Giving people their due, will shrink Naxal-breeding grounds
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab (October 2005)
Given the complexities of the Naxal problem, which is increasingly developing hues of an insurgency, it is clear that the remedies will have to be both diverse and dynamic. One such remedy was given by the Union minister for Panchayati Raj, Mani Shankar Aiyer. According to him, “Panchayati Raj can be strengthened as a counter to Naxalism. After all, why do people go to these jan adalats? Because they feel that the state judicial system does not deliver. It is tedious, time and money–consuming. Moreover, how can you expect a poor tribal to travel all the way to the nearest town to file his petition? It is here that Panchayats come into play. They provide democratic administration at the lowest level.” According to the votaries of the Panchayati Raj, which includes a number of civil right activists as well, one of the solutions may just lie in helping people take charge of their destiny.
In 1996, the Central government passed an Act to enhance the scope of Panchayati Raj. Called Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA), the idea was to include tribal and forest communities in the Panchayati Raj System, so that they feel not only empowered but also in control of their lives. The Act enjoins that Gram Sabhas and Panchayats need to be empowered to, ‘safe-guard community ownership of land and its resources and thus ensure that tribal land is not alienated.’ PESA also emphasises on consulting tribal before acquisition of any land and to ensure that tribal right of ownership of minor forest produce is assured and that tribal can manage their water bodies and control and regulate extraction, use and marketing of minor minerals. Though tribal comprise 8.08 per cent of the total population, in terms of sheer number they are 67.8 million with about 698 various tribal groups. Of these, Orissa has the largest concentration of different groups and Orissa is one of the severely-affected Naxal states. Since Independence nearly 85.39 lakh tribal have been displaced and tribal constitute 55.16 per cent of the total displaced people in the country. Hence, it comes as no surprise that all the Naxal-affected states have a sizeable tribal population, right from Bihar to Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and so on. Yet, a full-fledged ministry of tribal affairs was formed only in 1999 and it has now come up with the first draft National Policy on tribal. For many years, the government followed the policy of non-interference with the tribal, which basically meant that their habitat, style of living, customs and religions would not be disturbed by the state. However, on the flip side because of a discriminatory Forest Act, they were robbed of their primary source of living. Because they were not to be touched, development also did not reach them. As a result, they started migrating outside the forest where their backwardness became more and more glaring. A senior official in the ministry of Panchayati Raj says that the roots of the anger and discontent which eventually manifested itself in the form of violent Naxalism can be traced to the unfair and archaic India forest Act of 1927. He says, “The Act made tribal who had always lived in the forests, encroachers and criminals. They were displaced and robbed of their livelihood as these people traditionally lived off the forest produce.” Even as they were deprived of the primary source of living, they were not given any alternate means of subsistence. In any case, they had no rights as spin-offs of democracy also didn’t reach them. In most case, they ended up as pawns in the hands of vested interests, poachers, forest officers, contractor and other petty government officials. Perhaps, it was with this in mind that the chief minister of Karnataka, Dharam Singh in the meeting with Shivraj Patil demanded an amendment in the Forest Act of India. He said that an amendment will reduce the disaffection of the tribal in his state.
The ministry of tribal affairs has prepared a draft Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill 2005. But it is unlikely that the bill, which recognises the rights of forest-dwelling scheduled tribes (FDSTs) over forest produce will be passed in a hurry. The issue is currently being debated by environmentalists, social activists and tribal right activists. While the environmentalists fear that once the bill is passed, tribal will have unbridled access to forest produce resulting in an environmental disaster, a group of social activists feel that tribal life should not be disturbed and that these people need to live in their natural habitat.
Even as various ministries debate these issues, it is in national interest to ensure that such a huge section of the population does not remain without rights. Under these circumstances, ensuring effective Panchayats would not only empower the poor, they will also assist in the overall development of the backward areas. A bureaucrat in the Panchayati Raj ministry says, “The Naxal view Panchayats as their rival and hence resist their formation or functioning. What could be a greater incentive than this that all Naxal-affected states work toward strengthening the Panchayats?” Kannabiran says, “Strong and accountable Panchayats can certainly make a difference. But the point is, even the state governments do not want powerful Panchayats because they see them as rivalling their influence at the local level. Governments do not want people to function; it only wants persons functioning in the name of the people.”