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India Tribal Rights in the Red Corridor. Why you must read this censored chapter (Tehelka)

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    Why you must read this censored chapter

    When the truth about the flouting of tribal rights in the Red Corridor struck home, the government dropped a whole chunk of damning material from a report it had itself commissioned. RAMAN KIRPAL reports

    ARESEARCHER WORKING on the State of Panchayats Report (SOPR) 2008-09 met Mahangu Madiya in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district, a dangerous place for gathering data. Madiya’s story was startling. In January, he was given Rs 55 lakh compensation for his land, but the amount is sitting in his bank account. He does not even own a mobile phone.

    “I am concerned with farming. My land is important to me. What will I do with this money?’’ the middle-aged farmer told the researcher from the Institute for Rural Management, anand (IRMA), Gujarat.

    The state government plans to displace the 12,000-odd people who stay in Dhuragaon along the Indravati River, a fertile area. Madiya’s 35-acre farm is to be handed over to Tata Steel.

    How and why was a colonial-era land acquisition law used in this tribal area? In Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh, the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA) is supposed to be in place. This is a progressive piece of legislation that recognises the competence of tribal communities to govern themselves.

    It was precisely to probe into such anomalies that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had commissioned a report from the autonomous body IRMA on the progress of Panchayati Raj in India. Two months ago, when he released this report at a public function to mark Panchayati Raj Day (the anniversary of the passing of the 93rd amendment to the Constitution), little did he know that the two-volume report had a chapter missing: the crucial chapter on the implementation of PESA in the Red Corridor.

    The chapter makes statements that are critical to the current policy in the region, which the whole nation knows is awry, not least because of the two massacres of CRPF personnel in Dantewada. For instance, the chapter says, “There is a veritable crisis in several PESA areas with despair, insecurity and a breakdown of the rule of law and access to justice within the constitutional framework.”

    TEHELKA has obtained a copy of the unpublished 45-page chapter titled ‘PESA, Left-Wing Extremism and Governance: Concerns and Challenges in India’s Tribal Districts’. Of the 76 extremistaffected districts, 32 are PESA districts. The chapter damns the Centre, the state and the police forces for “a damaging mix of misgovernance, alienation and violent insurgency” against tribal people. The chapter says: “Some tribal communities, such as those in Bastar, are probably witnessing the most severe crisis since their existence.”
    The report has a case study of Dokranala village in Chhattisgarh, where 40-odd families live in a cluster of huts in a clearing in the forest, accessible only by foot. The Pardhi tribes to which they belong, once skilful hunters and bamboo weavers, found it increasingly hard to survive as forests and wildlife got depleted and officials deemed their activity illegal. Armed with the Forest Act, forest guards and police burnt their homes. “The effects of such brutal State action can be debilitating for the community, and result in extreme conditions of hunger,’’ the chapter says.

    Not all tribals take this lying down. In Orissa, there is a successful grassroots movement called the Chasi Mulia Adivasi Sangh which the chapter describes in detail. In Baliaput, a villager denied links with Maoists. “We have no arms. We only have our agricultural implements,” he says. So why did the government censor this chapter?

    In 2006, when Mani Shankar Aiyar was Panchayati Raj Minister, Manmohan Singh had objected to states or the Ministry of Panchayati Raj carrying out assessments of their own performance. He ruled that an independent agency should do it. After intimating the PMO, Dr Verghese Kurien’s IRMA was picked for this specific task. It completed the first report in 2008. Not satisfied, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj signed an MoU with IRMA setting the terms of reference to include a chapter on PESA.

    Did the government develop cold feet about continuing its own search for the truth about the tribal belt? Was it because the truth struck home with the Dantewada massacre in which 76 CRPF jawans were killed in an ambush? For three-and- a-half years, the government’s critics have been urging a change of policy in tribal areas. When the government’s own report said the same, why could it not accept the criticism?

    IRONICALLY, THE chapter begins with Manmohan Singh’s quote: “There has been a systematic failure in giving tribals a stake in the modern economic processes that inexorably intrude into their living spaces.” Congressmen such as Digvijay Singh too have been sounding the alarm. One of them said, in effect: ‘If the State is neglectful and oppressive as it has been, it provides the water in which the guerrilla fish swim’. This is mentioned in the missing chapter, which further says: “While the senior leadership of the party (CPI-Maoist) is mostly drawn from non-tribal communities, much of the rank and file comes from local villages, and has built on their grievances emanating from the nonimplementation of PESA…’’

