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Mainstream, VOL L No 44, October 20, 2012

Protecting Tribal Land and Livelihood: Tribal Minister’s New Initiative

Wednesday 24 October 2012, by Bharat Dogra

Recently the Union Minister for Tribal Affairs and Panchayat Raj, V. Kishore Chandra Deo, created a stir by asking the Andhra Pradesh Government to cancel the lease of seven bauxite mines in Visakhapatnam to protect the land rights and livelihood of tribals living in the Scheduled areas. However, much more important than the case of these seven mines taken by itself is the wider initiative of the Minister to implement strong constitutional provisions for the protection of tribals’ rights which have been neglected to the extent of being forgotten for too long.

The framers of our Constitution had the wisdom and foresight to understand the serious problems that the tribal population was likely to face in future. Therefore apart from some routine protective measures (some such measures existed even in the colonial times in regions like Chota Nagpur and Santhal Parganas), some special provisions to protect tribals’ interests were incorporated in the Constitution of India. These special provisions, meant for areas classified as Schedule V areas, have become increasingly relevant in recent times due to the huge, unprecedented onslaught of commercial interests, particularly mining companies, in these areas.

These protective provisions empower the Governors of all States which have Scheduled areas to act against those laws, rules and decisions which can endanger the land and livelihood rights of tribals living in the Scheduled areas. Unfortunately these and other special protective provisions of the Scheduled areas have been all but forgotten despite their increasing need and relevance, However, now the Union Tribal Affairs Minister has said that he will be writing to the governments of nine States (where Scheduled areas exist) to be more careful about the protective constitutional and legal provisions for the tribals. In addition he’ll be writing to the State Governors to exercise special constitutional powers to protect the interests of tribals in the Scheduled areas.

APART from the constitutional provisions that already existed in 1996, Parliament passed the Panchayat Raj (Extension to Tribal Areas) law, popularly known as the PESA law, to provide for self-governance in the Scheduled areas including empowerment of gram sabhas which, it was hoped, will protect the interests of the tribals to a considerable extent. However, no State Government has so far implemented the PESA law in the right spirit. This was clearly brought out in a series of public hearings, conferences and people’s dialogues organised in Jharkhand recently as a part of the Gandhian Jan Satyagraha movement.

At a consultation held at Nihijam village of Jaamtak district, a panchayat member said that in the nearby areas about 20 companies are buying land using middlemen. She said that written resolutions by villagers opposing large-scale land acquisition in these villages were passed, but these have been ignored and in a single village about 100 acres of land have been acquired.

At a public meeting held at Fatehpur Amakhori village of Pakur district, Emly Hasda said that 32 villages in this area have been marked for coal mining and land acquisition has taken place in violation of the objections voiced by the traditional panchayats. Public hearings were not organised properly before the decision to acquire land and when some villagers protested they were implicated in false cases.
In this context it may be pointed out that the Union Tribal Affairs Minister has also emphasised the need to strengthen the PESA law and improve the conduct of public hearings in areas threa-tened by displacement. One only hopes that these welcome initiatives of the Minister will not be defeated by powerful vested interests.

The author is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.

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