Ground realities tell a sorry tale of implementation of tribal self-rule legislation in Gujarat’s adivasi villages

Gujarat tribal women collecting small forest produce
Gujarat tribal women collecting small forest produce

By Satyakam Joshi*

The 73rd amendment to the Constitution and the subsequent enactment of Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) aimed at triggering decentralization in India through the transfer of power to the gram sabha or the village assembly. PESA attempted to vest legislative powers in gram sabha, specifically in matters relating to development planning, management of natural resources and adjudication of disputes in accordance with prevalent traditions and customs. The legislation was expected to have far-reaching consequences in social, economic and cultural life of the tribal people in scheduled areas. All the scheduled states were given one year to amend their respective panchayat Acts to conform to the letter and spirit of PESA.

Accordingly, most states have introduced some form of conformity amendments. At a first glance, the state conformity legislation and amendments seem to have generally reflected most of the provisions of PESA, although a closer look establishes that almost all powers have been made subject to rules/ further orders “as may be prescribed by the state governments”. Control over minor minerals, planning and management of water bodies, control and management of minor forest produce, prevention alienation of land are all subject to rules in force, which may or may not have been prescribed. The fact that the enabling rules are not in place in several states, including Gujarat, suggests reluctance by state governments to operationalise the mandate of PESA.

The Gujarat Panchayat (Extension to the Schedule Area) Act, 1998 opened up the possibilities for the tribal people to manage their resources, especially land, water and forests, monitor the development process, settle disputes and manage the affairs of villages and protect their culture and tradition. The law recognizes for the first time that higher institutions of governance are subsidiary to the basic unit, that the elected representatives are accountable to the electorate, and that people are the final arbiters of their life and destiny.

The provisions of the new Act are an integral part of the constitutional provisions concerning tribal affairs and self-government. The functioning communities in the schedule areas are automatically endowed with formal recognition on December 24, 1996 with the assent of the President. Moreover, the tribal community, through gram sabha, is endowed with specific powers automatically. These powers include management of community resources, resolution of disputes, approval of plans and programmes as also mandatory consultation before land acquisition. gram sabhas are conferred with certain other powers, too, relating to vital matters such as ownership of minor forest produce, enforcement of prohibition, restoration of unlawfully alienated lands, control over money lending and marketing, etc.

Gujarat is the traditional home for about 29 main tribal communities, and they are inhabited in eleven districts of the state. As per 2011 census data, Gujarat has 14.8 per cent tribal population i.e. 89,17,174. Tribal population occupies 15 per cent of total geographical area of the state. Out of this, 56.86 per cent is forest area. The entire tribal belt of Gujarat can be divided into three zones i.e. North Zone, Central Zone and South Zone. The North Zone comprises of Sabarkantha and Banaskantha districts having eight per cent of total tribal population of the state, the Central Zone comprises of Panchamahal, Dahod and Baroda districts having 36 per cent of the total tribal population of the state, and South Zone comprises of Narmada, Bharuch, Surat, Navsari, Valsad and Dangs districts having 53 per cent of total tribal population of the state. Three per cent of the tribal population is spread out in other districts.

Out of 30 backward blocks of the state, 17 blocks are predominantly tribal. Only 14 per cent land in tribal area is a cultivable. Irrigation is a major source of agriculture, but for the tribal areas this facility is far from satisfactory. Only 10.89 per cent cultivated land is under irrigation. More than 40 per cent of tribals work labourers. In spite of so many government schemes for tribals, the condition of tribals is far from satisfactory. Once upon a time, forests were their main source of livelihood, but after deforestation tribals have to migrate from their villages in search of employment. According to government estimates, around 21 percent of tribal families from Dangs, Dahod, Panchamahal, Narmada and Surat districts migrate every year for work.

The tribals’ traditional rights over land, water and forests in their own areas have been systematically curtailed or taken away by government and non-government agencies over the years. The foremost problem the tribals of Gujarat face presently is of growing unemployment. Particularly, educated tribal youths fail get jobs. There are more than 24,000 tribal youths, who have become graduates, but are without job. Curtailment in government jobs has affected them badly. There are no alternatives available for this vast section of the tribal society.