    When Home Minister P Chidamabaram was given the mandate as the government’s only spokesperson on the Red Corridor, the PESA chapter was given a quiet burial, reportedly at the behest of Union Panchayat Minister CP Joshi. And there the matter would have rested but for the fact that this kind of censorship riled a number of people who believe that the truth must out.
    “It is unfortunate that the Panchayati Raj Ministry rejected the chapter not on substantive ground but on procedural grounds,” says Mani Shankar Aiyar, whose passion for his portfolio was well known in the days when he was Panchayati Raj Minister. Aiyar, now a Rajya Sabha member, shot off a letter to Manmohan Singh and CP Joshi on April 27 and subsequently to Sonia Gandhi, saying: “…I understand MOPR (Ministry of Panchayati Raj) shied away from the relevance of PESA to meet the Naxalite threat even as, ironically, you (Manmohan Singh) were dwelling on the ‘twopronged strategy’ of allying development to security in your speech on the occasion of the release of SOPR. What is the point of an independent evaluation if the reports and recommendations of such evaluations are unilaterally censored by the Government’s own ministers before they are released.’’

    No minister other than Chidambaram is now allowed to speak on Naxals, but the Prime Minister himself had commissioned the independent study. “What business does the ministry have to censor the evaluation? You may disagree with it, but why censor it?” asks Aiyar.

    CP Joshi, who was on the podium with the Prime Minister during the release of the SOPR report, told TEHELKA: “Editing and deleting are done at the Secretary levels. Please ask the Panchayati Raj Secretary. I have no idea if any such thing has happened.’’ Unaware of the behind-the-scenes drama, Manmohan Singh went ahead and said at the function, “We should pay special attention to remote and backward areas, which include several tribal areas. Panchayati Raj institutions should work better here, so that it helps us to handle Maoist violence” (translated from the Hindi).

    When asked about the censorship, Panchayati Raj Secretary ANP Sinha played safe by sticking to protocol. He merely said, “Please ask IRMA why we dropped it. I don’t want to speak unpleasant things.’’

    IRMA chairman YK Alagh, when approached for his version of the story, admitted to receiving a phone call about this issue. He told TEHELKA: “I got a call from a Joint Secretary-level official that there is a problem with the PESA chapter. I told him to sort it out with IRMA’s young team, which has prepared the report. I thought the problem must have been solved.’’

    In that case, would IRMA director Vivek Bhandari be able to throw more light on the episode? He spelt out the logistics of how the report came to be prepared, sticking to the bare essentials. “Ministry of Panchayat Raj is our client and they had signed an MoU for preparation and submission of a report,” he said. “We prepared and submitted the report, including the PESA chapter. We are not concerned what our client has done with it. The matter ends here for us.’’

    But for the people who have been abandoned by their government, the matter cannot end here. Displacement, loss of access to nature’s bounty because of mining and industry, apart from destroying livelihoods, are also threats to notions of democratic and fair governance. People’s organisations have asked for a moratorium on acquisition and displacement in PESA area. This is an option that could have been urgently exercised instead of sweeping the whole issue under the carpet. Officials could also tackle the exploitation of tribals who take up wage labour after distress migration. Spending even six months in such abusive conditions damages an individual’s social confidence and selfassertion, says the report.

    ON THE POSITIVE side, the chapter contains the success story of Kamayyapeta in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, which has a history of enlightened self-rule. Its Gram Sabha follows PESA guidelines, holding elections and keeping people abreast of new government schemes. It is a good example of true Panchayati Raj.

    Considering the wealth of empirical data it provides, many bureaucrats privately sing praises of the IRMA study. No wonder, Planning Commission’s Vice Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, it is learnt, specifically asked for a copy of the PESA chapter when he learnt of the controversy. Several copies are being sent out, including one to Sudha Pillai, Planning Commission secretary who is married to the Union Home Secretary. Aiyar says: “I did not get substantive answers from the Prime Minister and I am not surprised because it is not a normal practice in our government offices to reply to queries… I went to the PMO three-four times, but I did not get any reply. I met Mr CP Joshi also at a dinner, but he did not even take up this issue. I don’t know if some wheels are moving…’

    When the SOPR report landed at the Panchayati Raj Ministry on March 15 this year, officials immediately spotted trouble in the form of the PESA chapter. They contacted IRMA and asked it to make modifications. This was duly done. Still jittery about its thrust, ministry officials thought it was too hot to handle and simply dropped it. Official sources say the Union Home Ministry too was shown the PESA chapter, and it immediately trashed the report on procedural grounds.

