Defied the Forest Act Ã”Ã‡Ã³ Every resident contributes part of annual income for community works Ã”Ã‡Ã³ If somebody bribes a
government official, the same amount to be given to the gram sabha
A Republican Paradise: Mendha (Gadchirolli, Maharashtra)
Heaven: miles and miles of forest without any forest-guards Hell: miles and miles of forest without any mahua trees.
— Leaves From The Jungle, British anthropologist Verrier Elwin’s conversation with a Gond member in 1936
Gonds in Mendha fought for ‘heaven’ to avoid the ‘hell’. With India’s Independence started Mendha’s freedom struggle. A village with 80 per cent of its area covered with dense forest, it was a prize catch for the forest department when in 1950 its officials armed with the Indian Forest Act, 1927, took control of it. So many believe that the forest act gave birth to the republic of Mendha. The forest act is still powerful but the forest department accepts Mendha as a model forest management practice.
It became the first village in India to get well grown forest to manage under JFM, which otherwise gives degraded forest for joint protection. Mendha has composed the new anthem of India’s numerous village republics by practice: “Mawa Nate mate Raj, Dilli-Mumbai mawa Raj (in our village we are the government, in Delhi and Mumbai it is our government)”.
Former governor of Maharashtra, P C Alexander, had to seek permission from the gram sabha in December 2000 to visit Mendha, a virtual acknowledgement of the village’s sovereignty.
Mendha probably became the first village in India, where every community work is an individual’s work and hence everybody has to contribute time and resources to it. The village constitution makes it mandatory for its citizens to contribute 10 per cent of his/her total annual earning to implement the gram sabha decisions. As the village has decided not to accept donation or any government programme but to treat them as loans, the contributions compensate. Any work that is started in the village’s 1,600-hectare (ha) area, permission of the gram sabha is mandatory. “This makes the village a true republic and an effective participatory democracy,” says Mohanbhai Hiralal, convener of Vrikshamitra, an NGO working in Mendha. More so if anybody bribes a government official for work to be done, he/she has to give the same amount of money to the gram sabha also.
At a time when nobody was bothered about the existence of the forest act, Mendha led the nation in exposing the act as another colonial instrument. In 1950, government took over the village’s forest by declaring it protected forest under the act.
In its first fight against the act under the gram sabha it decided to revive the traditional system of Ghotul in the village. “Ghotul made of wood is a home for young boys and girls where they were taught the traditions and values of tribal culture,” explains Shivram Dugga. Villagers constructed a ghotul of teak wood, proscribed by government from felling, in the village.
“The forest department came with a large armed contingent and broke our ghotul as they we had violated law,” says Dugga. This move by the forest department enraged the villagers and they called a mahasabha (grand assembly) of 32 villages in the area. The grand assembly endorsed Mendha’s fight and vowed to fight over the forest. “Twelve villages constructed ghotuls in their villages and the forest department had to eventually retreat,” says Hirabhai. It was a moment of reckoning for the village and its new governance system.
In 1992, the village started its decisive fight over the forest when about 80 per cent of its forest was declared reserve forest. The gram sabha decided to challenge the move of the government, and appointed a van suraksha samiti to take control and to manage the forest. The gram sabha took up extensive watershed management inside the forest and constructed 1000 gully plugs in the forest stream. “The effort has increased the productivity of the soil,” says Shiva Ram. Finally the forest department allowed the village to manage the 1,600 ha forest in 1996.
The ultimate victory came to the republic of Mendha when the state cabinet decided to give back all its traditional rights over forest recently.
Roots of change: Seed (Udaipur, Rajasthan)
Seed doesn’t need a collector. The lagan is collected by the gram sabha and sent to the government. Government officials are not allowed to enter the village without the permission of the gram sabha, says Ramaji Rawat, president of the gram sabha’s karyakarini (executive committee).
Ironically, Seed is a government-approved village republic, sanctioned under the Rajasthan Gramdan Act, 1971 — a radical piece of legislation inspired by the late Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement. But its self-rule movement, in fact, began much earlier. The bone of contention was beed (the common grazing land), which formed the lifeline of an economy heavily dependent on agriculture and livestock.
After independence, beed’s ownership was transferred to the local royal family, though villagers still had traditional grazing and usufruct rights. In the 1950s, the ownership went into the hands of the forest department. But strangely the royal family sold it to a resident of nearby Kanod village in 1963 again. The new owner prevented villagers from using the beed. The dispute continued till 1967 when the Revenue Appellate Authority upheld the status of beed as forest area and also recognised the rights of villagers. “This case was a major victory for the residents from where started their march towards self-rule,” says Jagdish Purohit, coordinator of Ubeshwar Vikas Mandal, an NGO based in Udaipur.
