The state is reclaiming power over tribal communities

Indigenous tribes constitute about 8% of India’s population–about 100 million people. Two superbly progressive pieces of legislation—the Forest Rights Act (2006) and the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (1996)—established a framework for local self-governance in demarcated (or “scheduled”) areas. The FRA clarified further that these communities had the sole right to sell proceeds from forests.

This has been the subject of an ongoing tussle between Maharashtra’s Forest Department and the Union ministry of tribal affairs. A recent Business Standard report covered this episode, illustrating how the tribal affairs ministry agreed to hand over control of forest management to the state’s forest department, after having initially insisted that tribal communities had exclusive rights over trade in forest produce. This is yet another instance that highlights how the implementation of PESA and FRA have been fraught with challenges–many of them genuine and yet many others a consequence of bureaucratic and political inertia, incompetence and malice.

As a columnist in The Hindu wrote last year, the process of documenting tribal claims is not an easy one, involving democratically constituted gram sabhas (village assemblies) as per the provisions of the 73rd constitutional amendment on panchayati raj and PESA. This is compounded by the ongoing power struggle between the bureaucracy and tribal communities–one that the latter is likely to lose unless there is robust political intervention on their behalf. One of the manifestations of this has been a limited interpretation of the acts, with governments recognising only individual property and not community ownership of land. This is sometimes attributed to a lack of evidence on the ground for the stated joint ownership. But that is mostly an excuse. From physical land surveys to mobile apps that harness satellite technology, there are solutions easily available to the tribal departments if they wanted to recognise and register community land.

Not recognising common property resources that tribes collectively manage and live off is not only economic injustice, but also breaks the (in many senses, highly evolved) traditional order of tribal societies. The assault on tribal lifestyles and livelihoods has been incessant–and is not tied to the ideology of any particular political party in power. It is no secret that states with a large proportion of tribals would like to be free from central regulations that restrict them from exploiting the resource-rich catchments that lie within their territory. But the union government has also been doing its bit.

Last year, the Hindustan Times reported how the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) had changed the law to throw open up to 40% of the country’s (ostensibly only degraded) forests to private sector management. First of all, ‘degraded’ forests are not as expendable as the MoEF makes them out to be. A former director of the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, argues that, “Even the most degraded natural forests have 50-100 species of trees per hectare. For their end products, industries would hardly plant one or two species.” Allowing the private sector to use these lands for monoculture could have a ruinous impact on the ecosystem. Further, as reported in the same column, those guidelines also stated that tribal communities could access forest produce in only 10-15% of the land proposed to be leased out to private players. If implemented, this would be in contravention of the FRA that (as mentioned above) recognised tribal communities as the owners and managers of their forests.

Finally, here are my thoughts on these instances of the state reclaiming its powers over tribal communities, and their lands:

  • The government has largely struggled to make local governance work in tribal areas. When funds are allocated for local bodies in tribal areas, they are often not accompanied by the requisite hand-holding and capacity building to utilise funds and execute projects. This has been the case even in states like Kerala that are considerably ahead of others when it comes to local governance. Without better infrastructure such as roads and markets, these communities will continue to struggle to make good use of their forest resources.
  • While the eventual outcome (for the moment) in Maharashtra is disheartening, it is encouraging that the ministry of tribal affairs seems to have campaigned quite hard to protect the rights of tribal communities. Irrespective of the current decision, it leaves behind a paper trail that can be used by officials and activists in future. This is yet another reminder that the ‘state’ is not a monolith, and understanding that enables us to work much better with the state.
  • As mentioned above, political support is key; and in this instance, the dice was loaded heavily against tribal communities. With that in mind, we must lament the fact that while the minister for tribal affairs is a member of the union cabinet, he, just like the minister of panchayati raj, and drinking water and sanitation (other departments that are mandated to address issues critical to social welfare), is a relative political lightweight. What are the chances they will win a political tussle with heavyweight cabinet colleagues like Nitin Gadkari and Prakash Javadekar?

Governance in tribal areas suffers from many of the same problems that panchayati raj suffers from, and then some. There is an understandable degree of natural friction between the “development” priorities of the state and the “development” priorities of tribal communities, with a third perspective of the “development” priorities of civil society that is working to improve tribal welfare. Between these competing priorities, the state remains the behemoth, with an ability to invoke its power of eminent domain – part of which it had ceded through PESA and FRA. If the state today is seen to be reclaiming those powers, one must be very vigilant and hold it to account on what it does next.


