Armed with special Act for tribal self-governance, local leaders look forward to putting a clamp on liquor shops, approve development plans and programmes. For now, all eyes on implementation
Brajesh Kumar | January 15, 2013
For years, residents of Abu Road block’s Neechlagarh panchayat have been trying to oust the government liquor shop located bang next to the village school, but in vain.
This year, however, they might just succeed.
Having made rules of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) last year, the Rajasthan government is all set to implement the law this year in “fifth scheduled areas” (localities with dominant tribal population) of five districts, including Abu Road block in Sirohi.
Enacted by the centre in 1996, PESA empowers gram sabhas to decide on the existence of liquor shops in their villages, among many other powers including control over moneylenders, community resources, minor forest produce. It also gives gram sabhas the power to maintain peace and resolve local disputes.
“Our first priority would be throwing out liquor shops from our villages,” Narsa Ram, the up-sarpanch (deputy head) of Neechlagarh panchyat said.
Locals and activists operating in the area said alcohol addiction has been a long-running problem in this tribal block. “Many men drink even through the day,” Uplakheda resident Sawa Ram said.
Such is the state of affairs that outsiders are warned against venturing in the tribal-dominated area after 6 pm. “There’s a big chance that you will be stopped by an inebriated man or a group. You could even be mugged,” he added.
“There have been several cases of violence because of alcohol. Our adivasi brothers who get addicted to alcohol spend all their money on alcohol, and when their wives protest they are beaten up,” said Narsa Ram.
The Rajasthan government’s liberal excise policy has led to mushrooming of liquor shops in villages, with at least one such in each village panchayat. “I once counted the number of liquor shops on a stretch of 1-km road in Abu Road town and found there were more liquor shops than hand-pumps,” Narsa Ram said.
Downing shutters on liquor shops
With the implementation of PESA, Narsa Ram hopes his panchayat will be able to uproot these shops.
But in order to down shutters of these shops, each village will have to convene a special meeting of the gram sabha, and pass a resolution to this effect with a two-third majority. The resolution will then will be forwarded to the district collector, who will subsequently write to the excise department.
On receiving the communication of the gram sabha, the collector will stop renewing the licence of that particular shop in the new financial year, as per rules.
“Though a lengthy and complicated process, PESA Act vests a gram sabha with the power to eject them (liquor shops) from our villages,” said Narsa Ram.
The law gives primacy to the voice of women, stating that their opinion would be considered the opinion of a gram sabha.
There is a provision for procuring liquor for special occasions, though. The law says:
“(A) gram sabha shall be competent to lay down limits for possession of country liquor by resident(s) of the gram sabha on special occasions like birth, naming ceremony, betrothal, marriage, during settlement of disputes, death feasts, Holi and Diwali festivals and such other occasions in view of tradition and customs of the tribal community. (The) gram sabha shall specify the quantity of local liquor to be possessed and date-wise period of possession.”
But in the one-and-half decade since the Act was enacted only Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh, out of nine states with fifth-schedule areas (see box on the next page) have framed the rules of the Act.
Besides the prospect of removing liquor shops by using provisions of PESA, Narsa Ram and company of Neechlagarh and other panchyats of Abu Road are equally excited about other provisions of the law.
Gram sabhas at each village, not panchayat level
A powerful law, PESA devolves powers to govern a village in the hands of its residents by enabling the formation of gram sabhas at the level of a revenue village instead of the panchayat, as is the case now.
Typically, there are several revenue villages in a gram panchayat, and gram sabhas were conducted at the panchayat level before PESA came into reckoning. In its earlier avatar, it was difficult for a sarpanch to monitor implementation of various schemes in his/her panchayat, especially if the panchayat had four to five villages.
For example, Uplakhejda panchayat in the block has six revenue villages, with some as far as 10 to 15 kilometres from the main village where the gram sabhas were held. On many occasions, people from these villages were unable to make it to the panchayat bhavans for the gram sabha meetings.
“As up-sarpanch of Neechlagarh panchayat, I am unable to monitor the anganwadi centre at Neechlabore. Though the anganwadi is in my panchayat it is far from the main village,” explained Narsa Ram.
With the implementation of PESA, however, each village will hold its own gram sabha and take its own decisions. Once PESA is implemented, Narsa Ram would no more be required to go to Neechlabore to monitor the anganwadi centre there — its own gram sabha will do the needful.