During this time, Vinoba Bhave, half way through his 13- year march to propagate the Bhoodan concept, was addressing a gathering in Udaipur. “I got inspired by the gram dan concept and decided to dedicate my life to Bhaveji’s work,” says Rameshwar Prasad, a resident of Sethwana village near Seed, who was the purohit for Seed. Gram dan is derived from bhoodan (bhoo and dan), which means donation of land.
Prasad was to become Seed’s leader in its march towards republic status. Seed’s gram dan was established which took complete control over its natural resources — jal (water), jungle (forest), and jameen (land). The karyakarini through its sub-groups of residents monitor various issues such as crop loans, forest and nursery development, water resource development and selling of grass. “We only pronounce decisions taken by the gram sabha,” says Rawat.
The results are showing up. Due to the efforts of the gram sabha to propogate water harvesting, there is enough water for both drinking and irrigation. Gomti, which was earlier a seasonal stream, has become perennial. The anicut of Gomti ensures that the village never faces a drought. The village has strict rules to protect forests. Anyone cutting a tree from the common land is fined Rs 2,000. “In 1998, a villager from a nearby village was caught stealing wood from the forest. His bullockcart was auctioned and he was fined Rs 500,” claims Moti Lal, the village forest guard. No patwari is required in the village. All land records are with the gram sabha and all land disputes are sorted out by the gram sabha.
But in some ways, Seed today feels cheated. In 1995, the state government amended the Rajasthan Gramdan Act, 1971, and removed section 43, which gives wide-ranging powers to the gram sabha (see box: An unholy act on p32). “Earlier we used to get money directly from the state departments, but after the removal of section 43, we have to route all development work through the panchayat, which is corrupt and looks down upon gram dan village,” says Rawat. Villagers feel that to bring back gram dan, section 43 needs to be restored. But what makes this village different is that though the act has died prematurely, the village remains a true republic — in letter and spirit.
Unshakable: Nimalapedu (Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh)
Where the spacious black topped 20-km long road ends, India ceases and the republic of Nimalapedu starts. Life takes a different meaning altogether: “Here people rule,” says Sambhu Pollana, the head of the village’s gram sabha. The 200 residents are busy harvesting their first crop of paddy in June, unmindful of the fact that the state’s one-third villages have been declared drought-stricken.
“We have to prepare for the second sowing immediately,” adds Pollana. Three crops a year and a kitchen garden in each household make the village prosperous; so much that once it told the district collector that the village would feed him and his hundreds employees for a month.
Pollana should know it better. In 1992, his village was threatened to be bulldozed by the earth-removers of a private mining company to extract bauxite. He was told to move out of the village and to settle somewhere else. But a brief meeting of the residents changed the course of their life. “We can’t move without the perennial stream and the few tamarind and mango trees,” the village meeting decided. Thus began a fouryear- long legal battle to throw out the mining company from Pollana’s village.
In 1996, the Supreme Court gave its verdict: In the Fifth Scheduled areas, nothing can be taken without the consent of the gram sabha. The gram sabha didn’t give the consent to the company. The company had to abandon its Rs 250 crore investment and Pollana declared sovereignty. Since then nobody from the government visits the village. “The biggest lesson is how to govern,” says Karingi Ramana, a resident.
That spacious black-topped road, built by the mining company to transport bauxite from the mines, remains a metaphor for the village’s ‘independence struggle’. Nobody walks on that road and it is used for husking and drying paddy. “We don’t have to use it for walking as hardly we go out. Our own resources are enough to have a surplus economy,” says Ramana.
The village now harvests three crops and has earmarked all the fruit bearing trees with estimates of their annual economic value. A tamarind tree fetches Rs 1,500 every year, a mango tree fetches Rs 2,000 and the jackfruit tree has unlimited value as they form the common food pool for the monsoon. A small stream has been diverted into the village to supply water. Residents have made their own canal using bamboo and wooden pipes to take water to their fields. “The income from agriculture is sufficient so that the village has decided to give land to the six landless families on lease with nominal fee of few kilogrammes of tamarind and mangoes,” says Bala Raju, the village’s first college going resident. “My education will also be taken care of by the gram sabha,” he says.
