Think PESA, not paisa

The Union government seems to be working at cross-purposes to tackle Left-wing extremism, which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has time and again described as the country’s biggest internal security threat. At one level, there is recognition that any solution to the complex problem cannot be confined to maintenance of law and order but must address socio-economic issues in some of the poorest districts spread across India that have large tribal populations.
At the same time, by merely pouring funds into these areas without ensuring that these are properly utilised, and, more importantly, without tackling the structural factors that have sharply widened inequalities of income and opportunities, our netas and babus in New Delhi or in state capitals would be fooling nobody but themselves if they think conditions prevailing in the “Maoist-infested” parts of India could change for the better.
On July 24, the National Development Council (NDC) meeting — headed by the Prime Minister and comprising all chief ministers, key Cabinet ministers and members of the Planning Commission — is meeting to discuss, among other things, the mid-term appraisal of the 11th Five Year Plan (April 2007 to March 2012). The NDC will also discuss a report on the special problems of tribal-dominated districts, including the 34 districts affected by Left-wing extremism. Yojana Bhavan is reportedly working on a Rs 13,000-crore special financial package for these districts.
Before the NDC meeting, the Planning Commission would do well to circulate a 47-page report entitled “PESA, Left-Wing Extremism and Governance: Concerns and Challenges in India’s Tribal Districts”, which is an independent assessment of the functioning of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (or PESA), 1996, that governs tribal-dominated areas in nine states, covered by the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. The nine states are Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan.
Earlier this year, this independent report was ham-handedly “censored” by the ministry of Panchayati Raj headed by Dr Chandra Prakash Joshi and deleted from the official “State of Panchayats Report 2008-09” which was released by Dr Singh on April 24. The ministry had commissioned this study to the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (IRMA), with the aim to find out “the correlation between the promise and the reality of self-governance in selected states, especially those which have witnessed difficulties due to alternate mobilisations (and counter-mobilisations)”.
The IRMA report — authored by Ajay Dandekar and Chitrangada Choudhury and based on extensive field surveys — categorically blames government apathy, more than anything else, for the improper administration of the provisions of PESA in many tribal districts and argues that government apathy has to a large measure provided an impetus to the activities of Naxalites. The authors write: “…this may be the last opportunity…to retrieve PESA…The alternative is too horrific even to contemplate for the tribal areas”.
The report begins with a November 2009 quote from the Prime Minister: “There has been a systemic failure in giving tribals a stake in the modern economic processes that inexorably intrude into their living spaces… The systematic exploitation and social and economic abuse of our tribal communities can no longer be tolerated”.
The next quote is from Fulsingh Naik, resident of Mandibisi village, Rayagada district, Orissa, who recounts a conversation he had in December 2009 inside a prison cell with a policeman who had jailed him for leading community protests against a liquor shop: “When I told a government official that PESA allows us to determine our policy on liquor trade in the village, he shot back, ‘Are you trying to teach me the law? If you are so knowledgeable about the law, why are you living here in your village in the forest? Why don’t you go and speak in the Orissa Assembly?’”
The third quote is rhetorical: “Is the government meant for the people or the powerful?” The man who raised this often-asked question in July 2009 is Mahangu Madiya, resident of Dhuragaon village in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, in the context of the state government’s efforts to acquire his farmland for Tata Steel, by ignoring opposition to the move by local gram sabhas.
The IRMA study has highlighted several instances where state governments have diluted the powers of PESA in the wording of legislation and the rules governing the implementation of the law. Under PESA, a special provision has been made for the functioning of panchayats in order to protect and promote the interests of tribal or indigenous communities. It points out that barring Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, most states have enacted laws that provide the bulk of the powers to the gram panchayat, and not the gram sabha which is in stark violation of Section 4(n) of PESA — a gram sabha is a body of persons registered in the electoral rolls of a village or a group of villages within the area of the panchayat. In other words, whereas the gram panchayat is a small elected body, the gram sabha includes all men and women above the age of 18 and is, therefore, a larger and more representative body.
There is much more in the report that should be carefully read by our rulers. Some of them, who seem clueless about how to deal with Naxalites, would start listening to views that do not adhere to their blinkered notion that the only way to deal with Left-wing extremism is to annihilate the last Maoist standing before building schools, health centres and roads in tribal areas, besides providing clean drinking water and electricity.
Here’s an unsolicited suggestion to Dr Singh (who has frequently travelled across the length and breadth of the globe) made by Bengaluru-based author and public intellectual Ram Guha: “Mr Prime Minister, why don’t you pay a visit to Dantewada one of these days?”

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta is an educator and commentator