The tribals in India, as is well known, are the indigenous autochthonous people of the land. They have been settled in different parts of the country long before the Aryans settled along the river valleys. The tribals had to move gradually from the plains, to the more inaccessible regions of forests, hills and large mountain slopes or frontier regions on the fringes of agriculturally settled, organised and more developed areas.
The process went on for centuries very steadily until recent times, when concerted efforts were made by the State to bring these communities back into the mainstream of society. The tribal population in India is at different levels of socioeconomic development. There are tribes that live in the forests and are exclusively dependent on forests for their livelihood. They practise hunting and food gathering. With their primitive technology, limited skills and traditional and ritual practices, their entire lifestyle revolves around the forests. On the other hand, there are a few tribal communities in the eastern parts of the country that have been totally assimilated in the national mainstream. However, large segments of tribal population have been leading a life suspended between these two stages of socio-economic development. Low productivity, dispersed habitation, shifting cultivation, weak cooperative and marketing infrastructure, continued tribal land grab by others, leading to their dispossession and exploitation, are some of the common features which characterise the tribal areas.
Tribal evolution since independence
Over the last 65 years or so, many of the Scheduled Tribes (STs) appear to have evolved into two, more or less distinct groups: one, those who have been able to take advantage of the protection and benefits guaranteed to them under the Constitution and under various Acts and schemes and have been able to decrease the gap in development between them and others. And two, those STs whom such programmes and protection have failed to reach and who, therefore, still exist at subsistence level with poor health, and low education and income levels.
Ownership of land signifies livelihood, culture and identity of a tribal economy. Poor land record system, poverty, ignorance and greed of others have resulted in the continuous transfer of resources leading to pauperisation of tribals. In recent decades, these tribals have been victims of displacement due to State sponsored as well as private industrial and mining projects. Inadequate rehabilitation of displaced tribals compounds their woes, making them asset-less and pushing them towards debt bondage. Due to the above said processes, our tribal brethren have been victimised by the contemporary development paradigm at the macro level, and simultaneously have remained unaffected by policies meant for human development, due to poor delivery systems. As a result, such exclusion of scheduled/tribal areas has proven to be happy hunting grounds for insurgent groups who prey upon the discontent and anger of the exploited tribals. The tribal development policies of India have been influenced by the Panchasheel policy propounded by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru. Since independence, several policies on positive discrimination and affirmative action on developmental and regulatory fronts have been adopted by the national governments from time to time. Scores of new legislations and schemes like ITDP, PESA and FRA have been adopted for better human development in tribal areas. In other rural development schemes like MGNREGS, NRHM, SGSY etc, tribal areas are given special attention to improve their well being. However, the benefits of all these developmental efforts have not been proportionate to the investment made for the tribal population, as compared to the other sections of the Indian society.
It can be seen that the improvements in the socio-economic conditions of STs measured in parameters like literacy rates, reduction in poverty etc, have not been proportionate to the investments therein. Development processes in the tribal areas need to be balanced by the preservation of tribal identity, culture and values, while increasing and ensuring their access to mainstream education, health and income generation.
Why the PESA Act?
The 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act and State Conformity Acts, which were modelled on the lines suggested by the 73rd Amendment Act, provided respectable spaces to the tribal people in the working of the Panchayat Raj system, but such legislation could not make the tribal communities the sole masters of their socio-political destinies in their homeland. It was imperative that the institutional structures within the scheduled areas be in consonance with the tribal needs and ethos; tribal institutions had to be shaped in a manner in which these people were familiar for ages. Also, many areas, which were once freely managed by the tribal people themselves, for example, forests, lands, water resources etc, unfortunately, remained out of their purview due to the official control of external institutions/agencies over these resources.
Added to such disgruntlements were the voices of the friends of Panchayat Raj system as well as of the tribal people themselves, who pleaded for more powers to the Panchayats under scheduled areas in a way that their institutions, while enjoying decentralised status and functioning as units of selfgovernment, could at the same time preserve and safeguard the traditions, customs and cultural identities of their people. As a result of such demands and felt needs of the tribal communities, the Union Government passed a legislation known as ‘Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996’ or PESA. A perusal of the powers and functions of PESA indicate that the Panchayats of the scheduled areas have been equipped with special powers and functions, which are in consonance with the ethos of the tribal people/ communities. Such provisions equipped these bodies with some preferential powers and functions. At the foundation level is the Gram Sabha, as the tribal people live in a scattered manner in hamlets/group of hamlets. The Act defines a village in the scheduled areas as ‘which shall ordinarily consist of a habitation or a group of habitations or a hamlet or a group of hamlets comprising a community and managing its affairs in accordance with its traditions and customs’.