Education, it seems, is the republic’s next agenda. The gram sabha has opened a primary school and the curriculum includes self-governance. “While learning alphabets the first word we teach them is ‘village’,” says B Rama Naidu, the teacher. The school opens whenever the students are free from cattle herding or feel free to study. It is not recognised but the importance of the village is that the next generation will know about the village’s rebirth. So it is not a matter of shame when none of the residents, including the teacher, could tell when is India’s Independence Day.
In Birsa's Land: Horomocho (Hazaribagh, Jharkhand)
Horomocho is just another sleepy village in the district of Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. There is nothing much that looks very striking in this village of 52 Santhal households. Mud walled houses, mohua and kusum trees, kacchha streets, people lazing around after work -- as in most of India's villages. But few things are compellingly unusual.
The forest and the absence of forest department officials is one of them. However, the surprise is on the bank of the Rohargada river, a small rivulet of the Damodar: a community coal mine. Ask the villagers and they are most nonchalant about it. "Oh that! It has been there. It belongs to the village," they will say with a shrug. The next thing that comes to one's mind is the legal part. All the mineral deposits in India belong to the government and the contractors who take them on lease exploit them. Moreover, any mine cannot be like that of Horomocho. Normally, bulldozers and contractors mob any piece of mineral. How come this coal pit here is devoid of any such thing?
The shadow of government has not touched Horomocho. Not since 1943 when a government team came to survey the village. Ten kilometres to the nearest bus stand, Horomocho has not seen many amenities. But nobody complains. On the contrary, they defy these. "We are rich," says Dhaniram Tutu, the Majhi Haram or head of the village in the traditional Santhali system.The village economy is limited to sustenance. For extra money, they sell forest produce in the nearby market.
Rich they are. They have a coalmine, 200 hectares of sal forest, perennial water sources and the agricultural fields. A two-room dispensary and a three-room school, both under the cool shade of mohua trees, complete the picture. In 1982, the village declared sovereignty over these. And with the Majhi Haram, the Santhal traditional gram sabha, managing these resources with wisdom, there are not too many worries and plenty of time to play football. They have the best football team in the area.
"Our law is equal for everyone," says Charku Soren, the deputy chief of the village. The villagers who work around the traditional Majhi Haram system manage things with an iron hand. "We had to be strong," says Charku, his stern face glowing with the light of a kerosene lamp. He explains why.
The forests of the village were depleted due to massive felling by the forest department as well as the neighbouring villages. "We felt threatened. They (the government) tried to take everything from us instead of giving us anything," says Dhaniram. This was pre-1982 when some like Dhaniram and Charku have seen schools and gained some confidence. The village decided to act. They went to the forest department officials and told them to take their salary from their homes.
With the forest, they also acquired the coal pits on the banks of the small rivulet in the village. Situated on India's rich coal belt, Horomocho could foresee its fate: one day the village would be buried in coal pits. The only way to save the village forest, protected since last two decades, was to keep the mines commercially unexploited. So the logical step was to declare the mines as community property. "This is a property of the village and it will stay in the village. No commercial use will be allowed here," says Churku. The villagers now use the mine, a six metres by three metres pit, about three metres deep, filled with water beside the Rohargada river in the village. "Every year the villagers take out about 20 tractor-loads of coal for the village," says Lambu, a resident. The coal, however, is distributed free of cost and suffices the fuel requirements of the village for most of the year. Remarkably, this has also decreased a lot of pressure on the forest for which the mine was taken over. "It is natural and practical for the village to take control," says Bina Stanis, an activist based in Hazaribagh.
They are still strong. And united. "You never know this money business," says Ganesh Ganju, a resident of Lathia referring to the nexus of government officials and contractors. This village also manages its resources like Horomocho and so do seven other villages. "The government can also come anytime to claim the resources," he adds talking about bitter experiences of the past. However, they all are sure this. Whatever it takes, they are not going to part with their jal, jangal and jameen. Fully aware of the confrontations and the difficulties involved, they are also very confident about winning this war and keeping it that way. Once Birsa Munda did. One cannot see why Horomocho and its allies cannot.
When a few merchants from the north went down to the south, one of the princes of the Deccan asked the question: "Who is your king?" The answer was, "Some of us are governed by assemblies, some of us by kings."
-- S Radhakrishnan asking for a governance system based on the existing village republics in the constituent assembly debate on January 20, 1947
Horomocho, Seed or Mendha are just replays of India's past. India had carefully evolved and maintained this decentralised democracy for centuries as a management tool for a complex livelihood system.
So strong were these republics that the British Empire tried to exclude them from their formal control, after years of effort to control them and before weakening them substantially. "The village communities are little republics, having everything that they can want within themselves, and almost independent of any foreign relations. They seem to last where nothing else lasts," wrote Lord Ripon to the Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1832.