This is my latest livemint column


One year of decentralisation and turf wars in Kenya

Ken Opalo has a great post on decentralisation in Kenya. He writes:

Kenya’s new government structure has 47 capitals handling billions of shillings each year. If all else fails, the system will at least create strong politically autonomous regional elites with sufficient power to check Nairobi. And that is a fantastic thing. Already a few governors (including Nairobi, Machakos and Bomet) have broken ranks with their sponsoring parties, evidence that the interests of the national parties and County governments will not always be aligned. And if the last two fiscal years are any indication, the political pressure on the national government to overshoot the 15% minimum requirement will continue to hold. Those perceived to be enemies of devolution will be punished at the polls.


The new system also has another plus: Kenya now has 47 training centres for the job of chief executive. Governors who do well – like the Governor of Machakos – will become very strong contenders for State House in the not so distant future (Also more work for me to study inter-governmental political careers!!)

Kenya’s decentralisation is a work in progress. There have also been plenty of squabbles between the County Governors and senators (one per county, elected to a Senate in Nairobi) and ministers and senior officials of the central government. Now as the county governors head to Mombasa for a review of their one year in power, it will be interesting to see what comes out. There are fears of disputes with the central government over taxation; there has been scrutiny over the administrative expenses by Members of Parliament (elected from respective constituences, each smaller than a county), citizens and even the IMF. Decentralisation is a highly political process and it should not be surprising to see the different power centres sparring with each other. 

Yet, decentralisation presents an exciting opportunity. In the three counties I have visited – Garissa, Bungoma and Turkana – I have met county government officials that have big plans for their counties. On education for instance, although counties have only been given the responsibility for pre-schools, they have talked about how it is their responsibility to shepherd all schools and NGOs working on education in their county. Highly encouraging to hear this, of course! Just a small anecdote, but it keeps me very hopeful.

Counties in Kenya are diverse and a reasonable amount of autonomy in development planning and service delivery is key to meeting the aspirations of its people. Many counties suffer from an ‘out of mind, out of sight’ problem as far as key decisionmakers in the capital, Nairobi, are concerned. Genuinely decentralised governance then, is the way forward!

The federal roll-back

In my latest column for livemint, I highlight what I think was the most significant aspect of the 2014-15 union budget presented by Finance Minister, P Chidambaram. By announcing the intention to increase the plan assistance to states almost three-fold, the Government of India has made a major move towards empowering state governments and also towards holding them to account for their performance in areas of human development.

In this context, the following now become really critical.
The formula for distribution of funds between states: Not entirely unexpectedly, 2013 saw the war of committees over devising an appropriate funds distribution formula for states. Along with this comes the lobbying for special status by different states in order to gain additional central funds.
State treasury systems: In spite of some degree of automation, many state government treasuries are in bad shape. Earlier, state treasuries would capture only the state government funds and not the CSS funds that were channelled through the societies. In the new arrangement, the state treasuries will have to handle a significantly larger volume of funds and transactions. As public finance expert T.R. Raghunandan cautions us, the finance departments in many of our states have a long way to go.
Monitoring data: Unearthing government data—physical and financial—is a formidable challenge, as anyone in the business will reveal. Additional funding to the states will mean additional responsibility for data collection and reporting in a transparent and reliable manner.

Competitive politics and local governments

Last month, we celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the landmark legislation on Panchayati Raj Institutions in India. The sweeping reforms were commended for their scale of ambition. However, as with any other reform idea aimed at overhauling the political system, local governments should not be seen as a panacea. Implemented wrong, local governments can lead to deeper social and political schisms amongst communities. One of the key articles of faith in Gram Panchayats is its ability to ensure equitable distribution of benefits. While there are many areas of debate one can pick in the performance of the Panchayati Raj Institutions, the question for this column is the effects of political party affiliation and its divisive consequences.

Take the example of West Bengal. The Panchayati Raj System in the state was revived in 1978, a year after the Communist Party of India, Marxist (CPI-M) came to power in the state, following nearly a decade of intense political violence. Along with holding elections that year and every five years, subsequently, the state government also put in place, some of the features that we today recognize to be key to an empowered Gram Panchayat – control over resources, provision of public services, the lower-level bureaucracy, etc. Observers point out that in the early years following decentralization reforms, the lot of the poor actually improved through a steady improvement in agriculture, mostly driven by the land tenure reforms that were enacted earlier. In the interiors of the state, there are districts that are poorer than elsewhere in the country.