It further says, reservation of seats for STs in every Panchayat of the scheduled areas shall be in proportion to their respective population in that Panchayat area. Also, all seats of Sarpanch/Chairperson of Panchayats at all levels in the scheduled areas are reserved for members of the STs. The Panchayat Raj system in scheduled areas has empowered Gram Sabhas with all such powers and duties to become the real units of self-governance.
PESA and the ground reality
Panchayat Raj institutions in tribal regions, through PESA, have specially empowered the people to work as units of selfgovernance, but it has been observed that the level of awareness and exposure among Panchayat Raj representatives and Gram Sabha members is very low. Despite knowing the procedural aspect, Gram Sabha is almost a formal institution. The state governments did not transfer all the powers through conformity acts. However, it seems that mere amendments in the State Acts and specific provisions to bring about a new system will not change the scenario. It is essential to opt for an effective device whereby maximum people can be informed, made aware and motivated to come forward for the proper implementation and execution of PESA. There is an urgent need to break the culture of silence and to strive for capacity building, sensitisation and orientation to improve tribal self-rule.
The provisions of the State Acts should be translated into simple Hindi and local dialect and be distributed to all Panchayat functionaries in the form of pocket booklets as ready reckoners. Posters can also be prepared and displayed on the walls of Gram Panchayat and other public buildings. It has often been seen that the Gram Sabha members find it difficult to perform their duties due to the complicated rules and procedures. It is, therefore necessary that the rules and procedures be simplified and adequately disseminated to villagers. Gram Sabhas have been provided supreme position in the PESA Act, but people at large are least informed about these provisions. They are still attuned to accepting the supremacy of Gram Panchayat. It is important to make them aware about such provisions. For this purpose, public awareness campaigns can be launched through NGOs and the electronic media (community television). The list of duties assigned to Gram Sabha includes management of natural resources like land, water and forest. This provision can provide ample opportunities to rural masses for better living conditions and creating livelihood bases.
It has also been suggested that activities like watershed should be taken up by the Gram Sabhas in their respective areas on a voluntary basis. People’s participation can change the scenario drastically. The need is proper orientation of people towards such work. The Gram Sabha will have to perform a very specific role to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs, cultural identity and community resources, and the customary mode of dispute resolution.
Involve tribals in decision-making processes
As the tribal community practices most of the works mentioned above through Jati Panchayat ordinarily, at various places, the Gram Sabhas/Panchayats have started taking an initiative in such affairs, especially where the leadership of Jati Panchayat and Gram Panchayat is common. It is desirable that the Gram Sabhas be empowered to minimise the social evils such as alcoholism and the practice of dowry. The promotion of social evils should not be permitted in the name of traditions and customs.
It would also be good if important traditions and customs of various tribal groups are documented. With the cooperation of the tribal leadership a detailed list of tribal customs, traditions and rituals, which need to be preserved and protected, should be prepared. Tribal regions are facing chronic drought, which leads to acute shortage of food, starvation and compulsory migration. Better management skills can ensure speedy redressal and therefore it is important to equip the Panchayats with such skills through training and awareness campaigns to help them face natural calamities. It has been observed that there is no direct involvement of tribals in the execution of a tribal sub-plan despite specific provisions. It is therefore imperative that Panchayat representatives and villagers are involved from planning to implementation stage in all development activities. Without people’s participation and involvement, the expected targets cannot be achieved.
To conclude, it can be inferred that the participation in Gram Sabha meetings has been low despite the hype around PESA. Sarpanch and other influential people dominate the decision-making processes. There are two prominent and sharply contrasting groups leading the Panchayats – the group of traditionally influential representatives and the other of new entrants. The participation of people is an important part of Panchayat Raj in tribal regions, but this has not been observed in practice.
In retrospect, it seems inevitable that persons of influence would look at larger community participation with hostility. The vibrancy and efficacy of Gram Sabha will remain dismal if it does not possess the capacity to perform assigned roles and responsibilities. This question becomes more pertinent in a tribal society where human resource development is low and society is deeply introverted. Therefore, what is urgently needed is that these marginalised sections of society are sensitised and their capacity built. Experience suggests that the Gram Sabha and its ever-increasing powers and authority have generated a lot of interest among tribal people. Actually, this interest is required to be translated into a more broad-based and participative leadership at the grassroots level.