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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 16, April 10, 2010

Whither Tribal Autonomy in the Fifth Schedule Areas of Betul district (Madhya Pradesh)

Saturday 10 April 2010, by J.J. Roy Burman


The provision of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution has generated a lot of interest in the affairs of welfare and development mostly in the areas predominated by the Scheduled Tribes (ST) in the central belt of India. Social activists and a group of bureaucrats and ex-bureaucrats are claiming that this Schedule is the panacea for all tribal discord. If the tenets of this constitutional provision are fully implemented the tribesmen will emancipate from their present state of plight and penury. Behura and Panigrahi (2006) write:

If the state administration is streamlined as per the provisions of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution of India, a lot of problems of the tribal communities could be eliminated. Rapid development of tribal communities could be assured if action is taken as per the Fifth Schedule.

The Fifth Schedule provides guidelines for the administration of the Scheduled Areas, flow of grants-in-aid out of the Consolidated Fund of India to the States for the Scheduled Areas for promoting the welfare of STs, functions of the National Commission for SCs and STs, Commission on the administration of STs, executive power of Union in giving direction to the States for the STs, appointment of the Backward Classes Commission, specifications of SCs and STs.

The Fifth Schedule has many important provisions. The most important one is the declaration of an area as Tribal and Scheduled Area. The Scheduled Area has the following important components:

1. Report by the Governor to the President regarding the administration of the Scheduled Areas.

2. Appointment of the Tribal Advisory Council by the Governor.

3. Power of the Governor to regulate the application of laws of the State and the Acts of Parliament to the Scheduled Areas.

4. Power of the Governor to make regulations for the good governance of any or all Scheduled Areas in a State.

5. The President may by order declare an area to be a Scheduled Area.

In a Scheduled Area the Governor of the State has been delegated immense powers. He/she has been empowered to supervise the general administration of the Area and make regulations for good governance. Such regulations may

a) prohibit or restrict the transfer of land by or among members of the Scheduled Tribes in such Area;

b) regulate the allotment of land to the members of the Scheduled Tribes in such Area;

c) regulate the carrying on of business as money-lender by persons who lend money to members of the Scheduled Tribes in such Area.

The formation of the Tribal Advisory Committee (TAC) is an important component of the Fifth Schedule. The TAC is formed in every State of central India having Scheduled Areas. Besides, the President may direct formation of the TAC even in States having significant tribal population although there may not be any Scheduled Area. A TAC consists of not more than twenty members of whom as many as three-fourths shall be representatives of the STs in the Legislative Assembly of the State. Provided that if the number of representatives of the STs in the Legislative Assembly of the State is less than the number of seats in the TAC to be filled by such representatives, the remaining seats shall be filled by other members of those tribes. It shall be the duty of the TAC to advise on such matters pertaining to the welfare and advancement of the STs in the State as may be referred to them by the Governor.

The administration in the Fifth Schedule Areas has been bolstered by the introduction of the fiats of the 1993 Panchayati Raj Amendment Act. This is supposed to reinforce the norms of decentralisation of the administrative and political process among the tribal peoples and the Scheduled Areas. The Panchayati Raj Extension Act to the Scheduled Areas, popularly known as PESA, was enacted by Parliament on December 24, 1996. The PESA Act has been eulogised by many social activists as epitome of grassroot level democracy, It is a revolutionary step towards tribal administration and developmment. It is assumed to offer immense possibility of self-rule to the tribal peoples through institutions like the panchayat and Gram Sabha.

The powers vested in the Gram Sabha (GS) are: a) ownership of Minor Forest Produce (MFP), b) approval of development plans, c) selection of beneficiaries under various programmes, d) consultation on land acquisition, e) management of minor water bodies, f) control of minor minerals, g) regulation of prohibition of sale of intoxicants, h) prevention of alienation of land restoration of unlawfully alienated land of the STs, i)management of village markets, j) control of money lending to the STs, k) controlling institutions and functionaries in all social sectors, l) giving utilisation certificate for funds used for the projects and programmes of social and economic development etc. to the village panchayats. (Menon and Sinha: 2003)

The GS has been ascribed a position much above the Gram Panchayat. Accordingly Panchayats should take approval of the GS in all matters effecting tribal economy and society. In other words, the relationship between the GS and panchayat should be similar to the one existing between the legislature and government.