Probably threatened by Ripon's assessment and the humiliation of the 1857 mutiny, the village republics were subjected to systematic dosages of government control till they lost their relevance. First, they weakened the institution by taking over part of village's traditional administrative and legal powers. Even then it could not completely wipe out the traditional institutions. They failed because they had to fight the whole society in each and every village. Ultimately they withdrew from some tribal areas and called them excluded areas (the Indian constitution's Fifth and Sixth Schedules recognise these areas as autonomous entities).
For other villages the final blow came in 1856, when Dietrich Brandis, a German botanist and India's first inspector general of forests, was making an inventory of India's trees. After nine years in 1865, the forest act came to existence, India's republics were facing the test of centralisation and also alien invasion. It formalised government control over forest and everything inside it thus making villages' access to resources a mercy at the hand of the Empire. Next came the government-created village level institutions to replace the traditional ones. The Appointment of Royal Commission on Decentralisation in 1907 decided that the local government should start from the village level rather than the district level, but favoured the government-created institutions like the panchayats to implement such programmes.
By 1947, such panchayats were in place as units of governance with government-defined judicial and administrative functions. India's freedom fighters opposed this dilution vehemently. Gram swaraj became an important agenda of the nationalist struggle. During the quit India movement in the 1940s, village-based parallel governments cropped up in different parts of the country to counter such panchayats. Many of such villages are now declaring self-rule again. Kamyapeta is one of them.
The final act
After Independence, constitution framers debated the village republics and many aggressively suggested a republic consisting of these tiny republics. But the final draft of the constitution decided to continue the British policy, rather more aggressively. The constituent assembly, that drafted the constitution, failed to legalise and adopt the traditional village institutions as units of governance. "I am glad the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit," said B R Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution.
This statement reflects in the constitution. The constitution underlines the role of the Union government, while giving wide-ranging powers to the states. The village self-rule, however, is not emphasised. Except in Article 40, where there is a provision to "take steps to reorganise village panchayats and endow them with such powers and functions as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government".
For over four decades, the Union and state governments debated the fate of these republics on one hand and on the other, implemented policies that curtailed their powers, particularly their control over resources. The forest act became the new instrument for the government to pursue its commercial interests. Large chunks of land were converted into forest using this act. Using a Cattle-Trespass Act, 1871, -- a separate act to protect forest areas meant for the British army that is still in use -- residents were not allowed to get fodder for their livestock. Even cattle were not allowed to graze in lush plantation areas. The village forest, as allowed under the forest act, was also taken over or made inaccessible to the villagers. Forest corporations were formed by different states to commercially extract timber and non-timber produce. Villages were forced to sell their forest produce to these corporations.
Similarly, using an archaic Land Acquisition Act, 1894, the government started acquiring lands, most of which belonged to the tribal villages. Pursuing Jawaharlal Nehru's policy of centralised management of water, all waterbodies and sources were transferred to the irrigation departments. The panchayats then became agents of such departments and the Sarpanchs started calling the shots.
By mid-1960s, it was clear from a nationwide survey of the local governments by the National Institute of Rural Development (nird) that these institutions had become fiefdom of sarpanch. The survey recommended revival of the gram sabha as the nodal bodies of self-governance. A committee set up in 1957 to evaluate the failure in community development programme with Balwant Rai Mehta, eminent social worker, as the chairperson, attributed it to the collapse of the village level traditional institutions or the collapse of the village republics. The committee recommended the three-tier panchayati raj system (see box: The patriarch on panchayat).
It took 35 years for the government to formally adopt the three-tier system through the adoption of Panchayati Raj Act in 1992. Though local self-governance has got constitutional mandate, it suffers from political will to implement it. Instead of strengthening these constitutional institutions, governments have been curtailing their power over the years. State governments can dismantle these institutions at the drop of a hat. "The constitution provides the maximum of guarantees for the autonomous existence of panchayati raj, while leaving the state legislatures to prescribe the maximum limits of powers and authority within which they could function," says the nird's India Panchayati Raj Report.
"After 10 years of the panchayati raj act, we have realised that it is ineffective due to lack of powerful gram sabha," admits former rural development minister and now Bharatiya Janata Party president Venkaiah Naidu. Naidu, however, did little to change the situation, despite his much-hyped statement to initiate 'second generation' reforms in the Panchayati Raj act. The current panchayati raj act does not make the gram sabha the nodal body of decision-making. According to a status report on panchayati raj by the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, the gram sabhas have never got the mandatory power to influence the panchayats.
