Bhalessa (J&K): A resident of the remote Kota Top village at over 11,000 feet in Jammu and Kashmir’s Doda district, 103-year-old Zaitona Bibi on Saturday said she has never missed casting her vote since 1957 and this District Development Council (DDC) election was no different.
Helped by her 24-year-old great-granddaughter Rabia Bano, Zaitona braved cold winds to trek to the Gujjar Basti polling station in Kharangal Panchayat, around a kilometre from her house, to vote in the elections, the first after Jammu and Kashmir was reorganised into a union territory last year.
“My vote was for the development of tribals of this belt who are facing hardships as they are socially, educationally, economically and politically backward,” said Zaitona after returning from the polling station at 11,400 feet on the Bhalessa mountain ranges.
Zaitona, who is from the cattle rearing Gujjar tribe, has 14 grandchildren and 56 great-grandchildren, and 110 members of her family are eligible voters. “We casted our vote in this poll for the development of area,” she said.
“For the past 63 years, I have never missed a single occasion to vote. Ever since I voted for the first time, I made sure that I do not miss a single chance. I have voted in all the elections since then,” said Zaitona, listed as a voter of the Changa reserved ST DDC seat.
The district administration had made arrangements for the centenarian to help her reach Gujjar Basti, but Zaitona, according to 24-year-old Bano, climbed the steep path to the polling station without her walking stick, only occasionally asking for support.
The centenarian along with other elderly voters was asked to stay back home in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, but taking all precautions like wearing a mask she went to Gujjar Basti, her family members said.
Zaitona said that even threats by militants in the past could not deter her from exercising her franchise. “My faith is in democracy,” she said.
However, she rued, “Nothing much has changed in the past seven decades in our area inhabited by thousands who earn their livelihood through cattle rearing.”
Life continues to be difficult for the inhabitants of this mountainous belt, Zaitona said and hoped that strengthening of grassroot democracy brings development.
“We need potable water and good roads here many of our villages still remain unconnected and this creates a lot of problems for us. We need good hospitals,” she said.
Changa has been declared a reserved schedule tribe DDC seat and most residents of the village said this should help usher development in the area.
Zaitona was eagerly waiting for polling day after she was informed about the elections and the DDC seat being reserved, said Bano.
Miskeen Ali Khatana, a local, said, “Zaitona is an inspiration to all of us. She always motivates us to be part of the democratic process.”
Undeterred by the cold weather, people stood in long queues to cast their vote.