Devlikala gram sabha prepares for PESA, but no one quite knows the deal

Khandwa (Madhya Pradesh), Jan 24 (IANS/ 101Reporters) As the afternoon sun shone in all its glory, the people of Devlikala in the tribal-dominated Khalwa block huddled in groups on the neat floor of Mata Chowk. They were discussing names for inclusion in committees under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, just before the first gram sabha (village council) meeting under the Act.

The PESA Act came into force in Madhya Pradesh on November 15, exactly a month before the meeting in Devlikala, a village in Khandwa district with around 500 households. As the proceedings began, the panchayat assistant secretary called out the names of those assigned the roles of president, vice-president, secretary and treasurer of the gram sabha. The chosen ones slowly gathered in the middle.

At the PESA’s core are the tribal-dominated areas in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, all designated as Scheduled Areas under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.

When panchayats across the country got the status of institutions of self-governance following the enactment of the 73rd and 74th Constitution Amendment Acts of 1992, the Scheduled Areas did not come under their ambit. However, the realisation that tribal people were facing exploitation made the Union government form a committee led by then Ratlam MP Dileep Singh Bhuria to probe into their living conditions. Based on the panel recommendations, the PESA Act was enacted on December 24, 1996, giving extensive powers to gram sabhas to self-govern.

Under the PESA, the powers of a village council are absolute. Its approval is necessary for land acquisition and other development plans. The tribal communities own and manage natural resources (water, land and forest resources, including minor produce) in the area, and the council monitors and implements laws in this regard. The gram sabha has a say in the grant of prospecting licences or mining leases for minor minerals and in the grant of concessions for the exploitation of minor minerals by auction in the Scheduled Areas.

A gram sabha has the mandate to uphold the unique tribal cultural identity. Hence, they also have the power to scuttle any development programme that affects their vibrant tradition. Besides, the Act highlights the collective resolution of disputes based on traditional laws or common practices.

The village council’s influence in the social sphere gives it the power to select beneficiaries of government schemes, act against moneylenders, protect the rights of workers, monitor and grant permission for migration/arrival of labourers, and manage village markets.

Other functions include inspection of health centres, anganwadis, ashrams, schools and hostels; right to plan for agriculture, including measures to prevent soil erosion, regulating cattle grazing, rainwater harvesting and distribution, ensuring seed-manure availability and promoting organic fertilisers and pesticides, to name a few.

How it works

All registered voters in the panchayat’s electoral rolls are gram sabha members. In Madhya Pradesh, a gram sabha should meet trimonthly. This way, four meetings should be held yearly. The quorum of the meeting shall not be less than one-tenth of the total number of members or 500 members of the gram sabha, whichever is less. Special meetings can also be convened, as and when required.

Certain committees are formed to exercise gram sabha’s powers, such as enforcing prohibition or restricting the sale and consumption of any intoxicant, maintaining peace and order, and managing waterbodies, to name a few. If need be, the committee’s duties can be modified by passing a resolution in the gram sabha. It is possible to hold a joint meeting of two or more village councils if their opinions are required for taking a decision on a project or proposal affecting all of them equally.

The panchayat secretary, who is a government servant, also serves as the gram sabha secretary and convenes the meetings. Panchayat employment assistant can also attend the meeting, but no elected representative can participate. The sarpanch, deputy sarpanch or panches of the village cannot become the president of a gram sabha. The post is reserved for a person belonging to a Scheduled Tribe. The powers of the sarpanches will remain the same, but they will have to follow the gram sabha recommendations.

According to Khalwa block Chief Executive Officer Kishore Kumar Uke, the PESA Act has been a lifesaver for the tribal community, giving them full rights over water, forest, land and mineral wealth. “If three villages are included in a panchayat, then all three will have their own separate gram sabhas. There will be no representation of the general class in the gram sabha of villages under PESA,” Uke told 101Reporters.

Though the decisions made are mostly unanimous, a majority opinion can be taken if there is no consensus. If any person or department disagrees with the decision, objections can be raised within 15 days and another gram sabha meeting will look into it within 30 days. If not reconsidered, a committee comprising the district panchayat president and member, and sub-divisional magistrate can be appealed.

Late arrival

The PESA Act is applicable to 11,757 villages in 5,254 panchayats of 89 development blocks in 20 districts of Madhya Pradesh. Earlier, gram sabhas used to be convened in 5,254 panchayats, but now the numbers have increased to 11,757.

Before the PESA Act was implemented, all three villages coming under Devlikala panchayat used to participate in the gram sabha, where people from the village with the most representation in the panchayat would have an upper hand.

However, there was equal representation of all in the gram sabha then, unlike the present condition that allows participation of only Scheduled Tribe members. They can take opinions from other caste members of the society, but the final decision taken by the gram sabha will predominantly be that of the Adivasis only.

Madhya Pradesh is the seventh State in the country to implement the Act, nearly 26 years after it was enacted by the Union government. Congress MLA Hiralal Alava and Teer Foundation had raised several objections when the State government published the PESA draft. Milind Thatte of Teer Foundation told 101Reporters that the government system has been the biggest obstacle in the implementation of the PESA Act in Madhya Pradesh. Within a year, the State government had held 50 meetings to understand the flaws and clear hurdles.

State of affairs

During its first meeting under the PESA Act, Devlikala gram sabha formed several committees to manage its affairs. Motiram Kasde was nominated as the chairman of the land conservation committee, while Chhote Lal Omkar became its vice-chairman.

Asked about the committee’s mandate, Kasde said he has not been informed about it. “We will be told later how this committee will function and what its powers are,” he said. Omkar was also not in a position to tell anything.

Peace committee chairman Champalal Palvi admitted that he was not fully aware of his role, but would become familiar with it if there were repeated meetings. Nevertheless, he had gathered a great deal of information about the panel’s objectives.

“Minor disputes should not be taken to the police station. The peace committee would like to settle them at the gram sabha level itself. If major cases crop up, police intervention will be sought,” Palvi said. Vice-chairman Dayaram Motiram said he was yet to understand the functioning of the peace committee.

Strangely, none of the committees had a woman president or vice-president. Speaking to 101Reporters, sarpanch Indrakala Pyarelal said they had handed over all the responsibilities to the gram sabha. “Because we have to work in these committees in future also, we did whatever we thought was appropriate in forming the committee,” she detailed.

On the other hand, women members were clueless about in which committee they had been included. Janaki Bai said being a village senior, she was an office-bearer of some committee. Sunita Phoolchand, Mithiyabai Daduram and Gopibai Rajesh said they have to first find on which committee they have been included and then learn about its functions.

Asked about this, sarpanch Indrakala Pyarelal said she had informed everyone about the PESA Act and the formation of committees a day before the first meeting. Ironically, she also could not provide satisfactory replies about the provisions of the Act either.

Gram panchayat secretary Ranjit Tanwar and employment assistant Kewal Yadav were the only two persons with some knowledge about the PESA Act. Tanwar said the shanti samiti (peace committee), dispute committee, swasthya tadarth samiti (health ad hoc committee), forest resource and control committee, matri committee in anganwadis and groundwater management committee have been formed in the village. The committees constitute of five men and three women members each, following the mandatory 33% representation of the latter.

As the gram sabha proceeded, there was some drama too. Punia Bai, who has not received her widow pension even five years after her husband Shobharam’s death, alleged that the panchayat had approved the cases of even women whose husbands had died just a year ago. Her anger knew no bounds, and had an immediate effect as the sarpanch and panchayat secretary consulted among themselves and approved her pension on the spot. A certificate in this regard was handed over too!

(Asif Siddiqui is a Khandwa-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters, where this article was originally published.)

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