnan expects that the district would witness a high mark in NOTA votes this election. “Problems like unemployment, lack of good price for tea and migration of people to the plains in search of jobs are problems that still persist and people have no other go,” he said.

While issues like seeking ST status and minimum support price for tea are common to the Badaga community, a majority of SC population in Gudalur — one of the assembly constituencies under the Nilgiris parliamentary constituency — mainly Sri Lankan repatriates, have another set of issues to be addressed.

“Land settlement under Sec 17 of Gudalur Janmam Estates (Abolition and Conversion into Ryotwari) Act, 1969 and land grabbing on the pretext of tiger reserve and elephant corridors and non-implementation of Forest Rights Act, could have pushed people from the community to have opted for NOTA”, said CR Bijoy, an environmental activist based in Coimbatore.

The region has had a history of eviction of SCs during the chief ministership of MGR. They were evicted from Section 17 land – where their ancestors lived – to make way for plantations. Despite the enactment of the Janman Act plantations owners haven’t forfeited their rights to the land and the SCs, the rightful residents of the land, are treated like encroachers. Members of the community say they are constantly evicted from Section 53 land – forests inside plantations – even though the government hasn’t handed it over to the forest department.

“Due to non-recognition of Forest Rights Acts, land grabbing is rampant in these regions. Transferring of forest officers like Deepak Srivastava who is people-friendly and who was against the evictions that took under tiger reserve and elephant corridors made the people angry. In the past, none of the political parties have addressed these issues. I will not speculate that this time too the Nilgiris constituency will record the highest number of NOTA votes. But, I hope people will choose a better party, if they touch upon these problems” he said.