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Mainstream, VOL LV No 1 New Delhi December 24, 2016 - ANNUAL 2016

Governance, Resources and Livelihoods of Adivasis in India

Strengthening Tribal Leadership For Effective Implementation of PESA and FRA

Monday 26 December 2016, by C.H. Hanumantha Rao

The following is the author’s valedictory address at the National Seminar on ‘Governance, Resouruces and Livelihoods of Advasis in India: Implementation of PESA and FRA’, organised by the S.R. Sankaran Chair at the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Hyderabad, November 19, 2016.  

The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996—applicable to Schedule V areas in 10 States—empowers Gram Sabhas to manage forest lands and community resources, including decision-making relating to land acquisition and development projects and implementation of social sector development projects. The Forest Rights Act of 2006 aims at correcting the historical injustice done to the Adivasis and forest-dwelling communities by granting indivi-dual/community-based tenurial rights over forest land.

This empowerment of Gram Sabhas at the hamlet or village level has aroused widespread expectations among the Adivasis and there are some encouraging cases of implementation of these Acts in some States because of civil society activism and the good work done by NGOs. But the gap between promise from the extent of empowerment under these Acts and perfor-mance or achievements on the ground is very wide. In this sense, the implementation is far from satisfactory.

A reading of the papers presented at this seminar clearly brings home the point that the Adivasis’ own awareness of the relevant Acts, laws, rules and regulations as well as their own initiative in taking up issues are critical for effective implementation of the provisions in these Acts. For instance, a paper presented in the seminar refers to a study done by the Planning Commission showing that not even a single village Gram Sabha was even aware of the rights over the natural resources. Therefore, better awareness and leadership from Adivasis themselves become crucial.

Historian Ramachandra Guha in his essay on ‘Tribal Tragedies in Independent India’(Democrats and Dissenters, Penguin Random House India, 2016), attributes insufficient political clout and low bargaining power of the tribals to their concentration in remote areas, unlike the Dalits who live in mixed villages alongside other castes and communities. With 10 to 20 per cent of vote, Dalits can have a decisive impact in elections even in constituencies not reserved for them. Tribal vote may matter in only 50 or 60 constituencies whereas Dalit vote matters in as many as 300 constituencies.

Discussing poor leadership capabilities among the Adivasis, Guha mentions how jobs under the ‘Scheduled Tribe’ quota as well as reserved seats in prestigious colleges go to tribals in the North-East, because of their better schooling through the English medium. Due to their inade-quate representation in higher level civil services, tribals are subject to harsh treatment by other officials of forest, police, revenue and various other departments.

It is in recognition of insufficient awareness and low bargaining power of the Adivasis that the Governors have been conferred with significant powers for Schedule V areas in 10 States in matters affecting the livelihood and empower-ment of the Adivasis. But, surprisingly, the interventions by the institution of the Governor in such matters have been very few. The gap between the powers given to the Governors by PESA and their actual exercise is very wide indeed. It was expected that the Adivasis and their leaders approach the Governors seeking their intervention under the Act for rescuing and helping them. But such instances are not visible in many of these States because of lack of necessary awareness and initiatives from the grassroots.

For developing the tribal leadership we need to look at the problem with a long-term perspective of two-three decades, in view of the increasing rural-urban migration among the tribal population and feminisation of the tribal areas. Livelihood prospects from natural resources are shrinking and becoming increa-singly uncertain for tribals. While policies have to be strengthened for protecting the existing sources of livelihood for them, bold and far-reaching measures are needed to explore new avenues of livelihood.

Access to the development of human resources in general and quality education in particular through residential or Ashram schools hold the key to their prospects in future. This should enable many of them to find remune-rative jobs including in higher level services. Those of them remaining in rural areas with some education or choosing to come back would prove to be invaluable assets for providing good leadership. The present approach focusing on area develop-ment rather than human development needs to be radically changed. Also, replacing the top-down approach by micro-level planning would provide opportunities for the development of local-level leadership. Towards this end, Gram Sabhas should be entrusted with the implemen-tation of the MGNREGA and such other pro-grammes.

In the meantime, awareness-building among the tribal youth with existing literacy levels and augmenting their skills for inducting them in various services in the rural areas would better connect the administration with the tribal population and their problems by facilitating the development of local leadership. Way back in the early 1980s, in the course of my visit to the areas in Bastar when I was in the Planning Commission, I found this disjunction to be quite large primarily due to the jobs at the local level being filled by those from the plains, leading to the alienation of administration from the people at large.

Increasing feminisation of tribal agriculture calls for providing better access to services like agricultural extension and credit to women farmers by inducting women officers and workers for the provision of such services. Although in many such areas agriculture is mostly carried out by women, it is not uncommon to find male extension workers belonging to the plains spending their time by talking to men. It would also be beneficial to upgrade the skills of women engaged in certain vocations having a good market potential.

The author is an Honorary Professor, Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad.