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Mahatma of the tribals

As bureaucrat and activist, B.D. Sharma spoke for the underprivileged.

Destiny took away Brahma Dev Sharma (B.D. Sharma) from us on December 6, the Mahaparinirvan Din of Babasaheb Ambedkar. While Ambedkar remains the original icon of the oppressed classes, mainly Dalits in Hindu society, Sharma will be remembered for his contribution to the emancipation of the tribals.

Beginning his career as a civil servant, Sharma spent a lifetime in the cause of the marginalised sections. At times acting like a Gandhian or reasoning like a communist, and occasionally positioning himself in a manner that attracted the tag of Maoist, Sharma transcended all isms. He was an original thinker and activist par excellence.

Born in an orthodox Brahmin family on June 19, 1931 at Shahjahanpur, UP, Sharma studied mathematics at the Benares Hindu University and worked at BITS, Pilani as a lecturer. Subsequently, he sat for the civil services examination and entered the IAS in 1956. He understood the calculus of the government machinery and its unholy alliance with big industry. When a scheme to replace the primordial Bastar forests with a pine plantation was proposed during his tenure as district collector (1964-68), he shot it down. He thought the pine plantation, meant to service a matchbox manufacturing MNC, would deprive poor tribals of their natural food resources and jeopardise their very survival. A lesson from an experiment in a Bastar village guided him throughout his life. He had built an “ideal village” with facilities like school and hospital. But no tribal would shift there. He realised it was best to ask the tribals what they needed and make plans accordingly rather than thrust one’s own ideas upon them. While on deputation at the Centre, he helped devise the concept of the tribal sub-plan (TSP), which became a source of dedicated funding for schemes in tribal areas. He took voluntary retirement from government in 1981. Later, the government appointed him vice chancellor of the North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU). In 1986, he was invited to head the SC/ST Commission.

Sharma was part of an informal group, Sahayog, which included many social activists. He was associated with the anti-Narmada dam movement and in 1992, set up the Bharat Jan Andolan (BJA). The BJA had three basic objectives — peasants’ rights, wage entitlement and mainstreaming of the Schedule V of the Constitution to bring tribal areas into the panchayati raj fold. He would recall how farmers were forced to repay loans at over 14 per cent when the original British laws of 1884 provided for 4 per cent interest with a repayment span of 35 years. The BJA organised the famous wage entitlement battle, Zenda Hajeri, in Madhya Pradesh for jobs under the “demand-driven” EGS scheme. The officials found it too demanding. Then chief minister Digvijaya Singh wrote to then prime minister P.V.

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Narasimha Rao that the scheme had become a “law and order problem”. Sharma’s greatest contribution was in bringing Schedule V areas under the Panchayat Raj (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA). The PESA gave an impetus to the tribal self-rule movement and led to the path-breaking Forest Rights Act.

Vested interests were hostile to Sharma’s dogged fight against the usurpation of tribal resources by the government and private entities. While being part of a tribal agitation against setting up private iron-ore extraction units, he was accosted by goons who stripped him naked, put a garland of chappals round his neck and paraded him on a donkey in Mavlibhata village. The gross exhibition of intolerance took place when the BJP was in office in MP. The Sundarlal Patwa government showed no remorse. The exception was RSS ideologue Govindacharya, who apologised to Sharma.

A natural consequence of working in tribal areas was that Sharma had to engage with the Maoists. The intelligence machinery, eager to brand all those working for tribal rights as Maoists or their sympathisers, marked out Sharma as well as a suspect.

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However, Sharma’s moral stature helped in securing the release of Sukma district collector Alex Paul Menon and two Italian tourists whom the Maoists had taken hostage.

Sharma lived the life of an ascetic. He grieved that state governments were not framing rules to implement the PESA act in letter and spirit. He was unhappy that he couldn’t contribute to furthering the cause of prohibition. In his last days, he lapsed into a state of dementia. Sharma was, as health activist Abhay Bang described, “the Mahatma of the tribals”.

First published on: 28-12-2015 at 00:00 IST
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