Freedoms of two different worlds

  • 14/10/1995

Freedoms of two different worlds THE Dilip Singh Bhuria Parliamentary Committee, set up to recommend special provisions for the introduction of Panchayati Raj in tribal areas (under the 73rd Constitutional Amendment), has just submitted its report. It is natural for a lay person to question why a separate committee was needed to make special provisions for the tribal areas. Hadn't these areas already been given enough privileges through the provisions of decentralisation in the amended Act itself.

To answer this, we have to make ourselves aware of the ground realities in the tribal areas of this country. The functioning of the panchayati system in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh over the past year succinctly underscores the need for such special provisions.

An enduring sight in the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh (mp) is the sarpanch (village head) following his secretary, a government official, carrying the latter's bag for him. The panchayats in these areas have become adjuncts to the rural development bureaucracy, with elected members acting as rubber stamps legitimising the latter's arbitrary actions.

The holding of the panchayat elections last year in mp, in accordance with the provisions of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, was hailed as a great people-oriented measure that would transfer real power to the panchayats. A year after the event, indications are that the block development officers (BDOS) and panchayat secretaries are still ruling the roost, and though the sarpanches may no longer be carrying the secretaries' bags for them, they still follow the former, often up garden paths.

Jahangir Thakrav, the sarpanch of Sakarja panchayat on the banks of the Narmada in Jhabua district says, "I spend most of my time in Sondwa, the block headquarters, trying to get the BDO to sign on papers or cheques." Being illiterate, Thakrav is totally at the mercy of his secretary for paperwork and keeping accounts. "No meeting of the elected members has been held till date in my panchayat, because they're just not interested," he lameirts.

Yet, a non-official meeting called by the local people to discuss the problems arising during monsoons is heavily attended. Another meeting to settle a dispute between people of 2 villages over the alleged abduction of a girl, too, has people milling around the majestic banyan tree in Sakarja, the traditional meeting place.

I Vania Sulia, the upsarpanch (deputy head) of Jhandana panchayat, complains that the right to withdraw money has been jointly conferred on the gramsevak (a paid village fimctionary) and the sarpanch. The gramsevak invariably demands a 'cut' to affix his signature on the cheque.

The plight of women sarpanches is even more pitiable. In most cases, they still have to do all the chores, so it is their husbands who do all the official work. Rundmal's sarpanch, Sumnibai's case, is pathetic. Rundmal is the highest village in Jhabua, situated atop a hill. The other villages in the panchayat are 2-4 km away, across intervening hill ranges. In summer, Rundmal's well dries up, and water has to be brought up from a well located way down the hill. "This summer, I had to trudge up and down with water and attend to other chores and my husband, Narsingh, performed my duties as the sarpanch," said Sumnibai.

Jhabua district has been allotted about Rs 50 crore under the Employment Assurance Scheme of the ministry of rural development, for watershed development. Successfill water-shed development can take place only when the people are actively involv@a. So, one would expect the panchayats to be involved in the implementation of the scheme. Surprisingly, the work is being done through government agencies, like the departments of forest, soil and water conservation and the Narmada Valley Development Authority.

When the Janpad Adhyaksha (block president) of Sondhwa, Dehdubhai Thakrala, was asked why the panchayats were not being involved, he replied, "They are just not capable enough." Hardas Padiyar, the Janpad member from Attha village, hotly contests this: "We have drawn up a plan to harness the waters in one catchment, but I have been told that there were no funds." Something is fishy somewhere. The picture that clearly emerges is that of considered neglect of the panchayats. Some paltry funds are sanctioned to them, and then the sarpanches have to run from pillar to post trying to actually get the sums released. The rules and regulations are double-dutch to the elected members, which is ideal for concentrating the powers in the bureaucracy's hands. The people's representatives have no choice but to participate with the bureaucracy in its brazen misuse of the funds provided.

At any given time, the block office in Sondwa is crowded with sarpanches and sundry other supplicants, giving an emphatic lie to the claim that Panchayati Raj has led to decentralisation of power. Five new street-side restaurants have come up to cater to the needs of the burgeoning number of visitors to Sondwa, once just a dusty little village.

The Bhil and Bhilala tribals of Jhabua, however, have their own traditional panchayat system. Usually conducted by the communities' elders, this is based on consensual democracy. Roopsingh of Attha village says, "These panchayats deal not only with religious and social matters but also economic development. The people of Bhatida village, on the banks of the Narmada, have collectively developed a novel communal irrigation system, based on the principle of gravitation, which is operated by consensus. In our village, we have together begun protecting the forests nearby."

The meetings of these panchayats are incomparably better attended than the meetings of the elected panchayats, which are held rarely, if ever. This panchayat system of the Bhils builds on the strong intra-community relationships, which have withstood the ravages of modern intrusions. Even though the people of the area have to seasonally migrate to Indore akd Baroda to supplement their meagre agricultural incomes by working as labourers, they still cherish their own values.

This is something common to all tribal areas, and so a special provision has been made in the 73rd Amendment to exclude tribal areas from the purview of the Panchayati Raj. instead, a special panchayat system is to be developed for these areas, specific to and incorporating the traditions of consensus extant there.

The report that the Bhuria committee has submitted is, frankly, revolutionary. Not only has consensus been adopted as@fie mode of democracy, it has even recommended that the Gram Sabha be held supreme in all social and religious matters, use of natural resources, development, and law and order. A particularly useful recommendation is that the sections from 56,,to 101 of the Indian Penal Code, which relate,to prohibitory confinement, are not to be applicable to the tribal individuals without the permission of their Panchayats.

There is little doubt that such recommendations will be blackballed by the powers-that-be, and so the report of the Bhuria committee has not yet been tabled for discussion, and is likely to gather dust, like many other such reports.

Tribal mass organisations have, however, decided to build up pressure through local and national actions and to force a discussion in Parliament. Xn recent years, there has been an upsurge of tribal movernerits, demanding not just autonomy, in the form of a separate tribal state within the present system of governance, but for real alights over natural resources. The Koel Karo, Narda and Net4rhat struggles are the more famous of these. The people of Jhabua have been agitating for over a decade and have consideralAy improved their position vis-a- vis the bureaucracy as a result of their struggles.

Nevertheless, the Panchayati Raj system as it presently exists puts legal barriers., in the way of genuine decen- tralisation. So the Bhils too,', Wong with the others, are preparing to fight against the ulaconstitutional imposition of Panchayati Raj in their areas and for the reestablishment of Gram Raj.

In stark contrast, mainstream politics continues to be a theatre of the absurd. The major preoccupation of the mp government, aided by UNICEF, is to arrange for training for the elected members ofpanchayats to acquaint them with the provisions of the Panchayati Raj Act. The Act is in Sanskritised Hindi (the bane of all our official literature). No amount of training can make it appear comprehensible to the rural people, who mostly speak dialects of Hindi, or just the respective tribal languages. These trainings by urbanites are woefully devoid of any understanding of rural realities and willfully avoid considering the problems that the Shamshers, Jahangir Vanias or Sumnibais face in Jhabua.

Panchayati Raj, far from decentralising politics, seeks to do away with the vast diversity of forms of public action in rural India and extends, instead, the straitjacket of the complicated legalities introduced by the British into Indian society. The culture of mendacity that so pollutes the mainstream polity is being universalised through this latest piece of populist chicanery. The tribals of Jhabua are making a forlorn attempt to fight for a return of the Gram Raj.

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