Representative democracy has won over participatory democracy. Governments try to weaken panchayati raj institutions by not transfering the control over earmarked 29 departments, leave aside the question of empowering gram sabhas. Hardly nine states have transferred all the 29 departments to the pri
s. No state has put the officials under them. Panchayats lack financial autonomy, as their power to tax, and assess fees and penalties, remain unexercised. Thus, funds chiefly came from higher levels of government, with the tiers of local government acting as lobbyists for funds, and conduits for money received. Local revenue collection at gram panchayat level is negligible -- as little as Rs 1 per capita -- even in states such as West Bengal and Kerala with relatively strong commitment to decentralisation.
"When powers were shifted to the panchayats, no follow up legislative changes were made to make them effective," says J P Rao, a professor of sociology in Osmania University. Though minor forest produce (mfp
) is now under the panchayats, the forest department still controls them and panchayats are just collection centres.
Similarly, panchayats have been given the power to manage minor irrigation, but till now no legislative change has been made in state acts that make state governments owners of waterbodies. In Kerala, during the people's planning campaign, transfer of ownership of irrigation sources to the panchayats was a major bone of contention. All the states have acts dating back to the early 18th century, which give ownership to the governments. Due to this, the pri
s practically remain ineffective. The result: like the mid-1960s, these institutions remain the personal fiefdom of sarpanch.
Such constraints have killed another initiative to decentralise -- the panchayati (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (pesa
) that came into effect in 1996 for the Fifth Schedule areas. This is a legislation that makes villages independent of the government in principle. Arising out of the Bhuria Committee recommendations, it empowers the gram sabha and gives it authority over resources like mfp
, irrigation and minor minerals (see box: The state of power sharing
). Unlike the gram sabha in panchayati Raj Act, in scheduled areas its recommendations are binding on the panchayats. It also left the definition of a village to the local residents enabling each and every settlement in tribal areas to exercise control over their resources. If interpreted in the right spirit, one will need permission of the gram sabha even to enter the village. This is the kind of control that the self-ruled village republics are exercising now.
The provisions for the Fifth Scheduled areas came to light only after a Supreme Court, known as the Samatha judgement, in 1996. The court order declared all mining and industries in the scheduled areas illegal, as they never sought the consent of the gram sabha. The court clearly defined the role of the gram sabha and directed mining companies and other industries to share their revenue with the local people through cooperatives. Instead of empowering the gram sabhas, in 2001 the Union Government initiated move to curtail the powers of the gram sabha by amending the constitution. Fortunately, the move was stalled, reportedly at the behest of former president K R Narayanan.
Despite the court order and the constitutional mandate, states are yet to devolve power to the gram sabha in the scheduled areas. Except Madhya Pradesh, no other state has devolved power to the gram sabha and defined their roles clearly. With pesa,
the government needs to bring in major amendments in its forest and land legislations as the gram sabha has got rights over it. During this debate the government constituted a committee -- headed by forest inspector general S C Chaddha in 1997 -- to examine the modalities to transfer rights over forest produce to the gram sabha as stipulated under the pesa
. But the committee not only rejected the idea of transferring mfp
s to the gram sabha, but also recommended that the government should continue to control this trade, throughout the country irrespective of village rights.
This is a major shift in the forest department's approach post-Supreme Court's ban on felling. "Now the forest department sources its revenue from bamboo, tendu
leaf and other minor forest produce. It is, in fact, informally capturing the market," says Rao. But for the gram sabha, this committee's decision meant a lot as one of the major livelihood sources of villages was kept away from the purview of the gram sabha. Due to this, the authority and influence of the gram sabha is also threatened.
So it is no wonder that many of the village republics started their freedom struggle from rights over mfp
s. In Jhalaria village in Balrampur block of Surguja, villagers prevented the fd
from harvesting the forest as the produce was never given to them. The villagers insisted that the department should take permission from the gram sabha before it uses the forest. Few months of conflict over it and the village forcefully took control of the forest saying it belong to them according to the constitution. The story spread like wildfire and inspired 13 other villages to declare sovereignty over forest. "Nothing can stop them now as their patience with the present laws has run out," says Sharma.
A memo to the government
“I wish, therefore, that the village constitutions may never be disturbed and I dread everything that has a tendency to break them up.”
Report, Select Committee of the House of Commons, 1832 There is an urgent message emerging from all these villages: deregulate the behemoth called the Indian government. The same message is echoed by the three million panchayat representatives in India. The village republics have demonstrated how it can be done. In March this year panchayat leaders from across the country met in New Delhi and set a deadline to the government to transfer control over village resources like minor forest produce and waterbodies to the gram sabha by December 31, 2002.