It is generally assumed that the tribal societies are homogenous and monolithic and also have cultural and traditional methods to work together in a participatory manner. Thus decentralised democracy in the form of GS is appropriate for them. Bhuria Committee recommended that the GS be made the cornerstone of entire decentralised governance, planning and development. (Menon and Sinha: Ibid.)


Taking into consideration the above delineations made by the government sources and PESA lobby, a rapid survey of a few villages was made in the Betul district of Madhya Pradesh (MP). The findings are briefly presented here.

Betul is one of the southern districts of MP bordering on Maharashtra. The district has a significant tribal population spread almost all over. Numerically, the ST population is approximately 41 per cent. Six of the ten development Blocks administratively fall within the ambit of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. The Integrated Tribal Development Project (ITDP) operates in all the six Blocks (Scheduled Areas) and also in areas of tribal concentration in two other Blocks, namely, Amla and Pattan.

In order to gauge the attitude of the government departments towards PESA, we started our inquiry by interviewing the ITDP Project Officer posted in Betul. Although we were received cordially, we came to learn that the Officer is ignorant about the Schedule although she had vaguely heard about PESA. Similarly, a DFO in charge of a forest division with high concentration of tribes, expressed her ignorance of the Fifth Schedule and the nuances of PESA. The Assistant Commissioner, Tribal Welfare Department was the only officer seeming to know about PESA and the Fifth Schedule. He informed that there is no separate administrative set-up of the government to implement the tribal welfare/developmental programmes. All that is done is to channelise the funds as per the percentage of tribal population in the district to various sectoral departments and monitor their utilisation.

The response from the NGO sector with regard to the knowledge about the Fifth Schedule proved to be slightly better. However, the regional co-ordinator of the Bhaunra branch of PRADAN, a renowned donor agency, remarked that the knowledge about the Fifth Schedule is of little use to them as they only implement development projects; such knowledge is meant merely for researchers. A Dalit activist from Shahpur, a Janapad Panchayat headquarter, is highly enthusisastic about the Fifth Schedule and has apparently participated in several rallies organised by the Bharat Jan Andolan, one of the leading protagonists of the concept at the national level. However, she too is ignorant about the intricate provisions of the Schedule. She commented that due to shortage of manpower in her organisation not much time could be devoted to read the efficacy of the provisions as people are by and large ignorant about it. Another top organiser of a tribal Christian organisation based in Betul had once been a member of a fact finding mission looking into the problems of land and forest management; she voiced ignorance about the functioning of the Gram Sabha (GS) in the Scheduled Areas. She also expressed ignorance about other aspects of the Fifth Schedule. She had never heard about the existence of any Tribal Advisory Council at the State level. Rekha Gujre, a very active social worker of Betul, who is working in the Bhimpur Block (with 89 per cent tribal population) is well aware about the operation of the Fifth Schedule. But she too is very sceptical about the efficacy of the constitutional provisions and raises doubts about the people’s awareness. She herself is not aware of them or can fully understand the policy implications.

Anil Garg, a lawyer-cum-activist, is absolutely furious with the hype created among the NGOs about the Fifth Schedule and PESA. He has raised several questions in the State Legislative Assembly about the violation of Forest Acts and tribal rights operating in the Fifth Schedule Areas. No wonder, he simply pooh-poohs the ‘Fifth Schedule” as a nonentity.

Jesudeep, a Catholic organisation operating from Bahunra in Shahpur Block, has been working for the welfare of tribal children and undertaking watershed activities in the area covered by the Fifth Schedule. The workers of the NGO and the priest in charge too were not aware about the intricacies of the Fifth Schedule, although it had formed Village Development Committees in the project area. The Catholic organisation introduced me to a few villages where it was operating. In the course of my stay a few important facts linked to the Fifth Schedule became clearly evident. First of all, it came to my knowledge that Handipani, a forest village, is multi-ethnic—inhabited by Korkus, Gonds, OBCs and a Harijan family. The Kotwal of the village is a Harijan; an OBC person is the President of the Village Forest Protection Committee. Though the village has a panchayat, streets and wells in the settlement have been constructed by the Forest Department through the Tribal Sub-Plan (TSP) funds. The village has a Gram Sabha (GS) which has been constituted at the behest of the panchayat and meets at least four times a year as per the government directives. People seldom attend the meetings as they are organised by the Sarpanch within the premises of the Gram Panchayat building.

