SAHIBGANJ - Travelling to or out of this Jharkhand town sandwiched between Bengal and Bihar has become impossible because the authorities have seized vehicles for elections.
The district authorities argue they have no choice: the government doesn't have enough vehicles of its own. Sahibganj votes on April 23, but movement has almost been crippled a week before that because of the seizures.
Many voters who live elsewhere and want to get home before the elections on Thursday now face the prospect of not being able to cast their votes.
Buses and private taxis — the principal modes of transport in this part of the country — can't be seen. They have either been impounded or have been parked inside houses by owners fearing the seizures.
But district magistrate K. Ravi Kumar suggests getting around the place isn't easy at the best of times.
"Guess how many buses ply at any given time in this district with a population of 11 lakh? Eight," he says, trying to send the impression that the administration isn't to blame for a problem that goes beyond election time.
The seizures, however, appear indiscriminate; even basic services aren't spared. On Monday afternoon, an ambulance owner rushed into Kumar's office pleading that his vehicle — which could help save many lives — be "exempted".
Much of Jharkhand relies on such seized vehicles to ferry security forces, election officials and voting machines to poll booths.
Nothing is left out, not even vehicles being used for campaigning — like the Sahibganj district administration has done.
In most areas, the permission of the returning officer (district magistrate) is necessary for vehicles to be used for ferrying passengers a few weeks before elections.
DM Kumar, the returning officer for the Rajmahal Lok Sabha seat, argued that the authorities needed the seized vehicles as the constituency was a large one — made up of Sahibganj and Pakur, along with parts of Godda.
Kumar said nearly 400 vehicles had been brought from Malda in Bengal because there were not enough government vehicles.
But the Sahibganj authorities are not only seizing vehicles for themselves: they have arranged for some 100 trucks to be used for election duty in neighbouring Godda — from where Shibu Soren's son Durga is contesting as an Independent against the Congress nominee. Soren's Jharkhand Mukti Morcha has a seat-sharing deal with the Congress.
The owners of seized vehicles are to be paid a fee, but many complain they haven't got the money.
The payment problem partly explains why owners do not want to give their vehicles to the government for elections. They would rather park their vehicles inside their houses than risk such seizures.
Telegraph / 2009 April 23