If the government has not taken note of the village republics, the experiences of Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Kerala are lessons to be learnt of how decentralisation can be achieved. In MP, power has been given to the gram sabha and its recommendations are binding on the gram panchayat.
Starting from minor forest produce to minor minerals, the gram sabha has been given the power to control and manage these resources. Further, the state has also introduced a provision of right to recall in its panchayat act for the gram sabha, under which members can recall their leaders for not performing. This serves two purposes: first, people participate in governance and secondly, ensure that their leaders implement their development agenda effectively (see box: An act of accountability).
This step is to make the crucial shift from the representative democracy to the participatory democracy. The provision in the Rajasthan Gram Dan Act that no executive member of the village’s executive body can contest general elections also aims for this. The Maharashtra government has also plans to introduce the right to recall. The assembly is yet to approve this. “We have ensured that these structural changes take place for the local self-governance. Once empowered with legal backing, people will start exer-cising their power,” says MP chief minister Digvijay Singh.
His confidence comes from the Kerala experience. Kerala, under the people’s planning process in the Ninth Five Year Plan, gave all powers to the gram sabha and found a marked difference in the development of the state. Under decentralised planning, the gram sabhas accorded priority to water and housing, which were never on the top agenda of the state government’s planning process. “Empowering gram sabha will lead to the real betterment of the people,” says Isaac Thomas, the architect of Kerala’s decentralised planning.
Recent court judgements are also an indicator that only gram sabha can bring back democracy to the last level of governance. In April 1996, the Maharashtra High Court asked the state government to form a committee to transfer rights of people over forest in Gadchirolli and Chandrapur districts. The case has its origin in Mendha. The committee has recommended revival of the village forest and to give all rights to the village. “The committee’s recommendations, if implemented, would make Maharashtra the first state in the country to actually transfer all Nistar rights to the tribals in the scheduled areas,” says Mohan Hirabhai Hiralal, convener, Vrikshamitra, a Chandrapur-based NGO and one of the two non-government members of the committee. Similarly, in February 2002, the Andhra Pradesh High Court scrapped an irrigation project in east Godavari district as it was not permitted by the gram sabha.
But empowering gram sabha must also be accompanied by suitable legislative changes. The government wields extraordinary power through the numerous laws to establish monopoly over resources. This needs to be suitably amended so that the panchayats can exercise control effectively on subjects legally under their control. But the cases of MP and Kerala reveal that even just empowering gram sabha can help override legislative barriers. For example in Kerala, many villages defied government regulations to install small hydropower projects sanctioned by the gram sabha.
The self-ruled villages reported in this article are examples how with people at the helm of affairs can effectively fight government regulations. “These are simple amendments but have wider ramification for the livelihood of millions of forest dwellers,” says Dillip Singh Bhuria, who was the chairperson of the parliamentary committee on panchayati raj.
Time is running out. Villages after villages across India are crying for decentralised governance. The government must learn from the experiences of the past and devolve power, so that the fruits of development reach the last person in the village. If the government does not wake up, it will be too late.
THE SECOND INDEPENDENCE
|“My idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic... The government of the village will be conducted by a panchayat of five persons annually elected by the adult villagers... this panchayat will be the legislature, judiciary and executive combined... Here there is perfect democracy based on individual freedom.”
‘Question Box’, Harijan, July 26, 1942
With the monsoon, the world shrinks for the 25 villages in Visakhapatnam district’s Kamyapeta area. Tucked deep in the Eastern Ghats and surrounded by numerous seasonal streams, the 2,500-odd residents of these villages remain cut off from the rest of the world for close to eight months. “If we don’t move out, we will starve,” says Manmad Rao, a resident of Kamyapeta village. Without a road they cannot access the market to sell their forest produce and foodgrains.
When the Andhra Pradesh government started constructing a bridge over a seasonal river last year, there was jubilation. The world touches Kamyapeta now. But the story is not that simple. The villages suffered for more than five decades, as they didn’t exist in the government records. The government doesn’t recognise them and therefore, denies them any support. “We were nobody’s children. Anybody could threaten and misbehave with us,” says Rao. The residents approached the government officials several times only to be driven out by police. Things did not move till one fine morning in March 1999.
