Notifying rules under the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) on August 8, a day before the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said it was a measure taken by the government to empower the tribal population in the state.
This was immediately contested by activists and the Opposition, pointing out that the rules were a meeker version of what was promised in the 2018 Assembly polls by the ruling Congress.
Chhattisgarh has become the seventh state in the country to notify the PESA rules, which consolidate the functioning of local bodies, and enable residents of scheduled areas to strengthen village-level organisation by transferring power from the government to the gram sabha, a body constituting registered voters of a village.
Announcing the rules, Baghel said: “The implementation of PESA will further empower gram sabhas to protect tribal rights. According to the new rules, 50% of the members of a gram sabha will be from tribal communities, and 25% of this 50% will be women.”
This was echoed by AICC secretary and a close aide of Baghel, Rajesh Tiwari. “After the notifications of the rules, no one will be able to take away the jal, jangal, jameen (water, forest, land) of the Adivasis,” he said. “Villages will have more autonomy as the gram sabha will play a major role in development. Tribal customs and traditions will be given priority and disputes would be solved at the village level. Tribals in the state have been waiting for years for the rules.”
However, activists such as Sudiep Shrivastava, who is also a legal expert, say the law has several loopholes. “The rules provide that just 10% of the people can seek review of any gram sabha decision. Further, the rules allow any government department to take objection on any such decision. The rules also give the sub-divisional magistrate power to sit in appeal on any decision of a gram sabha,” Shrivastava says, listing the many ways in which PESA can be circumvented.
Accusing the Congress of going back on what it had promised, Chhattisgarh BJP leader Ajay Chandrakar has challenged Baghel to a debate on the rules.
A major difference in the news rules from an earlier draft of the Bill, circulated in November last year, is regarding land acquisition. While the draft stated that only a gram sabha could consent to acquisition of land, under the notified rules, the decisions can be appealed before a collector.
Some of the rules bring in the participation of the Forest Department in the sale and pricing of non-nationalised minor forest produce, limiting the powers of the gram sabha further.
With notification of PESA rules part of the Congress government’s 2018 election manifesto, Panchayat Minister T S Singh Deo had begun talking to representatives of Adivasi organisations on the same in November 2020, two years after coming to power.
Deo would go on to consult tribals at the block level, alongside experts and other stakeholders.
However, as the chasm between Deo and Baghel, who had been rivals for CM’s post, grew, it also affected the PESA notification process. Only five of the 30 invitees had turned up when Deo had called a meeting of the party’s MLAs and MPs over the draft rules of the Act, which were prepared and circulated in November 2021.
When the rules were approved by the Cabinet in July this year, Deo went public with his claims that the draft was changed. Soon after, he stepped down as Panchayat Minister, citing the issue as one of the reasons.
Later, after internal discussions, the rules were not put before the Assembly, and notified just before the International Day for the World’s Indigenous People.