The Power of PESA
PESA, short for Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, is the most important law meant for the Adivasis (natives ofIndia) that can radically change the socio-political landscape ofIndia, only if it is implemented honestly. It can achieve three things simultaneously: (1) deprive the Naxal of the fertile ground of backwardness and poverty in the “Red Corridor” and make them baseless; (2) assimilate the 8 percent tribal Adivasis into the mainstream political current through self governance; and (3) preserve forests and local ecology because they only know their land and its resources the best. But unfortunately, state governments lack willpower, honesty, and far-sightedness to grasp the profound impact its proper implementation will have for the future development.
In last six decades, India has achieved significant milestones in the areas of economic growth, cultural assimilation and global political interests. However, the 8% tribal population of the country has been left to protect themselves against the guile of rich and powerful eyeing the natural resources and minerals of their indigenous land. Only geographical distance and remoteness of their habitat offered them some protection. But their isolation has also exposed them to the ruthless might of Naxal cadres, supposedly struggling to throw out the rulers of the country through the barrel of gun. None, except Mao would be happy in his grave to find faithful followers in a remote land that he never visited.
The Red Corridor
Naxals, the leftwing extremists, have carved out a large area along the eastern coast of India, spreading from Nepalborder to Tamil Nadu. Though started 40 years ago, the movement ceased to die out and instead had grown ominously. This region largely includes dense forests and tribal areas and consists of 92,000 sq km. Red Corridor is the label people have given to this area, which the government machinery never dared to reach. Naxals are the uninvited and self declared rulers in the Red Corridor.
About two years ago, the Indian government launched Operation Green Hunt to root out the Naxals. In reality, however, the tribals find themselves sandwiched between the Maoists on one side who can’t give up their armed struggle and the government on the other, that can not put the interests of a vulnerable minority — the adivasis — ahead of those with more money and political power.
Realizing that the lack of development and the absence of governance are primarily responsible for growth of the leftwing extremists, the government has drawn development plans to win over the tribal people.
Besides the plan of para-military force, the government has come up with plans for development of the territory included in the Red Corridor. Just recently, the central government has planned to spend Rs. 100 cr on every of the 33 (or 34) Maoist affected districts. This is an additional expenditure apart from the usual security related expenditure. According to reports, this additional money of Rs. 3400 cr will be spent on roads, electricity and drinking water.
Plus, there is the issue of implementing the PESA (Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act in its true spirit.
The PESA Act – Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996
Village level democracy became a real prospect for Indiain 1992 with the 73rd amendment to the Constitution, which mandated that resources, responsibility and decision making be passed on from central government to the lowest unit of the governance, the Gram Sabha or the Village Assembly. A three tier structure of local self government was envisaged under this amendment.
Since the laws do not automatically cover the scheduled areas, the PESA Act was in-acted in 1996 to enable Tribal Self Rule in these areas. The Act extended the provisions of Panchayats to the tribal areas of nine states that have Fifth Schedule Areas.
The PESA Act gives radical governance powers to the tribal community and recognizes its traditional community rights over local natural resources. It not only accepts the validity of “customary law, social and religious practices, and traditional management practices of community resources”, but also directs the state governments not to make any law which is inconsistent with these. Accepting a clear-cut role for the community, it gives wide-ranging powers to Gram Sabhas, which had hitherto been denied to them by the lawmakers of the country.
The full-fledged implementation of PESA will give Rs 50,000 crore to tribal communities to develop themselves. Nothing would deal a bigger blow to the Maoists than participative development by, for and of the tribal communities. Of the 76 districts highly infected by the Maoists, 32 are PESA districts. Hence, honest implementation of the PESA Act would empower the marginalized tribals so that they can take care of their developmental needs. This would deprive the Naxals of their ground support coming from the misguided and helpless tribals.
Why then the PESA Act is largely ignored by the State governments?
The main hurdle in the proper implementation of PESA comes from the nexus of bureaucrats and politicians who would lose authority in tribal areas. They have always subordinated the welfare of poor tribals in favor of the rich or the powerful. Giving real autonomy to Gram Sabhas, as envisioned in the Act, would leave them without much influence.
Forestdepartment officials have long viewed the resource rich tribal regions as source of revenue. They often collude with timber mafias for petty gains. They fail to realize that forests are the only source of sustenance for tribals. In the vast tribal areas of Andhra, MP and Orissa, the tribals are primarily dependent on the collection and selling of the non-timber forest produce (NTFP). In Uttarakhand there have been reports of forest depots selling bamboos to companies at highly subsidized rates.
Previously, the Orissa Forest Development Corporation and the Tribal Development Corporation had exclusive rights for a number of NTFPs. But under liberalization wave since 1990, individual companies (for example, Utkal Forest Products) have been given collection rights for 29 NTFPs for 10 years. Various paper industries have been engaged, under the guise of ‘labour contractors’, for working bamboo areas. They have cornered bamboo collection rights in several forest divisions.
Economic liberalization has brought the corporate giants into the region hunting for minerals for their mega size industrial exploits. Industry is wrecking havoc with the living conditions of the tribals under the liberalization regime. Their acts force the helpless tribals to leave the land they have known to be their own since ages. Compensation and rehabilitation plans are hardly ever implemented with honesty and dignity.
This is a big source of poverty and displacement as commonly seen in states like Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. These attempts to rob the tribals of their resources are criminal, especially when it occurs in places like Kalahandi and Koraput districts where starvation deaths among tribals are legendary.
How to force state governments implement the PESA Act?
(a) Looking at the performance of State governments in implementation of PESA and their tendency to by-pass it, the Central government should issue a notification that all other laws will be subordinate to PESA in the fifth schedule (or PESA) areas.
(b) Land litigations are another headache of tribals who have been rendered landless by the rich or powerful. In order to restore speedy justice, follow the recommendation of the B.D Sharma Committee. It suggested issuing notification of a date, when all pending cases in any Court of Law in which the land of a tribal is alleged to have been illegally transferred or occupied by any person or body, shall stand transferred to the Gram Sabha in whose jurisdiction the land is situated.
Only PESA has the real potential to deal a fatal blow to the leftwing extremists thriving on their backwardness, ignorance, and isolation. The “Original Indian People” of India deserve a life free of exploitation, poverty, and fear.
Read full report on PESA: PESA_ACT_1996