The world’s largest democracy is facing a surge in tribal uprisings. The recent killings of Mahendra Karma and other Congress leaders in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh has prompted the government to address issues of land dispossession and socioeconomic deprivations of tribals. These are the key issues that have been precipitating recurring violence across various parts of the country. Union Minister of Tribal Affairs Kishore Chandra Deo speaks to Sonum Gayatri Malhotra about the obstacles hindering effective governance of tribal communities in Schedule Five areas and how to overcome them. Edited excerpts from the interview
Tribals of Bastar are protesting against the provisions of the Fifth Schedule. With elections nearing, they are demanding tribal autonomy in the district as provided under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. Do you think the Sixth Schedule is working better in protecting tribal rights?
The Fifth Schedule of the Constitution has no dearth of laws in protecting the tribal rights. Bastar’s demand to introduce Sixth Schedule provisions in a Fifth Schedule area is not pragmatic and is definitely not well thought through.
Hypothetically, introduction of Sixth Schedule in Fifth Schedule areas would need a statutory amendment to the Constitution. This is an interminable process. Moreover, amending the composition of the Constitution is a process that first needs to be addressed by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. The Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs is relatively a new ministry, which came into existence 12 years ago. Before that, scheduled tribes came under the purview of the home ministry. Unfortunately, not all powers have been transferred to the tribal affairs ministry yet. This is a problem. I have limitations as a Union minister. I can only guide the governors of Schedule Five states to evoke their discretionary powers and inform the President of the situation.
But there is confusion over the role of governors in Schedule Five areas. In 2009, then President Pratibha Patil said that the Fifth Schedule devolves special responsibility on the governors in administering scheduled areas and ensuring peace and good governance among tribal communities. But recently, Assistant Solicitor General (ASG) Fouzia Mirza in her submission to the Bilaspur High Court said that a governor under the Fifth Schedule has no discretionary power. Based on her submission, the court dismissed a petition challenging constitutionality of the Tribes Advisory Council and powers of the governor under this schedule. Tribal rights activists have now approached the Centre seeking Presidential reference to the Supreme Court on interpretation of the Fifth Schedule.
The case was recently brought to my notice in response to letters I had sent out to all governors holding posts in Fifth Scheduled states.
The powers exercised by the governor especially under the Fifth Schedule are discretionary powers. The governor is not only the administrative and executive head of the state but also represents the Centre at the state. Fouzia Mirza has got it wrong. I am sad that an ASG, a top government official, erred on such a critical matter.
Most scholars and opposition parties also think that governors are of partisan nature, considering they have never evoked their powers given under the Fifth Schedule. Former governor of Odisha M C Bhandare had said “governors’ role constitutionally exists on paper but actually there is no existing support on ground”.
It is time governors started taking responsibility and invoked the powers which have been conferred on them under the provisions of Article 244 under the Fifth Schedule. It is time for a wake-up call. We are talking about the most marginalised sections. If the government of a state is not directing laws to benefit scheduled tribes, it is the role of the governor to intervene and set things right. When the Constitution was being framed, it was decided that a representative would ensure equality for indigenous communities that would protect them from the burgeoning globalising expansions and secure their fundamental rights. That’s why the governor is not bound by the aid and advice of the Tribes Advisory Council but can direct executive orders in his own discretion.
M C Bhandare has done wrong by not doing anything for the tribal communities of Odisha, where mining has been a critical issue. Constitutionally, the governor is to administer, legislate and execute directives for Fifth Schedule areas. Implementation of development programmes are channelled through the state department, however, the governors can direct laws for areas inhabited by scheduled tribes.
I am ready to take charge of the Fifth Schedule states that have seen governors neglecting their duties. The nodal ministry can empower to assign themselves the powers that have been conferred under the Fifth Schedule for the peace and good governance in tribal regions.
Don’t you think the contentious conflicts between ministries have only imploded to create mistrust among the tribals towards the government? In the latest such instance, the Union environment ministry headed by Jayanthi Natarajan has sought dilution of power of the gram sabha
Today, the growing mining sector is the main threat in Schedule Five areas. This has shaken the confidence and faith of the people in these regions in our democratic system. In many cases, powerful lobbies are trying to encourage mining in a flagrant violation of Constitutional provisions. The variant ideologies of ministries seem to have stemmed from market incitement. Ministries are working at cross-purposes. This is a turf war, lamentably in a social sector which is the most unfortunate.
Fifth Schedule areas in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand are governed by the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act. Such areas are meant to be lightly policed. But the government’s emphasis on policing and militarism is evident. Your comment
Deployment of forces in areas inhabited by tribal communities is sending out a message that can only provoke disorder other than what is desired. Sending military or paramilitary forces to these areas will not help contain the uprisings as these are not merely law and order problems. Having said that, one should address the core issue of these uprisings; these areas do not have adequate development. Basic human amenities like food, drinking water and healthcare are lacking. It is the duty of the state government to develop the regions responsibly in accordance with the communities’ requirement.
Most people from the tribal communities end up joining extremists’ movement because the state is too busy concentrating on how to use land in the most profitable way. Lashkar-e-Toiba is funding the Naxalite Movement. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has alleged that the biggest internal threats to the country are its tribal communities. Inevitable alien militant forces triggering hostility in Fifth Schedule Areas, especially bordering states, is bound to undermine the very national integrity.
Sonum Gayatri Malhotra works with Centre for Policy Research, Delhi