By Chinmaya Dehuri
It's a dispute that has been simmering for 65 years. The Kotia group of villages on the Andhra Pradesh-Odisha border is claimed by both states, and neither is willing to relent. The area comprises 21 villages.
The dispute seems to be flaring up again. The latest spark was added in January this year when the Chandrababu Naidu-led Andhra Pradesh government started distributing freebies in the villages and issued Aadhaar cards to some of the locals. Now, it has started road construction in the area despite strident opposition by Odisha's Naveen Patnaik government, according to officials.
"The Andhra Pradesh government doesn't have any right to the 21 villages as we are exercising political, legislative, administrative and other powers. Andhra is interfering in these areas by trespassing within Odisha territory and luring the people," Odisha Revenue Minister Maheswar Mohanty told IANS.
Vizianagaram District Collector Vivek Yadav said he had visited the villages in January this year with other officials, but added that the visit was not aimed at raising any controversy or to whip up sentiments.
The villagers apparently complained about lack of basic amenities and requested Andhra officials to arrange for laying roads in the area. However, the officials defended their right to visit the villages and said they needed no permission for this.
"The entire matter has been brought to the notice of our government and we are waiting for their instructions," Yadav told IANS adding that he did not want to say anything more as the matter was "complicated and sensitive".
The villagers have two ration cards, two job cards and are enrolled under different schemes of both the state governments. However, the villages are still lagging behind in development. There are no teachers in many schools and the villagers are not receiving any benefits, said an official of the Andhra Pradesh government who did not want to be named.
The border dispute between the two states began soon after the formation of Andhra Pradesh in 1953. Both the states had knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court in 1968 claiming sovereignty over the villages. In 2006, the apex court, stating that adjudication of border dispute between the two states was not within its jurisdiction, gave the opinion that only Parliament could resolve the matter. It also directed the two states to maintain status quo on the issue.
According to the Odisha government, the group of villages form part of the Koraput parliamentary constituency and the Potangi Assembly segment and general elections were being successfully conducted in the area. There are 2,448 voters and all of them have been provided EPIC (election photo identity cards) by the Koraput sub-collector.
The state government has been conducting the general census in Kotia since 1951.
The Odisha government has argued that after the formation of the province of Orissa in 1936, the state government had exercised jurisdiction over the disputed area since there existed no friction with the erstwhile Madras Presidency on the issue.
Andhra Pradesh, however, has its own arguments.
It holds that the dispute between the two states began after independence in 1947 and at that time, the position of the Governor-General had become obsolete and Parliament became the country's supreme lawmaking body.
But politicians are not ready to sit down and resolve the issue.
"The Odisha government is providing all possible facilities to the villages. I am the elected representative of the area, but, Andhra Pradesh is intruding into the Odisha border and illegally distributing freebies," said Potangi MLA Prafulla Kumar Pangi.
"We are taking all steps to provide basic facilities to the locals. A team of officials had visited Kotia to take stock of the situation on the ground. The official team discussed with the district administration the intrusion by the Andhra Pradesh government," the Revenue Minister said.
However, former Koraput MP and BJP leader Jayaram Pangi slammed the Odisha government for not implementing developmental programmes in the area, thereby making it easy for Andhra to "lure the tribals" by offering freebies.
"AP officials have been undertaking welfare activities within the disputed area and the Odisha government has objected to it. The crucial issue here is to what extent either Odisha or AP governments are genuinely interested in promoting the welfare of the tribals in these villages," said EAS Sarma, a former Union secretary and ex-Commissioner for Tribal Welfare of Andhra Pradesh.
He said instead of getting bogged down in politics, the two states should realise that their topmost obligation to the tribals was to enforce the requirements of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution and empower the Gram Sabhas by implementing the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, and the Forest Rights Act.
But for the moment all advice is falling on deaf ears.
(Chinmaya Dehuri can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org <>)