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Lost law, lost people

A censored study on a seminal but ignored law reveals a distrust of democracy in addressing the growing Maoist insurgency, writes Samar Halarnkar.

india Updated: Jul 08, 2010 23:21 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times

“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?’”

Fulsingh Naik, resident of Mandibisi (Rayagada, West Orissa), December 2009, recounting a conversation he had inside a prison cell with a policeman who had jailed him for leading community protests against a country liquor shop in their village.

“Is the government meant for the people or the powerful?”

Mahangu Madiya, a resident of Dhuragaon (Bastar, south Chhattisgarh), July 2009, on the government’s efforts to forcibly acquire his village’s farmland for Tata Steel Limited, ignoring opposition by village councils.

These are voices from a chapter in a remarkably candid, government-commissioned report that explores the root causes of left-wing extremism in India’s impoverished tribal heartland, the ground zero of the Maoist insurgency. The report was released by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in April — but without the chapter, titled, ‘Pesa, Left-Wing Extremism and Governance: Concerns and Challenges in India’s Tribal Districts’.

The report was never meant to be a State secret. It was one of Singh’s departments, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, which commissioned the Institute of Rural Management, Anand (Irma), for an independent assessment of ground realities in the Maoist-dominated lands.

Acknowledging realities has never been an Indian strength. And so, after a series of tense e-mail exchanges with the bureaucrats of a ministry that is responsible for encouraging the spread of democracy — the officials wanted the story ‘edited’ to remove ‘extreme views’; the authors resisted — the study was released with the concerned chapter excised.

I’ve had this missing chapter with me for the past two months, but I am writing about it only now because Irma was wary of tangling with the ministry, its hypersensitive bureaucrats and its minister, C.P. Joshi, who denies knowledge of the missing chapter. When my colleague Prasad Nichenametla asked A.N.P. Sinha, Secretary, Ministry of Panchayati Raj, why this happened, this was the response: “I do not care what a professor or an attender at Irma says. Ask the director why it was deleted.”

That attitude is emblematic of the larger Indian approach to the Maoist insurgency. First, ignore local protests over acquisition of tribal land and exploitation of resources. Second, quell protests and the violence that follows. Third, as local protests over the years flare into India’s greatest internal-security threat, pour in 66,000 paramilitary troops. Fourth, try to find out what went wrong in the first place — but ignore what you don’t like to hear.

In addressing this hapless déjà vu, Irma’s report focused on the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act — or Pesa — passed by Parliament in 1996 to “mark the beginning of a new era in the history of tribal people”, as Dileep Singh Bhuria, Chairman of the parliamentary committee then said. Under Pesa, villages were considered competent to safeguard and preserve their culture and tradition, control natural resources (like mineral rights, land, water and forest produce) and settle their disputes. The Act, described by researchers as a “constitution within the constitution”, devolves democracy to its most basic unit, the gram sabha, the council of adult members of a habitation — as opposed to the gram panchayat, an elected council of a group of villages cobbled together for administrative reasons — and tries to reconcile the tribal world of ancient tradition with a modern India that is governed by laws.

It’s not hard to understand why Pesa was never implemented and why tribals continue to be cajoled, tricked or simply pushed off their lands.

About 80 per cent of India’s mineral wealth and 70 per cent of forests are in tribal areas. Tribals constitute about 8 per cent of India’s population. But, as one government official recently told me, their lands account for some 40 per cent of all land acquisitions.

This happens because India persists with a 116-year-old colonial law, the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. This archaic law doesn’t recognise indigenous rights and allows few remedies to remote, tribal communities whose only experience with government is its heavy hand, as interviews in the Irma report reveal.

The report’s authors (an Irma professor and a Fulbright scholar) encountered frightened tribals, often non-cooperative government officials, and the power of Pesa successfully diluted by keeping it hidden from the people whose lives it was supposed to change. Except Madhya Pradesh, none of the nine states in the red corridor has bothered to create a process of consultation before acquiring tribal land. Barring Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, the states haven’t even theoretically transferred powers to gram sabhas. Even in these two states where local legislation is most advanced, gram sabhas have the power to ‘consult’ but not ‘consent’. Jharkhand simply says anything the villages decide, the government can overrule.

Essentially, “a damaging mix of misgovernance, alienation, violent insurgency, and counter-violence by the state as well as non-state actors” is rendering Pesa “weak, or even meaningless”, says the censored chapter.

The government needs to quickly understand that finding an answer to the insurgency involves greater, not lesser, democracy and discussion. Releasing the censored chapter would be a good place to start.

First Published: Jul 08, 2010 23:16 IST