It is in this context that an effort was made to study the functioning of PESA in Gujarat.  In all, 11 tribal villages were selected. These are:

Sr. No.  Name of the Village Taluka District No. of village Panchayat Representatives Interviewed
1. Maipur Vyara Surat 08
2. Malotha Vyara Surat 08
3. Vadpada Uchchal Surat 10
4. Naranpur Uchchal Surat 12
5. Linga Ahwa Dangs 09
6. Motidabhas Ahwa Dangs 09
7. Khambhala Ahwa Dangs 07
8. Khutali Kaprada Valsad 07
9. Khadki Dharampur Valsad 08
10. Juna-Mozda Dediapada Narmada 03
11. Tavel Sagbara Narmada 08
Total 89

All these villages are tribal dominated and fall under PESA. Questions asked included their knowledge of PESA, issues discussed in village panchayat meetings as well as in gram sabhas, the type of difficulties faced by villagers, problems, solution and roadblocks in the implementation of tribal schemes. The respondents were also asked whether panchayat and gram sabha meetings used were being held as per PESA’s provisions.

All respondents (100 percent) said that developmental issues like road, electricity and drinking water were the main issues discussed at gram sabha or panchayat meetings. Further, 92 percent of the respondents said that they also discussed issues of village schools and check dams. Surprisingly, the issue of cultivating reserved forest land was never discussed in any panchayats, though cultivating reserved forest land in the tribal villages is a burning issue in the tribal areas and has been a major cause of conflict with state forest department officials.

One of the representatives of Khutali said candidly, “So many people are telling us that village panchayats can bring positive change in the lives of villagers but our experience with village panchayats suggest that they have their own limitation. They do not have financial resources and power to govern villages in a true democratic spirit. The main functioning of village panchayats is restricted to village cleanliness, street lights, and collection of land revenue and housing tax. The panchayats also facilitate income and caste certificates. Most of the village development schemes come from district panchayats or state governments, and village panchayat just implement them. Thus, village panchayats remain implementing agencies.”  The data obtained from villages corroborate this fact.

As for awareness about representatives’ responsibilities and knowledge, the investigation reveals that representatives are quite particular in attending meetings, but they lack knowledge with regards to various provisions which empower panchayats. They are totally unaware about PESA and its provisions.  In fact, in most of the taluka panchayats, too, members were ignorant about PESA. A member of Naranpur Gram Panchayat said, “We have been hearing from people that there is an Act which empowers village panhcayats, but so far we have not been informed or given proper guidance about this Act, nor do we know how to implement it. Even government officials have no information about this Act.”

Level of awareness among village panchayat representatives: 
Total No. of Respondent Name of the village Regular Attendances in the Meeting Participation in the Meeting Knowledge About PESA Knowledge About Taxes Collected by  Village Panchayat
8 Maypur 87.50 62.50 12.50 75.00
8 Malotha 87.50 75.00 00.00 100.00
10 Vadpada 90.00 100.00 00.00 100.00
12 Naranpur 91.66 91.70 00.00 75.00
9 Linga 100.00 77.80 00.00 77.80
9 Motidabas 88.80 88.90 00.00 55.60
7 Khambhala 100.00 100.00 00.00 85.70
7 Khutali 100.00 100.00 00.00 100.00
8 Khadki 75.00 87.50 00.00 100.00
3 Juna Mosda 100.00 100.00 00.00 100.00
8 Tavel 100.00 100.00 00.00 100.00
Note: Data given in percentages.

Indeed, village panchayats give priority to issues of development. Yet, it is a fact that  apart from roads and drinking water, very little has been done across the villages in terms of school, community hall/panchayat hall, community development programme and check dams. In villages Malotha, Linga, Motidabas and Khambhala less than 50 percent respondents confirmed that roads were laid and were repaired. The implementation of drinking water facilities was ignored in Malotha, Khutali, Khadki and Juna Mosda. Rest of the villages too showed poor implementation, with hardly 50 percent respondents satisfied with the implementation of drinking water schemes.

