Whose land is it anyway?: Lip service to Adivasi welfare

The adoption of PESA in Madhya Pradesh is a cynical play for tribal votes. Worse, it will force tribal communities to cede control over their forests

Representative Image (IANS)
Representative Image (IANS)

Meenakshi Natarajan

Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary on November 15 this year was celebrated in Madhya Pradesh as the ‘Janjatiya Gaurav Divas’. Our first ‘Adivasi’ President, Droupadi Murmu, was in attendance at Shahdol and the state government grandiosely announced the immediate implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act of 1996 in the state.

To provide the context, Birsa Munda led an uprising against oppressive colonial rule in the closing years of the 19th century and passed away in a British jail in Ranchi at the age of 24 in the year 1900. The state government of Madhya Pradesh, which has a 19.5 per cent tribal population, woke up to his legacy this year—122 years after his death; much like it had woken up to the PESA Act last year—25 years after Parliament passed it in 1996.

PESA was a historic Act to recognise and allow a legal framework to collective decision-making by tribal communities. The Madhya Pradesh government’s new-found love for PESA appears to be not just tokenism but a cynical act with an eye to the assembly election due next year.

Speaking at the Constituent Assembly, Jaipal Singh Munda had made a passionate plea for safeguarding the rights of tribals. A powerful speaker, he had drawn attention of the Constituent Assembly to the martyrdom of Birsa Munda who demanded Abua Raj or Swaraj (self-rule), long before others took up the refrain. Jaipal Singh Munda, an Oxford University Blue who captained the Indian hockey team at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games, also pointed out that tribal society was inherently democratic and took collective decisions on issues of common interest.

After Independence, a number of steps were actually initiated to protect and preserve tribal traditions, heritage and customs. Policies were framed to ensure that tribal lifestyle and culture are not subsumed by dominant cultures. The tribal communities’ rights on forests, land and water resources (Jal-Jungle-Zameen) were acknowledged. It was resolved that there would be least interference by external agencies and the administration would seek to collaborate with and invite the participation of the communities. A commitment was also made to secure human rights of the tribals.

These commitments are reflected in the Indian Constitution. They are also reflected in laws banning moneylending, doing away with middlemen in the collection of forest produce, tasks which were taken over by the State. Promoting cooperatives, crackdown on trafficking of women and putting an end to the ‘Bonded Labour’ system were some other measures to protect the tribal communities. But several states with sizeable tribal population remained indifferent to implementing PESA, which was enacted following recommendations made by the Bhuria Committee. The Act was to be implemented in 10 odd states which had Scheduled Areas with substantial tribal population in them and which were listed in Schedules V and VI of the Indian Constitution. PESA was meant to extend the Panchayat system to these areas.

The law was meant to empower the village council or the Gram Sabha’ and vest in it the authority to manage forests, forest produce and natural resources over which tribal communities had traditionally enjoyed control.

What, however, is the reality on the ground?

Madhya Pradesh has 52,739 villages, approximately 22,600 of them nestling next to forests. Out of the state’s total area of 94,689 sq. km, Adivasis can be found residing in more than half the area or 51,919 sq. km. Tribal communities have lived in these places for centuries and the figures prove, if any proof is required, how well they have maintained the balance between nature and the community. They also indicate how indispensable they are for preserving and protecting the forests.

However, votaries of ‘development’ blamed these communities for allegedly exploiting forests. But can these communities be really held responsible for the cosequences of unplanned urbanisation, tree-felling by highways, smart cities, heaps of plastic and polythene piling up or for polluting natural sources of water?

Madhya Pradesh government recently notified 37,420 kilometres of forests as denuded and promptly announced that they would be privatised. The argument was that the private sector would be more effective and efficient in managing the forest areas. People have of course learnt the hard way that the private sector is primarily for profit; that private insurance companies, hospitals and educational institutions promote their own financial interests first and not the welfare of the poor.

Buxwaha forest, 235 kms from Bhopal, is of interest to the private sector because of its diamond reserves and not for the tribals or the trees. The country’s largest diamond reserve is in Buxwaha and it is estimated that there are 3.42 crore carats of rough diamonds in the area. The project is facing resistance from people but as and when the Supreme Court gives its nod, it will take off and could result in felling of 2,15,875 trees. It is not rocket science to anticipate what will happen to the tribal inhabitants.

The East India Company and the British Empire exploited forests to promote their commercial interests. Forests were brought under the forest department and Adivasi settlers in and around the forests were evicted or reduced to the margins. It is not hard to imagine what motivates the private sector, anxious to follow exploitative colonial practices, while stepping into forest management.

While the British colonial rulers faced resistance from tribals and tribal freedom fighters like Birsa Munda, the ruling dispensation is reluctant even today to concede rights for which Birsa Munda fought. Or else they would not propose the wholesale transfer of forests to corporate interests.

The euphoria around the implementation of PESA Act in Madhya Pradesh is, therefore, actually misplaced. The notification does not empower the tribal communities but deprives them of the powers envisaged in the central Act. The notification of PESA in Madhya Pradesh this month limits the authority and power of the Gram Sabhas to what is specified in the MP Panchayati Raj Act of 1993. This denies tribal communities collective ownership and management of natural resources.

On the contrary, PESA Act of 1996 had extended authority of the Gram Sabhas to surrounding natural resources also. But the November, 2022 notification in Madhya Pradesh limits the authority of the Gram Sabhas to habitations; which means that tribal communities will have no authority over forests. The new Act is also silent on the Gram Sabha’s authority over management of forest produce.

The Union government holds bamboo as a minor forest produce but the MP government doesn’t, despite bamboo being an integral part of the lives of tribals. Under PESA, Gram Sabha was not accountable to any external agency. But MP has reduced the Gram Sabha to just another local body. Needless to say, the notification will make little difference to tribal communities in the absence of community rights, which is how the communities managed resources. The dream of Birsa Munda for ‘Abua Raj’ remains distant.

Adivasis constitute merely 8-10 per cent of the country’s population. But when it comes to displacement, percentage of tribals is disproportionately higher at 55 per cent. They continue to be displaced. When Cheetahs from Namibia were recently released in the Kuno forest of Madhya Pradesh amidst much fanfare, little attention was paid to the 250 families displaced. Will displacement of tribals restore ‘Adivasi Gaurav’?

I had the unique opportunity to observe tribal communities living on the banks of the Narmada during the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Once again, I was struck by the fact that Adivasis and Nature are intertwined and no ‘development’ is possible without being sensitive to this symbiotic relationship.

If we are serious about restoring ‘Abua Raj’ to the tribals, we need to do a cost-benefit analysis and find out whether tribal communities benefitted or not from projects that displaced them. Hopefully Bharat Jodo Yatra will show us the way.

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