COOCHBEHAR: In a virtual no-man's land ever since India became independent in 1947, more than 9,000 persons living in 51 enclaves in Coochbehar district will exercise their franchise for the first time on May five.
Excitement is palpable among the voters, who till recently belonged to no country and hence were devoid of any right belonging to a citizen. Their enclaves were formally declared Indian territory after the exchange of enclaves with Bangladesh on August one, last year.
Chief Coordinator of Bharat Bangladesh Enclave Exchange Coordination Committee Diptiman Sengupta, who has been fighting for the rights of the enclave dwellers for a long time, said the voters were confronted with two big issues: Job reservation and quick disposal of land settlement.
"There are near about 15,000 people in the enclaves who have got Indian citizenship. Out of them, 9,776 are eligible voters who will vote for the first time," Sengupta said.
He told PTI that the people there want at least 10 per cent reservation in government jobs and that all development work in the enclaves be carried out through the active involvement of the residents.
Sengupta said that another important demand of the people of the enclaves is quick disposal of land settlement.
"The 51 enclaves became Indian territory, but the enclave dwellers (14864), who became Indian citizens were yet to get the rights of the land they were living in," he said.
Bangladesh and India exchanged 162 adversely-held enclaves on August one at the stroke of midnight, ending one of the world's most complex border disputes.
In all 111 Indian enclaves measuring 17,160 acres became Bangladesh territory and similarly 51 Bangladesh enclaves, measuring 7,110 acres, became Indian territory. The 51 enclaves are spread across Dinhata, Mekliganj, Sitai, Sitalkuchi and Toofanganj Assembly constituencies.
24-year-old the Joynal Abedin, an enclave-dweller, said they were demanding reservation in government jobs, irrespective of religion.
"We also want that all contracts for development work like construction of roads, buildings, hospitals and schools in the enclaves should be given to local residents only."
Asked about his feeling at getting the opportunity to cast vote for the first time, he said, "We have only seen elections, but never took part. Most interestingly, three generations of our family will vote together."
Twenty-year-old Ajibur lamented that even after eight months had elapsed since enclaves were exchanged, they were yet to get the papers to enable them to claim ownership of the land they have been residing in.
"We have got our voter cards, but we are yet to get our land papers. For the last 69 years we have been the most deprived and neglected lot. The political parties who want our votes should promise granting of land rights as early as possible," he said over phone.
The district administration of Coochbehar said the technical process regarding the identification and granting of land rights was in process.
"The technical process in under way. We have already sought maps for the identification of the land that are to be granted," Ayesha Rani, Assistant District Magistrate of Coochbehar said.
The political parties are, however, non-committal on the issue of reservation of jobs, but say they will surely look into their other demands.
"The issue of job reservation can't be decided by the state government, it has to be discussed in Parliament. I have been fighting for the cause of enclave dwellers from the very beginning. But we will surely look into other demands," senior TMC leader and sitting MLA from Dinhata Udayan Guha said.
"If voted to power, we will surely discuss granting land rights and getting development work done by local people. But job reservation is a constitutional matter and has to be discussed in Parliament," CPI-M politburo member Mohammed Salim said.