    The PESA chapter upset Home and Panchayat officials because it draws on the government’s own data and fieldwork to explain the ground reality and analyse why Maoism is on the rise. It also brings out how poor tribals are victims of the arrogance of both the Maoists and the state police.

    JUDGE FOR YOURSELF. IN THE LEFT EXTREMISM-AFFECTED DISTRICTS:
    1 3/4th of the people have a low standard of living index
    2 Female literacy is below the national average
    3 Less than a quarter of the population lives in pucca houses
    4 Less than a third have an electricity connection

    The Maoists find such abysmal conditions a good nurturing ground for their ideology of war against the State. They speak directly to the tribals about their access to lands and forests, fair wages, the distress of farmers and weavers and awareness of basic rights. Since the State is insensitive to their problems, the Maoists preach: “We do not want to add windows to the existing house (India’s parliamentary democracy) to improve it. We want to bring down the house, and build a new one.’’

    “So for example, while denouncing ‘the loot of Adivasi resources’, as and when necessary to further its political and military aims, the party (Maoists) takes money from the mining industry to fund its party operations… Today the party has become corrupt, power-hungry and intolerant,” the PESA chapter says.

    “So the Maoists today have a dual effect on the ground in PESA areas… They have also done an immense amount of rural development work, such as mobilising community labour for farm ponds, rainwater harvesting and land conservation works in the Dandakaranya region, which villagers testified, had improved their crops and improved their food security situation…

    “On the other hand, the party ideology is brutal and cynical. It attacks perceived class opponents and even carries out assassinations, for example, panchayat members from rival political parties, who might have proximity to the administration, and are seen as exploiters of the people, or a political threat.’’

    Tribals are caught in the crossfire in an armed response from the State to end Maoist influence on the ground, which leaves no middle ground in PESA areas for these communities. Amidst the civil war and the extra-constitutional Salwa Judum’s scorched earth policy, the tribals silently face violence and displacement.

    Residents of 600 villages in south Chhattisgarh have been forced to flee to villages in Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, and are eking out a living on the margins of existence. Living in Khammam in Andhra Pradesh and Malkangiri in Orissa, “these displaced communities are treated as non-citizens at best, or Maoist supporters at worst,” says the PESA chapter. Quoting a displaced panchayat member, the chapter says: “The Salwa Judum burnt our village and said it will finish the Naxals in three months. But the Naxals are there. The security forces are there. Our lives have been crushed.”

    PESA is meant to protect precisely such villages. For the first time, a law of the land recognises the primacy of the Gram Sabha as follows:

    • The State cannot acquire land without the permission of the Gram Sabha
    • The State cannot issue ‘mining’ rights on tribal lands without the permission of the Gram Sabha

    On both counts, the PESA chapter quoted government records to establish that the government has failed miserably. “Official studies have pointed out that the size of the operational holding in the tribal lands is eroding due to the State-led acquisition and marketisation process… The State is also emerging as a principal violator of the very laws it is meant to uphold, for example, ignoring a Gram Sabha’s opposition under PESA to land acquisition, and calling village assemblies under heavy police presence to push through land acquisition plans.”

    PESA is a new legislation and overrules all the land acquisition Acts. But the states overrule PESA and apply the central Land Acquisition Act of 1894 vintage to acquire tribal land at will! “In several cases, the practice of the state government is to sign high-profile MOUs with corporate houses and then proceed to deploy the acquisition Act to ostensibly acquire the land for the state industrial corporation. This body then simply leases the land to the private corporation — a complete travesty of the term ‘acquisition for a public purpose.”

    The report says there is inadequate sensitivity to the fact that tribals cannot take advantage of employment opportunities because of their low literacy levels. Nor is there a recognition that some do not want to part with their land, no matter how attractive the compensation, because it disrupts their way of life, as is the case with Mahangu Madiya.

    THE MOTIVE behind the killing of the chapter may well lie in the boom in the mining industry. “When it comes to acquiring mineral resources for industry, the stakes are similarly loaded against the functioning of the PESA Act… For example, in the past years, companies paid the State a royalty of Rs 26 per tonne of iron ore, selling it for over 100 times that, or an average of Rs 3,000. This means profits run into crores of rupees.’’ A former chief minister of Madhya Pradesh told IRMA: “Its (PESA) implementation would put an end to mining projects.”

    Is this why the SOPR was stubbed out? If so, this is no less a crime than the massacre of CRPF jawans. A ‘perspective’ was killed in the womb. The motive, if it turns out to be the protection of mining interests, would require another investigation, another chapter.

    Tehelka - India's Independent Weekly News Magazine
     
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