An innocuous stone slab appeared at the entrance of Kamyapeta, declaring it a self-ruled republic. “Since then, our writ runs large,” says Rao, who now visits other villages to propagate self-rule. In their first meeting, the villagers asked the government to construct a bridge and give up control over what they believe is their resources: thick forest, land and numerous water sources. Within three years, the state government started constructing the bridge with a budget of Rs 2.5 crore. Though the government still doesn’t acknowledge these villages, officials never dare to miss any summon from the gram sabha (village assembly).
In fact, Kamyapeta has gained independence for the second time. Home to the legendary tribal freedom fighter, Marie Kamaya, it joined the freedom movement to save its forests and land from British logging companies. Marie’s land and house were confiscated and the village was declared ‘criminal’. When India attained independence, Marie thought the village’s traditional governance system would be restored.
“But nothing changed. Earlier we were exploited by the British, now it is the forest department,” says Marie Ramana, son of the freedom fighter. “When we declared self-rule, my father’s dream came true,” he says. Kamyapeta’s second independence is, in fact, a realization of Mahatma Gandhi’s cherished dream of gram swaraj (village republic).
The real republics
The stone slab, a symbol of the 25 villages’ republic status, is also making appearances elsewhere in the country (see map). Mostly in villages scattered across India’s poorest regions and yet untouched by the fruits of the first Independence. A conservative estimate based on different reports shows that close to 1,500 villages have declared themselves village republics. In these villages, residents control their natural resources — forest, land, minerals and water sources.
They have also formed effective institutions to manage these resources. They plan, execute and resolve all affairs inside the village. Government officials and programmes are accepted only when the gram sabha approves them. In many such villages, the forest department, the police and other officials are just restricted to executing programmes chalked out in village meetings.
Everywhere the desire for self-rule comes from the threat to livelihood. Like the 125 villages inside the Rajiv Gandhi National Park in Karnataka’s Nagarhole. When the government declared their traditional home as a national park, it meant evacuation. What the 40,000-odd residents did was to declare self-rule and take control of the area. A taskforce was set up in each village to work out the modalities for self-rule. Barriers were erected with signboards directing outsiders to seek permission of the yajaman (traditional chief) prior to conducting their business in the village.
Such are the strong linkages of these village republics to control over natural resources that they can be termed as natural republics. For these republics, the freedom struggle means control over forest, land and water. “The struggle for self rule in every village emanates from the issue of managing natural resources as it is crucial for their livelihood,” says B D Sharma, convener of the National Front for Tribal Self Rule and former commissioner of National Commission for SC and STs. “Declaring self rule is natural for these villages as it ensures their livelihood from forest and land,” says Bina Stanis, an activist based in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. The more the government has control over these resources, the more assertive are the villages. In Balrampur block of Chattisgarh’s Surguja district, residents of 20 villages fought over the rights to minor forest produce. Last year, they did not allow the forest department (FD) to take timber from the government forests. After months of conflict, the FD had to pay a ‘tax’ of Rs 5,000 to get the timber. These villages are now on their way to self-rule.
Taking cue from the constitution’s Fifth Schedule — specified tribal-dominated areas in nine states which give local communities administrative power over local resources like minor forest produce, water and minerals — in certain areas, these villages are adopting their own constitution and implementing it through the gram sabha. In Rajasthan’s Dungarpur and Banswara districts, villages are taking control over forest and mining after declaring self-rule. A movement called gramganaraj (village self-rule) is spreading throughout the state’s tribal dominated areas. The first gramganaraj, village Talaiya in Gugunda tehsil, declared self-rule in 1997 to take control over a pond, which was located in the protected forest under the FD.
The villagers wrote to the FD that either they allow residents to use the pond or they would forcibly take over. When the FD did not act, the residents grabbed the pond. Today, the gram sabha manages the pond and the forest. “A special feature of these villages is that after declaring gramganaraj, a shilalekh (stone inscription) is placed inside the village with the new constitution inscribed on it,” says Bhanwar Singh of Udaipur-based Astha, an NGO working with tribal communities.
Interestingly, most of these self-ruled villages are located in the scheduled areas. Traditionally and constitutionally, these villages are entitled to autonomous status. In Jharkhand, which has been without panchayats for the past 23 years, selfrule is taking shape. If one drives from the capital Ranchi towards the Karra block, there are more than 178 villages that have declared themselves as republics. In the Ghatsila block of east Singbhum district, there are 800 such villages, according to an estimate of the National Front for Tribal Self-rule, a movement campaigning for tribal self-rule.
