By B.G. Verghese
Last week’s tragic massacre of several Congress leaders, including Mahendra Karma, founder of the disbanded SalwaJudum, and 26 others in Chattisgarh was certainly the result of a bad security lapse. This had been preceded by the killing of eight villagers at Ehadsameta 10 days earlier which characteristically attracted little discussion as no big-wigs were involved. Judgement must await the findings of the on-going NIA investigations and finger-pointing avoided. It is deplorable to have the Congress and BJP go for one another, with the latter making a raucous U-turn in its own defence.
The latest incident underlines the need for better Centre-cum-inter-state coordination through a National Counter-Terrorism Centre that has been steadfastly opposed in the name of defending federalism, a puerile argument in the face of national danger. The debate has been joined once more on how to move forward. Talks and reconciliation have been ruled out unless law and order are firmly established. Security measures are certainly important but are not the critical component in combating the anger, neglect and despair that drive innocent tribals into the arms of the Maoists.
The Government, and indeedthe country, have sadly lost the plot. Root causes – neglect, exploitation and the plunder of tribal homelands – are cited but there appears to be no understanding or even the will to understand the root causes underlying the “root causes”.
The fact is that tribal policy has been rendered rudderless with the brazen violation of theFifth Schedule that provided a carefully crafted constitutional frame with a guardianship role for the Governor. The Supreme Court has now been overruled by the Chattisgarh High Court and the Attorney-General of India upstaged by his junior, an Additional Solicitor General. Yet nobody seems perturbed other than the Union Tribal Affairs Minister whose sincere efforts and writ have been undermined by his own government. This is not just a farce but a tragedy relating to over eight per cent of India’s population, a fifth of its area, and the locus of over 80 per cent of its mineral wealth and a large part of its non-Himalayan forests and headwaters.
This entire area and its tribal and forest populace in the heart of India has been left to non-governance and mis-governance to become a stronghold of the Maoists. Pious declarations of Plan allocations and security dispositions are made pro forma with little relevance to ground realities and the good of the people. The Prime Minister’s Tribal Advisory Council, set up almost a year ago to address such problems, has simply not met. Here is a supreme example of governance by masterly inaction.
A Consultation on this topic organised by the Centre for Policy Researchlast November threw up several pertinent issues that need to be debated. The Constitution makes the Governor the kingpin of the peace, welfare, tranquillity, development and good governance of designated Scheduled Areas with tribal concentrations. Only nine states have scheduled areas and not all tribal areas have been included even in these. Why?
The Governor is required to make an annual report to the President and implement such directives for the better governance and tranquillity of these areas as he may receive in response. He is empowered to determine what laws shall apply, whether fully or in part or subject to modification, regulate land allocation and alienation, money lending and exploitation of minor forest produce and mineral rights with the aid of a Tribal Advisory Council. In all these matters he is required act in his discretion and not as Governor-in-Councilsubservient to the chief minister. In fact the Governors have failed to exercise their constitutional authority and have been stripped of all power.
At the CPR Consultation, some said the powers vested in the Governor were not consistent with representative government in this day and age and that the choice of Governors had increasingly robbed the institution of impartiality and credibility as also witnessed by their role as Chancellors of State Universities. The contrary view was that the Constitution must be obeyed or amended so as to avoid deliberate illegality. This has not been done. Tribal policy has become a free for all with no constitutional sanction and disinterested Governors empowered and disempowered at will.
Since the Governor acts through the President on behalf of the Government of India, democracy is not voided by autocracy. Moreover, large tribal tracts not covered by the Fifth Schedule have remained free of Maoist influence though these regions and people are as deprived and depressed as the worst Maoist-dominated areas.
Over and beyond this, the delivery system for medicare, education, overall development, improved livelihoods and even law and order is absent or uncertain in the absence of administrative cadres, maps, roads, and very limited linguistic or physical capacity for communication. The tribal people have been left to the mercy of minor forest and liquor contractors, money lenders, petty forest officers and the police. The entire spirit and instrumentality of the Fifth Schedule is missing. Natural resource wealth has invited the attention of the corporate sector and outsiders – resulting in land alienation, displacement, ecological harm and exploitation.
The Samatha judgement on land leasing for mining (1997) and other measures for dealing with land acquisition, resettlement, compensation, employment training and stakeholder participation have seen the gradual emergence of a new development framework. The corporate sector can therein now be made a partner or Trustee through enhanced, legally-enforceable norms of corporate social responsibility that could convert them from being part of the problem to being part of the solution, given their superior financial, managerial and technological capacity in relation to the State governments.
PESA, (the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled AreasAct), designed to make the gram sabhathe fulcrum of grassroots governance and development, has yet to come into its own. But PESA itself is a derivative of the Fifth Schedule whose status is thoroughly muddled. The framing of rules under PESA has been tardy and urban panchayats have thus far been excluded from its jurisdiction.
Steps must be taken to ensure clarity on the status of the Fifth Schedule and of the Governor within that frameworkso that confusion is not further confounded. The political parties, Tribal MPsand social activists must be mobilised to pursue this matter which should be on the agenda of the next National Development Council meeting and Governors’ conference.The danger is that if a part of the Constitution can be nullified by what the Supreme Court termed “constitutional oversight”, other sections of the Constitution can equally disappearone morningin accordance with others’ whims and fancies.
The daily television panel discussionsthat now comprehensively substitute parliamentary debate are often misinformed and ill-focussed and are staged for political jousting and amassing TRP points. The drift is palpable,the consequences grave.