“PESA takes governance to the lowest level where each village decides its own destiny — (this is) a true gram swaraj,” Ranchod Devasia, member of Janchetna Santhan, an NGO working with tribals in Abu Road for decades, said.
Control over money-lending
The law aims to loosen the hold of moneylenders in the entire block. For years, moneylenders have exploited the tribal people by lending money at exorbitant rates. “In my village, the sahukar/mahajan lends money at an interest of 10 percent per month, instead of an annual 9 percent,” said Pratap Singh, the ward panch of Kivarli panchayat.
But under PESA, moneylenders will have to undergo audit by the gram sabha. In case a resident pawns jewellery, the moneylender will have to issue receipts. In case of violation of the money-lending act, the gram sabha can pass a resolution for cancellation of the licence of the moneylender.
To quote the law, “(The) panchayat shall be competent to restrict and regulate business of money lending in scheduled area as per the provisions of Rajasthan Money Lenders Act, 1963 (Act No. 1 of 1964). In case of any irregularity or non-compliance, gram sabha or village panchayat shall send a written complaint recommending to (the) panchayat samiti for imposing fine or for cancellation of license or for filing a case in the court, as the case may be.
“Recommendation of Gram Sabha shall be binding on the Panchayat Samiti concerned.”
Formation of peace committees
In keeping with the community traditions that gave importance to settling minor disputes within village boundaries, the law vests gram sabhas with the duty of maintaining peace and order in areas under their jurisdiction. Under PESA Act, each gram sabha will constitute a peace committee, responsible for marinating law and order in the village.
The committee will inquire into incidents that breach the peace of village and report to the gram sabha for a decision. It would counsel those breaking peace, arbitrate and take immediate action where necessary, and subsequently report to the gram sabha.
Any crime that invites punishment under two years’ imprisonment under provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) will be resolved by the gram sabha through these peace committees, the law says.
“The idea is to resolve minor disputes by consensus and arbitration, and check exploitation of tribals by the local police,” said Ranchod Devasia of Janchetna Santhan.
In case of any serious crime (or those with punishment of more than two-year jail term), the police, though empowered to take action, will have to make a report to the gram sabha.
Management of community resources
Abu Road block has several panchayats — Kivarli, Surpagla, Morthala, Akrabhatta and Aamthala, among others — with abundance of marble stones, mined by the state. Till date, these panchayats could not partake of any profit from these mines. Not any longer, though. The state will now have to take permission of the gram sabha under whose boundary the mines are located and the latter has the right to decline the government rights to mine in its areas.
Taking over land owned by tribals by non-tribals has been a major problem here, especially alleged transfer of tribal land to various religious sects. The law prohibits purchase of tribal land by non-tribals. In case forcible acquisition of tribal land by non-tribals, the gram sabha will send a notice to the tehsildar seeking due action.
Control over minor forest produce
While the entire bhakhar region (hilly area) of Abu Road sits on forest land, the tribal population was till date subject to harassment by the forest department in case they collected firewoods or forest products such as honey, wax, tendu leaves or bamboo. “The new law gives them (tribals) legal right over these produce,” said Lakma Ram, the sarpanch, Chandela.
According to rules, “Gram sabha shall ensure collection of minor forest produce in accordance with the memorandum of understanding signed by the village forest protection and management committee with the panchayat and the forest department; the gram sabha shall be responsible for the marketing of minor forest produce from its area and optimising its profits; the net revenue obtained shall belong to gram sabha…”
Awareness campaign needed
While the law is being hailed by all those connected with tribal welfare, its actual implementation, though, remains to be seen.
“While panchayats like Neechlagarh and some others, which have educated and pro-active sarpanches, will ensure the law is implemented, there are others who need to be educated about it,” said Lakma Ram, who, the sarpanch of Chandela and also president of the sarpanch association of Abu Road block. “The government should launch a massive awareness campaign on the lines of MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and RTE (Right to Education), so that people know about the law that proposes to give tribals the power to self-rule.”
On its part, the government has begun educating its staff, along with elected representatives, about the law. Last month all district officials from departments that would deal directly with PESA — such as revenue, police, excise, forest and mining — underwent a three-day workshop. Elected representatives, or members of zila parishad, panchayat samitis and panchayats were given separate orientation classes.
Meanwhile, Narsa Ram, has begun preparation for convening a gram sabha that would take a resolution to shut the liquor shop in his village. “It has to be convened before the next financial year in April, when fresh tenders for these shops are renewed,” he stressed.
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