For these villages, December 24 is more auspicious than August 15. “After the Panchayat (Extension to Schedule Areas) Act (PESA) came into effect from the December 24, 1996, we have a new lease of life,” says Kushal Horo, a resident of Masmano village. This act is a radical piece of legislation, which gives virtual control over all the resources to the communities in the scheduled areas. These villages have adopted PESA and merged it with their own traditional systems of governance to manage village affairs (see box: The state of power sharing).
In all these villages, there is one formal institution — the gram sabha. And without waiting for the governor’s definition of a village, people have drawn their village map. The result: even a small hamlet comprising a few households now has its own gram sabha. While the gram sabha has become central to such republics, what keeps them united is the issue of livelihood. While in comparatively new villages with self-rule the gram sabhas directly monitor village affairs, older villages like Seed in Rajasthan and Mendha in Maharashtra have formed different committees to look after different resources in the village.
“In these villages, natural resources and their equitable distribution form the core of governance,” says Bhagwan Majhi, a leader of Kucheipadar village in Rayagada, which has declared self-rule. Many of these villages have chalked out their development road map. Due to direct intervention of the gram sabha, many villages have evolved innovative solutions to local problems. For example in Kucheipadar, villagers have a community labour participation programme for cultivation in private lands to tackle labour shortage.
And to do away with water scarcity, a stream up in the hill has been diverted to the village through a complex network of trenches. “Innovations are natural when people decide for themselves,” says Ravi Pragada of Samata, a Hyderabad-based NGO.
THE FOUNTAINHEAD DONGRIPARA, DHAMTARI DISTRICT, CHATTISGARH
Which village is this? “Dongripara Gaon Ganrajya (Dongripara village republic),” is the innocent reply of 10-year-old Gopal Nag of Dongripara, anxiously waiting for October 18. It is his Gaon Ganrajya Diwas (village republic day). Much before he learnt the alphabets and knew about India’s Independence Day, Dongripara declared self-rule on this day in 1997. The imposing shilalekh (stone inscription) erected in the village square declares it a republic and empowers the gram sabha (village assembly) to be the highest governing body.
Geographically the fountainhead of many civilizations on the Mahanadi, officially not a village and by practice a republic. “I do not go to Dongripara. They don’t allow me to enter the village,” concedes D S Kunjam, Tehsildar of the Nagari Janpad Panchayat, whose department doesn’t recognise Dongripara as a village. Panchayat leaders also are wary of entering the villages. Dongripara’s biggest challenge was to be recognised as a village, and to have a stake on its surrounding forest and a tank.
Their freedom struggle started from here. Home to Halwa, Gond, and Kewat tribes, the livelihood of the residents was dependent on agriculture and collection of minor forest produce, strictly managed by the traditional system of governance. “The system ran perfectly and residents were reasonably prosperous until the akaal varsh (referring to famine of 1965),” says Nag. As dependence on forests grew, more and more conflicts between villagers and forest department were reported.
The Panchayati Raj Amendment Act of 1992 and subsequently the MP State Panchayat Adhiniyam of 1993 brought some hope for the villagers as it offloaded many government stakes on village resources. “We thought it would set everything right.” But the situation became worse with the panchayat levying all kinds of taxes to boost its income, say villagers. The conflict began when the panchayat impinged upon the nistar (traditional) rights of the villagers. It leased out the village pond for fishing rights to a contractor and allowed the public works department (PWD) to extract stones from the hill.
“The whole panchayati raj became the keep of the sarpanch,” says an agitated Sampat Lal Yadu, convener of the gram sabha. This gave birth to the gram sabha. First it closed the doors for government officials and took over the management of the dongri (hill) and the pond. The village constitution (perpetuated in the stone inscription) gives its citizens equal rights over all resources. Through a 10-member appointed van rakhwali samiti (forest protection committee), the gram sabha oversees the regeneration of the dongri. “Within ten years the green cover will come back,” assures Indra Nag, a member of the samiti. The gram sabha does community fishing and earns money for funding village development programmes. The PWD is not allowed to take even a single stone chip from the dongri.
The stone chips, still lying on the foothills, remain the witness to the birth of Dongripara republic on October 18, 1997. The powerful gram sabha now completely looks after the village affairs and implements decisions through an executive committee of ten members (five of them are women). As a conflict management strategy no decision is taken unless a consensus is reached. “If we do not reach a consensus, the issue is just scrapped,” says Aash Bai.
The movement has given the villagers two important things — community feeling and pride. “With our governance, they (government officials) talk to us on our terms,” says Mehtarani, remembering her arrest during initial days of the village’s fight with the PWD. “Village development is the only agenda of the gram sabha. We want to show the other villages that the path we chose for us was right,” says Shankar Nag.
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