Interestingly, the village has two ‘chaupals’, one each in two of the hamlets. The villages regularly assemble at the chaupals to discuss about the village problems and social issues. The village Handipani also does not exist as an isolated republic contrary to the image usually projected about villages (Gram Swaraj) by the Fifth Schedule protagonists. At Handipani there exists the shrine of a Baba yonder on the hills and the neighbouring villages assemble their at least once during ‘Harit Jirauti’—a pre-sowing ceremony that is held during the beginning of the monsoon. This ceremony reinforces the politio-cultural and economic ties between the adjoining villages. The institution of ‘Pathia’—a notional territorial boundary covering a number of adjoining villages—organise meetings to resolve societal and inter-village disputes mainly during the violation of customary laws, marks the existence of supra-village political entities. Such institutions distinctly negate the romantic vision of the existence of an independent Gram Swaraj and Gram Sabha.

The myth of isolated village republics gets further negated when the case of Sonadeh village, next to Handipani, is taken into consideration. At Sonadeh the Khedadeo deity or the tutelary deity of the village and Maata deo deity are worshipped by the ‘Bhumika’—the village priest, who happens to be a Gond tribesman residing at Handipani village. The Handipani and Sonadeh residents also have to depend on the permissions given by the Sarpanch who resides at village Kudkheda, located about eight kms away. Administrative operations consequently become extremely difficult. The Gram Sabha meetings also have to depend on the availability of the Sarpanch.

The irrelevance of the Gram Sabha became all the more revealing while studying the Makda village. At the Makda village of Bhimpur Block of Betul district one stone quarry has been operating since the last four years. As per the pronouncement of the Fifth Schedule, the industry ought to have obtained permission from the GS prior to setting up the industry. But the industry obtained permission neither from the GS nor the Panchayat. It just made deals with some individuals who lost land. Many have turned to be chronic asthma patients or are suffering from chest diseases. According to the villagers, the GS meetings are seldom held and the quorum is never fulfilled. Hardly any woman attends these meetings. This year due to the panchayat elections, the GS, scheduled for January 26, was cancelled. The enormity of the bureaucratic control of the state in the Fifth Schedule areas is blatantly manifest by the fact that the panchayat office is located at Chikhli village in Bhimpur Block.

The above findings are not very different from what the 2005 NIRD study report on the GS concludes:

Sarpanch and Secretary of the Panchayats still hold the sway through support of influential people. Statutory compliance is being made on paper. As regards the Secretary, though his importance has diminished in the eyes of GS, but the Panchayat Secretary affects decision-making mainly because rules and regulations are better known to him only. The Sarpanch still holds the power and people do not raise a hue and cry against him out of fear least the Sarpanch may harm them or hinder in other work whenever he approaches the panchayat for any personal work.

However, the problem of the Fifth Schedule and PESA is not just restricted to operational deficiency but systemic inefficiency. To top it all, the State Governor has been assigned an overarching power to oversee the fate of the Scheduled Tribes. The Governor, on the other hand, operates only through the bureaucracy. It is high time that the myth of autonomy enshrined in the Fifth Schedule is broken. It is also ominous that many of the PESA propagators are opposed to any form of election at the panchayat level and they vie for forming the GS through consensus at the settlement/hamlet level. (Rahul Banerjee: 2009, internet) This certainly has every danger of leading towards fascism at the grassroots. Unfortunately a large number of uninformed academics are backing them up. On the one hand, the Central Government will by- pass the controls of the State governments and on the other hand, establish links with unelected members constituting the Gram Sabha through the bureaucracy who will operate at the behest of the Central Government-appointed Governors. A frightening scene is in the offing. All the more so, as the non-tribal protagonists are demanding empowering the Governor to act in the interest of the tribes even if his actions violate the tenets of the Constitution.


Banerjee, R. (2009), “The Elusive Holy Grail of Tribal Self-Rule—An Analysis of the History Behind PESA”, paper presented in International Seminar on Adivasi/ST Communities in India: Development and Change, August 27-29, New Delhi.

Menon, P.S.K. and Sinha, B.D. (2003), Panchayati Raj in Scheduled Areas; New Delhi: Concept.

Singh, S.K. (ed.) (2005), Self-Governance for Tribals, Vol. 4, Hyderabad, NIRD.

The author is a Professor, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and inclusive Policies, School of Social Sciences, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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