Simultaneously, one of the constants of political mobilization at the grassroots in West Bengal has been the thorough politicization of Gram Panchayats. Households are identified by their political party affiliations and this influences the allocation of public goods – not just individual benefits such as food grains, pensions or housing, but also crucial services such as law and order and protection of property. While this may well be inevitable given the increasing flow of finances to the Gram Panchayats, it is obvious that in situations like West Bengal, where political parties have encouraged ‘destructive political competition’, the consequences of this can easily spiral down to individual households due to the intense political mobilization at the grassroots.

The directive that panchayat elections are not to be fought on the basis of political party affiliations has been discarded for all practical purposes – not just in West Bengal, but in any state with a functioning system of local government. In the Panchayati polls in the state in 2008, where the Trinamool Congress for the first time in close to three decades, wrested away nearly half the Gram Panchayats from the CPI(M) – early signs of the groundswell in favour of the former. Trinamool followed this up with favourable shows in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and the sweeping victory in the 2011 assembly polls. Over the last decade, as a successful political challenge was mounted by Trinamool on the CPI(M), often using the same tactics that CPI(M) was known for, the polarization on the ground has sharpened, to the detriment of the welfare of ordinary citizens in rural West Bengal. There are many a personal account of development workers in rural West Bengal that narrate the despair of households who are unable to approach the police for justice, for fear of retribution from an opposing political party. Of course, in many instances, the police have refused to even lodge complaints of families that are not affiliated with the ruling party.

It is important to recognize this for what it is – political rivalry at the state-level trickles down following the existing pattern of political mobilization. Gram Panchayats, instead of absorbing the impact of this conflict while shielding citizens, become instruments of state control and oppression.

What does this mean for the idea of local governance in India? Should we be wary of political mobilization at a scale such as in West Bengal? Researchers have argued that in deeply feudal societies in northern India, the shift in allegiance to political parties may itself been seen as a sign of progress. But are there limits to this phenomenon? How have Kerala or Karnataka been different, if at all? These are important questions that need to be posed and explored further – as we reaffirm our faith in the developmental benefits that accrue from Panchayati Raj Institutions.

A version of this first appeared on livemint, titled Panchayati raj challenges

Panchayati raj institutions and the burden of expectations

My latest livemint column is up

In my last column (Why the traditional model of NGO-led development must end), I argued that NGOs must cede the space for providing services to panchayati raj institutions (PRIs). Already, most of the government’s flagship schemes have roles for gram panchayats—to either manage funds or manage the implementation processes determining the selection of beneficiaries or overseeing physical delivery. Clearly, this is a lot to expect from the PRIs and one reaction I get very often to all of this is that we are placing too much faith on them; that PRIs are bound to fail under the burden of such expectations.

However, I argue that there is no reason to be fatalistic about PRIs. No doubt, PRIs are crippled by lack of funds and staff. But often, critics wouldn’t even allow the debate to get that far, criticizing the very allocation of function, funds and staff to PRIs. In this column, I will look at some of the most popular reasons why PRIs are said to be bound to fail and attempt to explain why we need to look beyond these fears

Local governance under attack

My latest livemint article is up – on how local governments are under attack – day in and day out from an entrenched bureaucracy –

Recently a small news item mentioned a ruling by the Additional Collector, Yavatmal district, sacking 664 Gram Panchayat members from various Panchayats for failing to construct a toilet in their homes. While this could be seen as a strike for total sanitation, a possibly inadvertent consequence could also be that this is yet another assault on the move towards true decentralization of power in India

More here 

Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan: beyond the hype

In my latest livemint article, I write about Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan (NBA) which is the new avataar of the Total Sanitation Campaign

…those who expected a clear expression of policy-intent and innovative implementation strategies are probably disappointed with the end-product. The new scheme does little by way of increasing the government’s financial commitment on the ground; and that the new guidelines have little new to say about institutional convergence on the ground or about enhancing sustainability of the outputs of this programme. It must be mentioned though that the guidelines acknowledge the need for quality with references to a ‘toilet unit with a superstructure’—and for this they must be appreciated. However, there is very little clarity on how this new avatar of the sanitation campaign will be operationalized in the field

More here