For years they’ve been told about the power they can wield with their votes, and how elections can bring so much change to this sprawling, often-chaotic nation.

But few of these women, marooned at the fringes of Indian society, believe such talk anymore.

They’ve been hardened by decades of forgotten promises, and by the countless politicians who showed up before elections with flowery words only to disappear as soon as the votes were cast. As India heads toward the end of its seven-phase national election, with voting that began April 11 and ends May 19, it’s hard for them to summon much optimism.

In this March 28, 2019, photo, Sangeetha Nandini, 29, from the Warli tribe, combs the hair of her cousin at Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
In this March 28, 2019, photo, Sangeetha Nandini, 29, from the Warli tribe, combs the hair of her cousin at Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

“I don’t remember how long I’ve been voting for different candidates hoping that life will be smooth for us once the right person is elected,” said B. Nariyan Vignaya, a 70-year-old woman from the impoverished Warli community, who live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park in northern Mumbai. “Our demands are not big; they are very small. We don’t want them to make big hospitals or buildings. We just want toilets.”

These voters already face immense hurdles in a nation where women are often relegated to second-class roles. But they are also tribals — India’s term for the vast range of indigenous people of South Asia. They are Gaddis, herders who have spent centuries taking sheep and goats through the mountains of north India in search of good pastures, and Mishings, who live in elevated bamboo homes on Majuli, a huge island in the Brahmaputra River. They are the Dongria Kondh, an 8,000-strong tribe who consider the mineral-rich Niyamgiri hills sacred, and Mizos, who trace their ethnic roots back to what is now Myanmar and China.

The biggest worry for many tribals is losing their land, which has grown increasingly valuable in recent years as India’s economy has boomed. Many Warlis, for instance, are facing threat of relocation by the government to housing projects. More fear being forced to move.

In this Saturday, May 11, 2019, photo, Bum Nongrum, 91, smokes a beedi, tobacco rolled in an indigenously available leaf, at her house in Nongpoh, in the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Saturday, May 11, 2019, photo, Bum Nongrum, 91, smokes a beedi, tobacco rolled in an indigenously available leaf, at her house in Nongpoh, in the northeastern Indian state of Meghalaya. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

“Our forefathers have lived here and died here, so we want the same right,” said Sangeetha Nandini, 29, another Warli.

Combined, India’s tribals total more than 100 million people. But they are scattered among hundreds of communities, and are often poorer and less educated than the people around them.

For many tribal women, elections have become little more than another chore.

In this Tuesday, April 9, 2019, photo, a Gaddi tribal woman Urmila Devi, 39, feeds her cow Rashi in Naddi village in Dharmsala, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)
In this Tuesday, April 9, 2019, photo, a Gaddi tribal woman Urmila Devi, 39, feeds her cow Rashi in Naddi village in Dharmsala, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)

Moti, a 100-year-old Lambada woman who uses only one name, says she’s only voting this year to get the small cash handouts some parties offer. Nandini, the Warli, says she’s “decided to exercise my NOTA vote,” short for “none of the above.” Urmila Devi says she’ll vote, but only because she believes it’s her duty. A 39-year-old Gaddi, Devi says she’d love to see a childcare center and a medical clinic built in her village, but doesn’t expect either will be erected.

But the cynicism isn’t universal.

Tungshang Ningreichon is a Naga, from India’s distant northeast along the border with Myanmar. A longtime rights activist, she believes the election “affects every part of our lives.”

In this Sunday, May 5, 2019, photo, an indigenous Naga tribal woman Tungshang Ningreichon holds a Naga flag and speaks to the Associated Press in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
In this Sunday, May 5, 2019, photo, an indigenous Naga tribal woman Tungshang Ningreichon holds a Naga flag and speaks to the Associated Press in New Delhi, India. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

“The leaders that we choose will greatly impact how we put the idea of peace, justice and democracy into practice,” she said. “So for me, these elections are really important.”

