Akash Bisht Delhi
A five-time MP from Araku (ST) constituency of Andhra Pradesh, Kishore Chand Deowas first elected to the Lok Sabha way back in 1977. He also served one term in the Rajya Sabha and was a member of the Congress Working Committee. He was sworn in as theUnion Minister for Tribal Affairs and Panchayati Raj in 2011 and has also been a chairperson of several important parliamentary committees. In the wake of the cold-blooded murder of tribals in Chhattisgarh, Hardnews spoke to the veteran politician
Q | On May 17, eight tribals, including three children, were killed by the security forces in Ehadsameta in Bijapur district in Bastar region of Chhattisgarh. This comes nearly a year after 17 innocent villagers were killed in cold blood by the security forces in Sarkeguda.
Last year, when it happened in Chhattisgarh, I had raised the matter with the appropriate authorities and had taken it up with the then Union home minister and also written to the state government. I can only say that this is most unfortunate because if innocent tribals start losing their lives in this manner then it will only create more resentment among them. This kind of action will further drive them into the arms of the extremists. I have said time and again that, to understand the reasons for the extremist problems, we have to get to the roots of it. I want to reiterate that the problem in these areas cannot be treated merely as a law and order one. The problems at the grassroots are far deeper. We have recognized the problems and created an Integrated Action Plan (IAP) for selected tribal and backward districts.
Exploitation is one of the biggest problems staring at tribal populations in these areas. The threat of mining is severe. If we talk about development then the UPA believes in inclusive growth and it means that the process of development should take along people from the poorest, exploited and marginalized sections of society.
Recently, I came to know about the exploitation of tribals in Mahan Coal Fields (Singrauli) in Madhya Pradesh. I got feedback from the locals that the district administration and main functionaries of panchayats have been manipulated by private miners. I am told that merely 15-20 people of the gram sabha had passed contrived resolutions. This was against the directions from the panchayati raj ministry that the gram sabha meetings have to be video recorded. It also goes against the directions of the tribal affairs ministry that community rights have to be recognized. A contrived gram sabha not allowing community rights to the tribals goes against every constitutional provision. This is the first time I was hearing that tribal communities do not want their rights. This is their mainstay and basic source of their livelihood; that is why I sent guidelines and circulars defining what community rights and resources mean. Thus, when such situations arise, you have such unfortunate events like what happened in Chhattisgarh.
Probably, it’s one of those incidents where force was used to tame the people, but this will only polarize people against the State. After all, the State has to gain the sympathy of the people and they have to realize and recognize their rights. The security forces have to be within the perimeters of the existing laws and if you keep flouting laws and conventions then this is what it will result in. This is very sad.
Q | It has been reported that the post-mortems of the dead tribals were being conducted in the open.
It is not only gory, it is inhuman and this is not the way you deal with your own citizens. Health and law and order are under the jurisdiction of the state government. This doesn’t mean that I am trying to play politics; these things have happened under Congress governments too. I have not spared my own party governments and chief ministers. This is not a party matter and is above politics. These situations, when they develop, become a threat to our nation’s security. It is beyond party matters. The states will have to take up the responsibilities and security forces have to restrain themselves when it comes to dealing with innocent people.
It’s no excuse to say that they were being used as human shields and hence they massacred them. Why were they being used as human shields? You have to go into the causes for that. Once you understand that then you can get to the root of the problem. I have discussed this with the present home minister and he understands this very well. He was totally in agreement with me that this is not the way to handle such situations. I will again be writing to the chief ministers, the home minister and environment and forests ministry. If mining clearances are given without the consent of tribals then you will only be antagonizing them.
Q |There were protests and anger after the gangrape of a young girl in Delhi, but not many spoke about Soni Sori and how she was tortured and sexually assaulted by the Chhattisgarh police.
I was the one who took up her case. It was raised in the Rajya Sabha by an MP. There was an instance when AIIMS refused to admit her despite a court order. I ensured that she was admitted to the hospital and given proper treatment. We need to create awareness among people about their rights.
