ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Tribal Autonomy Undermined

Fifth Schedule Areas

The central and state governments have failed to implement the provisions of the Fifth Schedule, both in letter and spirit, as envisaged in the Indian constitution. Instead, the indifferent and callous attitude of the various political dispensations has led to marginalisation of the rights and autonomy of the tribal communities residing in areas governed by the Fifth schedule. 

With a tribal population of more than a hundred million, the existing laws for administering tribal areas fall far short of giving tribals the quality of governance they deserve. Their elected representatives not only fail to propose new laws in Parliament, but also fail to enforce the scant protection that exists. A study of their identity and  way of life brings to the fore concerns regarding their land rights, traditional practices and autonomy.

The Fifth Schedule

The Fifth Schedule and Sixth Schedule of the Indian constitution contain provisions for governance of tribal areas. These were designed to apply in areas with a large tribal population. These provisions enable devolution of power to the tribals and create autonomous structures that safeguard their traditions and practices. Perhaps most importantly, the constitution guarantees protection of their land rights. The Fifth Schedule applies in nine states, while the Sixth Schedule covers north-east part of India. However, these schedules only cover certain parts of the country despite the fact that tribes are also found in other areas.

While laws and policies exist to ensure peace and good governance in tribal areas, institutions and forest departments breach many laws. Pristine territories with rich mineral resources overlapping indigenous settlements have seen marginalisation of tribal voices, loss of autonomy and land. Having experienced displacement and broken promises over the years, a historical mistrust has characterised the relationship between the state and its indigenous communities. When land is required for developmental projects, the government has to follow due process, which amongst other things entails that people displaced should be adequately rehabilitated. Alas, this has not been the case!

The tribals today  have to also contend with ever-increasing threats from private interests. Improper mining, deforestation and land encroachment by unsavory businesses and venal government officials not only jeopardise the environment, but  also take away from tribals their way of life. As a senior forest official from the state of Chhattisgarh stated, “it is unthinkable to detach links between the tribes and forest”.  They have a symbiotic relationship with the forests. The forests provide means of livelihood to them, and their traditional practices in turn conserve these forests. With the government failing to protect their rights, tribals have resorted to fighting back.

The Planning Commission of India, like many other committees and governing bodies, emphasises on institutions of self-governance. A  self-governing body such as the gram sabha  is the only effective mechanism for efficient rural governance. According to a Planning Commission report,  negligence and marginalisation of tribal communities have been responsible for  the emergence of left-wing extremism in 76 districts of  the country, out of which 32 districts  have been classified as  Fifth Scheduled Areas.

Issues Regarding Tribal Governance

I interviewed several Members of Parliament (MPs) who represent the Fifth Scheduled Areas to get perspectives on issues related to administration of tribal areas. These perspectives are uniquely placed as they offer a valuable understanding of issues related to tribal governance.

Interview 1  Ramesh Rathod, a MP from Andhra Pradesh,  represents Adilabad district, which is a Scheduled Area. He  says that the provisions under the Fifth Schedule  have failed to properly administer tribal areas. He states that “laws are created to monitor, regulate and implement policies, but have further marginalised indigenous communities. Village level bodies have never been given the right to make decisions”.

Rathod speaks about  Vishakhapatnam, a port city in Andhra Pradesh, which has been in news for decades for illegal and rampant private mining. This is despite the existence of land laws which prevent private companies to hold or lease land in the region. There is contempt that tribals have been left out, while large corporate firms are taking away their resources sans making them stakeholders.

He also talks about tribal sub-plans that are usually emphasised during elections but have had little impact over the years. In recent years, the state governments have combined  funds for scheduled tribes and scheduled caste without understanding their disparate ways of life, culture and needs.  A good example of a scheme under a tribal sub-plan, which Rathod thought best to share, was the incentive to educate tribal children. The Reserve Bank of India in Scheduled Areas of Andhra Pradesh has planned to reward children who complete a certain level of education. The reward can only be claimed if they show property papers, which most do not own. Scheduled tribes have their own laws and traditions that are distinct  from ones observed by the rest. Moreover, property papers are  certified documents based on individual ownership, and most tribes believe in community ownership.

Interview 2  Vishnu Deo  is a Lok Sabha MP from Raigarh District of Chhattisgarh and a part of the ruling  Bharatiya Janata Party. He states that  

The Panchayati Raj does not function or make adequate decisions on governing roles, neither are powers devolved within state rural economies.  The dilution of state policies by politicians lessen the chances for devolution rather than the involvement of local leaders. Neither does panchayati governance consist of tribal population or appropriate representation of the tribal perspective.

Professor Saavyasaachi, head of the Sociology Department, Jamia Millia Islamia University, who has traversed tribal lands endlessly, believes that the panchayati raj system lacks a tribal perspective. Furthermore, the Fifth Schedule according to him was never designed to protect indigenous communities and their traditions, but instead designed to perpetuate  mainstream culture.

Interview 3 Faggan Singh Khulaste, Rajya Sabha MP from the Bhartiya Janata party, works with indigenous communities in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh ‒ states where a number of  districts are governed by the Fifth Schedule. He says, “Even though there is a degree of effort and initiative towards tribal governance, yet somehow what contradicts new paradigms and state policies is the lack of implementation”.

Ideally under the panchayati  raj system, decisions on industries, minor forest produce or infrastructural development projects should be based on  gram sabha decisions. Unfortunately, the gram sabha has neither the authority nor the capacity to make decisions, elucidates  Khulaste. “We believe that devolution will only come about if the system works well, but if the system does not have a meaningful application for its people, then on what grounds are decisions made in Scheduled Areas”.

The Zilla Parishad, the third tier of the panchayati raj system, is an independent body that proceeds on the basis of decisions taken at the gram sabha level.  It comprises Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and MPs who actually take decisions on behalf of  gram sabhas.  Evidently these decisions are taken for political reasons and do not serve the interests of tribal communities. This has resulted in some of the biggest land scams which have taken place within tribal communities in Scheduled Areas.

The Ministry of Tribal welfare and Ministry of Social Welfare regulate and decide on tribal grants. These grants go directly to the state, and it is the state government that makes sure that these grants are spent on tribal communities. Khulaste believes that the system needs to change, and that funds for tribal welfare should not be clubbed with grants for other schemes. The tribal grants should only be used for the purpose they were allocated for.  He strongly feels that an agency like the Planning Commission needs to look into matters concerning state funds, as these get directed to a general fund pool. He states that “it is the lack of political will that has marginalised the tribal people further”

Just before we concluded our meeting,  Khulaste showed me banners and memorandums that  demanded  the application of the Sixth Schedule to the new state of Telengana. As India edges closer to elections, the decision to carve out a separate state from Andhra Pradesh mirrored  the aspirations of the people. It was supported by the Adivasi (Tribal) Employees Welfare Association as part of their demand to establish greater autonomy and self-governance through the introduction of the Sixth Schedule in Telangana. The application of the Sixth Schedule is an alternative to the Fifth Schedule  which has so far faree poorly in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

All these interviews indicate  that there is a need for accountability regarding implementation of laws in tribal areas, and that a strong political will is required in a scenario where there is reluctance to devolve authority to local bodies by the  lawmakers.

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