In this Saturday, May 11, 2019, photo, a Karbi tribal woman Among Kleng, 62, smiles for a photograph at a market in Sonapur, east of Gauhati, India. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Saturday, May 11, 2019, photo, a Karbi tribal woman Among Kleng, 62, smiles for a photograph at a market in Sonapur, east of Gauhati, India. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Wednesday, April 10, 2019, photo, a Mishing tribal woman Jonmoni Mili, 30, makes a fire inside her house in the river island of Majuli, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Wednesday, April 10, 2019, photo, a Mishing tribal woman Jonmoni Mili, 30, makes a fire inside her house in the river island of Majuli, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Saturday, May 11, 2019, photo, a Karbi tribal woman Aloti Tumung, 65, carries vegetables on her shoulder at a marketplace in Sonapur, east of Gauhati, India. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Saturday, May 11, 2019, photo, a Karbi tribal woman Aloti Tumung, 65, carries vegetables on her shoulder at a marketplace in Sonapur, east of Gauhati, India. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Thursday, April 11, 2019, photo, Padumi Miri, 32, a Mishing tribal woman feeds her pig in the river island of Majuli, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Thursday, April 11, 2019, photo, Padumi Miri, 32, a Mishing tribal woman feeds her pig in the river island of Majuli, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Tuesday, May 7, 2019, photo, a 65-year-old Indian Lambada tribal women Rukali stands in front of her home on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India. (AP Photo/ Mahesh Kumar A.)
In this Tuesday, May 7, 2019, photo, a 65-year-old Indian Lambada tribal women Rukali stands in front of her home on the outskirts of Hyderabad, India. (AP Photo/ Mahesh Kumar A.)
In this Saturday, May 11, 2019, photo, a Karbi tribal woman Lisia Ingti, 50, speaks to the Associated Press near a market in Sonapur, east of Gauhati, India. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Saturday, May 11, 2019, photo, a Karbi tribal woman Lisia Ingti, 50, speaks to the Associated Press near a market in Sonapur, east of Gauhati, India. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this March 30, 2019, photo, an Adi tribal woman Kinya Bagra, 33, stands for a photograph in Along, Arunachal Pradesh, India. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this March 30, 2019, photo, an Adi tribal woman Kinya Bagra, 33, stands for a photograph in Along, Arunachal Pradesh, India. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this April 9, 2019, photo, a Gaddi tribal woman Kanta Devi, 57, sits in an open space next to her house in Naddi village in Dharmsala, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)
In this April 9, 2019, photo, a Gaddi tribal woman Kanta Devi, 57, sits in an open space next to her house in Naddi village in Dharmsala, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)
In this Saturday, March 30, 2019, photo, an Adi tribal woman Kargep Yao, 36, stands for a photograph in Along, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Saturday, March 30, 2019, photo, an Adi tribal woman Kargep Yao, 36, stands for a photograph in Along, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
In this Monday, May 6, 2019, photo, a 100-year-old Lambada tribal woman Moti, only one name given, sits in front of her home in Hyderabad, India. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)
In this Monday, May 6, 2019, photo, a 100-year-old Lambada tribal woman Moti, only one name given, sits in front of her home in Hyderabad, India. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A.)
In this April 9, 2019, photo, a Gaddi tribeswoman Nirmala Devi, 45, weeds her barley field in her village in Naddi, near Dharmsala, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)
In this April 9, 2019, photo, a Gaddi tribeswoman Nirmala Devi, 45, weeds her barley field in her village in Naddi, near Dharmsala, in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. (AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)
In this March 28, 2019, photo, a Warli tribeswoman B. Nariyan Vignaya, 70, carries water after collecting it from a public tap at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, India. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
In this March 28, 2019, photo, a Warli tribeswoman B. Nariyan Vignaya, 70, carries water after collecting it from a public tap at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai, India. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
In this March 28, 2019, photo, a Warli tribeswoman Suvama Suresh Parasram, 48, stands for a photograph outside her shack at Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)
In this March 28, 2019, photo, a Warli tribeswoman Suvama Suresh Parasram, 48, stands for a photograph outside her shack at Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

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