Q | There are reports that Operation Green Hunt is still being pursued by security forces.
If there are any such reports then I will take it up with the appropriate authorities. I am not opposing that certain operations need to be carried out in certain areas, but there has to be some cause. Going around in a trigger-happy mood and shooting innocent people is not the way to go about it.
Q |What role do these gram sabhas and panchayats play in tribal areas? Recent reports suggest that there has been an increase of 25 per cent in centrally sponsored schemes but India still ranks very low in the Human Development Index. The scenario is worse in tribal areas.
They play a very vital role in these impoverished regions and if gram sabhas are allowed to play their role, they will do it. The problem is similar to what I mentioned earlier in Mahan Coal Fields. The tribals wanted to file claims under the Forest Rights Act but their claims were not accepted by the local authorities. If you want to empower people, gram sabhasmust be held regularly. I have sent circulars and they need to be video recorded. Video recording is no big deal today and there are cameras available everywhere. Twenty years back they could have said that it is a utopian idea, but that is not the case now. This is to prevent contrived gram sabha resolutions; if people are allowed to play their roles, half of our problems will be solved.
Panchayati raj is a state subject and every state has its own Panchayati Raj Act. My job is to raise awareness, issue guidelines and monitor. Officially, guidelines have been issued. For instance, they need to hold four gram sabhas every year. I would be happy if they have 40, but they have to be genuine. If the state governments do not comply then there is very little that one can do. This year we have launched the Rajiv Gandhi Panchayati Raj Sashakti karan Abhiyan (RGPSA); this is demand-driven. The annual budget allocation for the panchayati raj ministry is Rs 300-350 crore. I have got Rs 6,200 crore from the Planning Commission for the Five Year Plan under RGPSA. That makes it close to Rs 500 crore annually. The Union ministry for rural development has agreed to give one per cent of its annual allocation because most of their schemes have to be implemented and channelized through the gram panchayats. It may be only one per cent for the rural development minister, but for me it is nearly Rs 1,000 crore, as his annual budget is Rs 99,000 crore per annum. So, in total, it makes Rs 1,500 crore a year which is substantial as compared to what I was getting earlier.
I am ready to give funds to strengthen the panchayati raj infrastructure. I have put some conditions and they have to comply with provisions of the 73rd and 74th amendments of the Constitution. First, they will have to hold elections within six months as prescribed by the Constitution. Then, they will have to devolve their funds, functions and functionaries and hold gram sabhas regularly. I have evolved this marking system where I will be marking them according to these constitutional provisions. States that will comply will get funds accordingly, and since all state governments want funds, so, I think. I will be able to convince them.
Another important thing is that I am not thrusting these funds for any specific purpose. One state may say that they have sufficient panchayat ghars and they don’t want money for that but they want money to pay salaries. I have asked them to give me plans and, based on the requirements, I plan to give them the money. The Union communications ministry has promised that they will give broadband connections to 2,46,000 panchayats in the country by 2014. In fact, they have already done it for 50,000 panchayats. In remote and tribal areas, where there is no power, we will have solar systems. So, the states that need money for computers or solar equipment, I will give them money. We have four software systems that many states are using and six more software systems have been developed and people are being trained. Once the training is over then the state governments will have 10 software systems to use. There will be social accounting and e-governance, and everything that is going on in these panchayats will be documented. This will help us monitor these schemes and take them forward.
Q | Which are the states that are doing well?
There are certain states that have been doing well but nobody has devolved all the 29 items that are in Schedule 5 of the Constitution. Some states comply with 12, some with 14. States like Kerala, West Bengal, Odisha and Karnataka have been doing very well. In the last couple of years, Haryana has been lagging behind, but now it is performing well. I have started a trend of giving awards for the best performing states. Now, we are also giving awards to specific panchayats for good practices. All this is to sensitize them and give them incentives to make them aware. Recently, there was a Commonwealth Conference for local bodies in Uganda. Unfortunately, the ministry of external affairs made the urban development ministry as the nodal ministry, although the Commonwealth was keen that we participate. I wanted to send some panchayati raj representatives to the conference to give them a sense of empowerment.