Clearly, the function of panchayats is restricted to building or repairing roads, providing water and educational facilities. Village panchayats do not work as units of local self-governance. As per PESA provisions, the village panchayat is supposed to discuss various aspect of tribals’ problems like minor forest produce, regulation of liquor sale, money lending, giving consent for establishing any industry next to the village, protecting tribal communities’ customary rights, imposing taxes on village common resources and to identifying below poverty line (BPL) families, but none of these are discussed in panchayat meetings. Most representatives are not aware about these provisions.

Even then, there is a wide spread curiosity amongst village representatives to know about PESA provisions. For example, in Dangs district, the Sarpanch Association president and the sarpanch of Bhuri Khet was very enthusiastic for implementing PESA in true spirit to all villages of the Dangs. He arranged PESA orientation trainings for sarpanches of Dangs and campaigned for strict implementation of PESA in gram sabhas. He is of the view that “PESA provisions are very much beneficial to tribals, but government officials and the state do not have much interest in implementing them. The reason is, once PESA provisions are implemented, villagers and village panchayats will become more powerful, and the role of the state will be minimized.”

Maximum percent of responses recorded infrastructure-related difficulties by villagers during interaction with them. These include access to road, electricity and water for drinking as well as irrigation. This was succeeded by health and employment, followed by transportation and education. It revealed that transportation problem and, to some extent, education were more felt in hilly terrains of Dangs and Dharampur. These problems were also voiced vehemently in gram sabhas, where people would bring forth their anger before government officials and asked them to take action. A village youth leader of Tavel said, “In last four gram sabha meetings we have been passing the resolution for repairing the village approach road and  installing hand pumps for drinking water, but so far nothing has been done. Now we have decided that we will boycott the next gram sabha meeting. Government officials are not interested in resolving our problems.  Gram sabha is mere formality.”

Already, voices can be heard against the effort to turn gram sabhas into mere implementation agencies of the state government. In the Dangs district the Sarpanch Association prepared a resolution which said that as per PESA it is the villagers’ – and not state government’s – right to decide the date, the time and the agenda of the gram sabha meeting, and asked village panchayats to pass resolution about this in gram sabhas. Out of 70 village panchayats of Dangs, 33 village panchayats passed such a resolution and sent to the authorities concerned. Yet, the authorities refused to accept this as legal document. One of the activists working in the Dangs said, “Provisions of PESA are very beneficial to the tribals, and if properly implemented they will bring real swaraj to tribals, but unfortunately the state, the bureaucrats and the politicians are not interested in implementing it, as it may challenge their dominance over tribals. Like rest of the other legislations, this legislation too remains on paper.”

During fieldwork, this researcher participated in the functioning of 22 gram sabhas, during which the following was observed:

* There is a lack of awareness amongst people about the role of gram sabha. Illiteracy, low awareness, inaccessibility to sources of information and an unsupportive administrative environment contribute to this problem. Sheer survival issues dominate the life of the common tribespersons. Immediate issues of food insecurity leave little scope for any hullabaloo on a relatively abstract subject such as self-governance. Seasonal migration is a fact of life in these villages. It reduces interest and participation of people in gram sabha meetings and activities.

* Attendance in gram sabha meetings was found to be low. On an average 25 to 30 percent adults of villages would attend gram sabhas. Often, quorum is not as prescribed, or the register is taken from house to house to get signatures for requisite quorum. Attendance and participation of villagers in gram sabha meetings was low in majority villages, except Bilpudi and Chikali, the most important reason for this was people were disillusioned by false claims by sarpanches and government officials. A sense of disillusionment on the efficacy of the gram sabhas was perceptible. People felt that decisions and recommendations made in gram sabhas did not carry any weight and were brushed aside by state officials. In fact, gram sabhas have been reduced to forums where information about government schemes is disseminated.

* Yet, the fact remains that PESA in Gujarat has opened up new possibilities of self-rule in tribal villages. Tribals are slowly understanding the importance of PESA and becoming conscious about their rights and responsibilities.  They do try to exercise their rights and have compelled government officials to solve their problems. On the other hand, PESA is not being implemented in its true spirit. Politicians and bureaucrats are apathetic to PESA. gram sabhas are not held as per PESA provisions.

*Associate professor, Centre for Social Studies, Surat

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