Chhattisgarh: Panchayat (Extension of the Scheduled Areas) Act
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As in 2021
What is the PESA Act, 1996? Why are its rules being formed in the state now?
The Panchayat (Extension of the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 or PESA, was enacted by the Centre to ensure self-governance through gram sabhas (village assemblies) for people living in scheduled areas. It legally recognises the right of tribal communities, residents of the scheduled areas, to govern themselves through their own systems of self-government, and also acknowledges their traditional rights over natural resources. In pursuance of this objective, PESA empowers gram sabhas to play a key role in approving development plans and controlling all social sectors. This includes the processes and personnel who implement policies, exercising control over minor (non-timber) forest resources, minor water bodies and minor minerals, managing local markets, preventing land alienation and regulating intoxicants among other things.
State governments were required to amend their respective Panchayat Raj Acts without making any law that would be inconsistent with the mandate of PESA.
In Chhattisgarh, the Congress government made PESA an election issue, and promised laws under the Act, instituting devaluation of power, and strengthening the gram sabhas at the village level. Almost a year ago, Singh Deo as the panchayat minister started a series of consultations, organised with village-level representatives of all the scheduled areas. The minister heard the tribal representatives, who discussed the intricacies of 10 broad topics ranging from dispute resolution to mining, and from management of markets to management of minor forest produce. After layered consultations, a draft of the rules in nine chapters was prepared. Six states have formed the PESA laws, and Chhattisgarh would become the seventh state if the rules are enacted.
Why are rules under PESA important? What topics will be covered?
PESA rules enable the residents of scheduled areas to strengthen their village-level bodies by transferring power from the government to the gram sabha, a body of all the registered voters of the village. The powers of gram sabhas include maintenance of cultural identity and tradition, control over schemes affecting the tribals, and control over natural resources within the area of a village.
The PESA Act thus enables gram sabhas to maintain a safety net over their rights and surroundings against external or internal conflicts. Without proper rules, its implementation is not possible as it is an exercise in decentralising the power from institutionalised structures, back to the village residents.
The laws, once formed, will give gram sabhas the power to take decisions not only over their customs and traditionally managed resources, but also on the minerals being excavated from their areas. The rules state that the gram sabha will have to be kept informed by any and all agencies working in their village, and that the gram sabha has the power to approve or stop the work being done within the village limits.
The rules also give power to the gram sabhas over management of resources over jal, jangal, zameen (water, forest and land), the three major demands of tribals; minor forest produce; mines and minerals; markets; and human resources. The gram sabha would have the powers to monitor and prohibit the manufacturing, transport, sale and consumption of intoxicants within their village limits. It also has a duty to maintain peace and resolve conflicts arising in the village, while protecting tribal customs and traditions, and encouraging customs like ghotul.
Where is Chhattisgarh in the process? What next for the draft rules?
In November 2020, Singh Deo held the first of a chain of meetings in Chhattisgarh’s Kanker, with representatives of more than 15 tribal blocks from five districts. The meeting held by the department, along with the Sarv Adiwasi Samaj, was the first step in the formation of the rules.
After the meetings with the representatives, the department held consultations with experts in the field, and with other departments, etc.
A draft has been formulated based on these consultations, which has been sent to the departments and have been shared with MPs and MLAs that represent the scheduled areas. Following their feedback, the draft will be presented before the chief minister and the state cabinet. After the cabinet approves the rules, it will be tabled in the legislative Assembly for discussion. Once the Assembly passes the rules, the governor will have the powers to frame the laws.
What is the politics surrounding the PESA Act?
Tribals in Chhattisgarh have been demanding the enactment of PESA rules for some time, as it would give them more power over their resources.
In respect to the mineral resources in the state, the PESA rules would embolden the gram sabha’s decisions over that of the central and state governments. The Sarv Aadiwasi Samaj, in its several recent protests, have demanded that the government bring rules under PESA.
While the Panchayat department was working on the draft rules, the state planning commission made a special working group for PESA in August, which held several meetings.
The cold war between Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel and Singh Deo for the post of CM made PESA a hot topic, as sources close to both the ministers claimed they were working on the draft rules. However, the panchayat department won that round, with the draft already circulated to the other departments.
In the meeting called by Singh Deo after his reported courtesy call with party chief Sonia Gandhi on Wednesday, only four MLAs and one MP turned up, despite more than 30 being invited. It seems Singh Deo is facing opposition over the much-awaited implementation of PESA, a byproduct of the tussle between the two leaders over the CM position.