Q |What about states that are performing below your expectations?
We have not made a list of that. Jharkhand is one such state that hasn’t had elections in 12 years; they had elections when Arjun Munda came to power. The elected representatives are there but what will they do if you don’t give them any funds or devolve any functions? I had written to the chief minister and had gone to Ranchi. Ultimately, the call has to be taken by them.
Another example is Jammu and Kashmir. They had elections after 12 years, but no functions have been given to these elected representatives. No funds are given to them for whatever reasons. They said that because of Article 370 they are not bound by the 73rd and 74thamendments. I said fine, they must be having a Panchayati Raj Act of their own so they should devolve powers according to that. That is not happening. In my state, Andhra Pradesh, there have been no elections in the last two years — hence, there are nopanchayats. So, whom do you talk to? I have been writing to them and there is a constitutional requirement that they have to do it in six months. Besides, this is a Congress-ruled state.
Q | In north India, panchayats are feudal in nature and Dalits and minorities have no say in them. Similarly, in tribal areas, tribals have no say and local bodies are easily bought off by big business and multinationals. How do you counter this?
Gram sabhas have a special role to play in these areas under statutory provisions within the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act. This was enacted by the central government in 1996. Fifteen years have passed, but, unfortunately, out of the nine scheduled states, only three have made rules. Six have not even done this and they have made their own rules. According to PESA all state governments have to amend their Panchayati Raj Act to see that they are compliant with PESA, but they have not done so. According to PESA, gram sabhas will not be in the panchayat level, but it will be held in every habitation. This is a clarification that I have sent to all state governments of the scheduled states.
Ultimately, they have to take the call. By empowering the gram sabha, we can give the people the role, however indirect it may be, to partake in the process of governance and development. This is one way to draw tribals into the mainstream and to make them feel that they are part of governance. This should get them out of these threats of taking to extremist ways.
In the scheduled areas, even if multinationals buy the panchayats, they cannot enter since there are constitutional provisions and safeguards under Article 244 and the Fifth Schedule. Constitutional safeguards and provisions cannot be overridden by resolutions of gram sabhas or panchayats and even by the devious methods deployed by the state government to flagrantly and blatantly overcome constitutional safeguards. This is totally illegal.
Governors have special powers, so I have written to governors of all scheduled states. I received a reply from the governor of Chhattisgarh. I have written to the governor of Odisha arguing that constitutional provisions have been totally violated in the case of Vedanta. It is a scheduled area and Vedanta is a private company which has no locus standi there. I have written to the governor of Andhra Pradesh who chose to abdicate his powers and rights and I had to take other action.
If you take the case of the Orissa Mining Corporation which is registered under the Companies Act, 1956, these are corporations that can’t take land in Schedule 5 areas. Irrespective of that provision they give land on lease to private companies like Vedanta. This is completely against the provisions of the Constitution. In recent times, there have been a number of cases where shares have been disinvested in such companies. Article 244 of the Constitution can only be amended by Parliament in the manner prescribed in Article 368 of the Constitution. Hence, by disinvesting and taking this surreptitious route, are they not subverting constitutional provisions and bypassing the authority of Parliament?
I have sent a letter based on the Supreme Court ruling on Vedanta. The Supreme Court, in its order, has mentioned about Article 144 (1), but they have not gone deep into the matter. Probably, the counsel who was arguing this case didn’t raise this. The counsel was from the ministry of environment and forests. By the time I became minister, it was too late for the tribal affairs to get involved in this case. But I did raise a lot of hue and cry and I saw to it that an affidavit from my ministry went to the Attorney General who gave it to the Supreme Court. That is the reason why they have made my ministry the nodal authority for looking at the Forests Rights Act and PESA compliances in the Vedanta case.