Pathalgadi movement: Chattisgarh govt's undermining of tribal rights, PESA Act provisions led to resistance
What was seen as a landmark legislation to protect tribal rights is in reality proving to be not much of a protection to the tribals in Chattisgarh.
Editor's note: Pathalgadi are stone slabs bearing inscriptions that villagers in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have, over the past year, appropriated to declare their "independence" from the state and central government, and as signposts to mark tribal agitation. This has led to state action against the rebellion. Firstpost will run a series of reported pieces from the region to understand the concerns of locals and the government's position.
Raipur: What was seen as a landmark legislation to protect tribal rights is in reality proving to be not much of a protection to the tribals in Chattisgarh. The Panchayats (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA) is meant to extend self-rule to tribal areas and protect the tribal's rights regarding land, water and forest, and their traditional social customs in what are declared as fifth schedule areas (areas that the President may, by order, declare to be schedule areas).
This law was put to the test when on 4 June, 2005, the Indian Farmers Fertilisers Cooperative (IFFCO) Limited and the Chhattisgarh government in Raipur signed an agreement to set up a 1320 MW power plant in the Premnagar gram panchayat area of Sarguja district at a cost of about Rs 4,000 crores.
The project required 728.41 hectares spread over five revenue villages – Premnagar, Chandanagar, Namna, Raghunathpur and Abhaypur — and would affect 1,386 families. But Premnagar gram panchayat was a fifth schedule area, which meant it required the approval of the area's gram sabha.
The PESA Act's provisions were quite clear. According to Rajni Soren, an advocate of Chhattisgarh High Court, apart from directing that the state legislation on Panchayats should be made in consonance with the customary tribal law, social and religious practices, PESA also recognises the supremacy of traditional management practices for community resources and dispute resolution.
It also decrees that “every gram sabha shall approve the plans, programs and projects for social and economic development” before they are taken up for implementation and that “the gram sabha or the Panchayats at the appropriate level shall be consulted before acquisition of land in the Scheduled Areas for development projects and before re-settling or rehabilitating persons aﬀected by such projects in the Scheduled Areas.”
The Act gives the gram sabha the power “to prevent alienation of land in the Scheduled Areas, and to take appropriate action to restore any unlawfully alienated land of a Scheduled Tribe.”
Playing around with PESA
Given these legal provisions, the Chhattisgarh government organised a gram sabha in Premnagar under the PESA law in 2005. However, the Panchayat voted against the power plant. Those who attended the meeting made it clear that they did not want to leave their homes or allow pollution of their village. The resistance to the power plant in the tribal-dominated village made IFFCO realise that if the rights provided to the tribals under PESA were to remain, the power plant was doomed.
The state government, however, did not give up. Between 2005 to 2009, it organised 14 gram sabhas for setting up a power plant in Premnagar gram panchayat but every time the tribals passed a resolution against it. So, in March 2010, the government issued a notification and converted Premnagar gram panchayat to a Nagar Panchayat ie City Council which meant the PESA Act would no longer be applicable in the district which that IFFCO would not require the permission of any gram sabha for setting up the power plant, which it finally did.
Alok Shukla, convener of the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, said Premnagar was a prime example of how PESA is circumvented in Chhattisgarh. In the last few years, the government has converted almost 70 gram panchayats into Nagar Panchayats. The Pathalgadi movement across 200 villages in Jharkhand has thrown light on the state government’s indifference towards implementing PESA in securing tribal rights. Shukla said that in Chhattisgarh, tribals needed a movement like Pathalgadi. He added that the government was trying to ignore the real issues behind Pathalgadi by terming it as a movement related to religious conversions, external elements and Maoist supporters.
A sentiment echoed by Chhattisgarh Sarv Adivasi Samaj patron and former Union minister Arvind Netam who claimed that the Chhattisgarh government never took PESA laws seriously. Recalling actions taken by the state government for the steel plant in Dholali-Bhansi of Dantewada and Lohandiguda of Bastar, he said the government had to conduct a gram sabha under the PESA law.
However, in the presence of hundreds of cops, the government arbitrarily sidelined the gram sabha. The dissatisfaction of the tribals was such that even after 13 years, the steel plant is yet to be finished. Netam added that the situation would have been different if the tribals had been consulted while implementing PESA laws, “but the governments are now used to imposing their decisions on the tribals”.
Gram sabhas ignored
Alok Shukla argues that the government never listens to the gram panchayats of the tribal areas in matters related to a large number of allocated coal mines in the state. Even the quarries of Coal India undertaking South Eastern Coalfields Ltd have been operating by sidestepping PESA provisions. But Coal India said it does not follow PESA as its "provisions apply to the acquired land under the Land Acquisition Act whereas Coal India acquires the land under the Coal Bearing Act, 1957.”
But even as it ignores PESA provisions when it comes to acquiring land for industrial projects, it uses the Act vigorously when it comes to religious issues. When in May 2014 several gram panchayats of Bastar — under the PESA Act — prohibited the propagation, dissemination and prayer of any religion besides Hinduism in their villages, the state government stood firmly with them. Vishwa Hindu Parishad took the initiative to ban other religions in more than 50 villages.
Arun Panna Lal of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum said, "Today, when tribal people are doing Pathalgadi according to PESA act in Jashpur, the government is terming it illegal. But in 2014, we were told that the government cannot interfere in the matter of gram panchayat. We got relief after we approached the Chhattisgarh High Court to protect the fundamental rights of followers of any religion.”
Not surprisingly, Chhattisgarh’s Panchayat and Rural Development Minister Ajay Chandrakar said the state government was very serious when it came to PESA and the government intervenes if the law is violated. Chandrakar claimed that in June the government had organised a special gram sabha in 5,055 gram panchayats where the Fifth Schedule is applicable.
According to him, the government also organises special training related to PESA for state officials. But the manner in which the tribals are mobilising over PESA from Jashpur to Bastar can prove troubling for the BJP in the upcoming state and general elections.
The author is a Raipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.
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