Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal Sunday (August 7) declared a six-point “guarantee” for tribals in Gujarat’s Chhota Udepur district, including the “strict implementation” of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act.
The PESA Act was enacted in 1996 “to provide for the extension of the provisions of Part IX of the Constitution relating to the Panchayats to the Scheduled Areas”. Other than Panchayats, Part IX, comprising Articles 243-243ZT of the Constitution, contains provisions relating to municipalities and cooperative societies.
Under the Act, Scheduled Areas are those referred to in Article 244(1), which says that the provisions of the Fifth Schedule shall apply to the Scheduled Areas and Scheduled Tribes in states other than Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, and Mizoram. The Fifth Schedule provides for a range of special provisions for these areas.
The PESA Act was enacted to ensure self-governance through Gram Sabhas (village assemblies) for people living in the Scheduled Areas. It recognises the right of tribal communities, who are residents of the Scheduled Areas, to govern themselves through their own systems of self-government.
The Act 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, among other things.
Ten states — Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Telangana — have notified Fifth Schedule areas that cover (partially or fully) several districts in each of these states.
After the PESA Act was enacted, the Union government circulated model PESA Rules. So far, six states have notified these Rules.
Gujarat notified the State PESA Rules in January 2017, and made them applicable in 4,503 gram sabhas under 2,584 village panchayats in 53 tribal talukas in 14 districts.
This was announced in Chhota Udepur by then CM Vijay Rupani ahead of the last Assembly polls.
Five years later, current CM, Bhupendra Patel, Tuesday told a rally in Dahod that all tribals had been covered under the Act and empowered under its provisions.
Legal experts, however, say the Act has not been enforced in letter and spirit.
In November 2020, Gujarat notified the Statue of Unity Area Development and Tourism Governance Authority (SoUADTGA) to administer villages around the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel statue in Narmada, a tribal district.
This gave SoUADTGA powers to override panchayat decisions.
Simultaneously, the district administration issued an order based on a central notification to declare forest area in 121 Narmada villages of as ‘eco-sensitive’. The district revenue department also moved to include ‘state government’ as the ‘second owner’ of land in these villages.
After stiff opposition, including from BJP’s Bharuch MP Mansukh Vasava, authorities decided to drop the “second owner” mention.
However, the eco-sensitive zone notification remains in force. The SoUADTGA has also taken charge of its command area that includes six tribal villages.
In March this year, the Centre was forced to scrap the Par-Tapi Narmada (PTN) river linking project as tribals held protests.
Gujarat is among the 10 states that have Schedule Areas, and accounts of 8.1% of the ST population. The tribals are concentrated in the eastern districts, along the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra borders.There are 11 major tribes in Gujarat, the largest being Bhil which is nearly 48% of the state’s total tribal population.
The tribals have been a loyal voters of the Congress. In 2017, of the 27 reserved ST seats, the BJP won eight, Congress got 16, and its alliance partner, the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) bagged two. One Congress rebel won as an Independent. Since then, Congress’s three tribal MLAs have joined the BJP. The Independent MLA was disqualified, and BJP won the bypolls in 2021. This time AAP is also targeting this constituency and has allied with the BTP.However, the BJP does not see the implementation of the Act as an election challenge as several Congress states are yet to implement it.