In Jharkhand, panchayat (rural administration) elections to democratically elect a mukhiya (panchayat leader) for local governance have been delayed for more than a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Earlier slated for December 2020, the government claims it is now prepared for holding the elections anytime this year. However, several Adivasi clans and their leaders in the state have vowed to boycott the elections alleging that the Jharkhand government has ignored the rights of the Adivasi people of the state for more than 20 years.

Their specific grouse relates to the poor implementation of Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension Schedule Area) Act. The Act, one of the strongest legislation supporting Adivasi communities, ensures self-governance through gram sabhas (village councils) in predominantly Adivasi areas that are categorised as Scheduled Areas under the Indian Constitution. Gram sabhas are non-political in nature and are formed traditionally in Adivasi areas based on the hereditary rights of the clans without elections.

In Jharkhand, the protests seeking proper implementation of Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension Schedule Area) Act, have received an impetus with the upcoming rural administration polls. On November 12, Adivasi outfits organised a sit-in protest in Ranchi, the state capital of Jharkhand, near the Governor’s House to raise their demands. Such protests still continue in different parts of the state.

“The tribal self-governance system has not yet got constitutional recognition in the state,” Serang Patras Gudia, 61, who has been presiding over the gram sabha at Kamra Barkatoli village in Torpa Block of Khunti district since the past 11 years, told Mongabay-India. “Often the panchayat head (mukhiya) becomes the owner of the village. We are against this. There are instances where the mukhiya and Block Development Officers are bringing schemes into the villages without the consent of the gram sabha.” He had been active in such protests too.

“The Act mandates that there should not be panchayat elections in the Fifth Scheduled areas,” said Serang while claiming that the local administration and the mukhiya had been interfering with their rights. “The government needs to implement the provisions of the law to secure our constitutional rights.” He cited the example from 2019 when gas pipelines were laid in the area, without the consent of the gram sabha.

Adivasi villagers protest for the implementation of Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension Schedule Area) Act at Jadui Akhada in the Khunti district. Photo credit: Sanjay Verma/ Mongabay

Florensis Gudia from the Torpa block echoed similar sentiments. “If the panchayat elections are announced, we will boycott it again as we did earlier,” he told Mongabay-India. Like Serang and Florensis, there are hundreds of Adivasi village heads who are against panchayat elections in their areas. The boycott of the panchayat polls and the demand for implementation of the law are being made simultaneously.

State’s Panchayati Raj Minister Alamgir Alam has blamed the Covid-19 pandemic as the prime reason for the delay in conducting of the panchayat elections. “We have tried twice conducting the panchayat elections twice so far but have not been able to because of the polls but due to the pandemic we could not proceed further,” he told Mongabay-India. “We are fully prepared for the elections. It is up to the election commission to announce the polls. We cannot tell the dates of the polls.”

Rules not framed

Jharkhand is one of the 10 Indian states, under the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution. These states have a predominantly Adivasi population. According to the Jharkhand government, the Adivasi population of the state is around 86 lakh or 26% of the state’s total population of 3.3 crore.

Around 75% of the Adivasi population in the state lives in rural areas and in the 12,164 villages of the state, more than half the population is from the Adivasi community. Moreover, 14 out of the 24 districts in the state come under the Fifth Schedule. South Chotanagpur is the biggest, among the five divisions of Jharkhand, in terms of Adivasi population. In the Khunti district, which comes under South Chotanagpur, 73.25% of the population is tribal.

The Adivasi community in these areas of Jharkhand is demanding a continuation of the traditional self-governance model in their areas – a model that Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 also advocates for. South Chotanagpur is the biggest, among the five divisions of Jharkhand, in terms of tribal population.

The state also has its own Panchayati Raj Law, 2001, meant to facilitate rural administration. On a question of how beneficial are the demands for the implementation of the PESA in addition to the state’s own Panchayati Raj Law of 2001, Sudhir Pal, Convenor of Jharkhand Van Adhikar Manch said, “Conducting the panchayati elections in Fifth Schedule areas is not anti-constitutional. In 1992, the Indian government came up with the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act, paving the way for three-tier of governance through panchayats. During the framing of the law, it was said that it would not be applicable to the Fifth Schedule areas. The question then is what laws will be implemented in these areas?”

“To address this issue, a Committee was formed under the chairmanship of Dileep Singh Bhuria,” he added. “This Committee submitted its report in 1994-’95. Based on this report, the Act was framed in Parliament. This law was an extension of the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act. According to the law, the states were entrusted with the task of framing rules for the conduct of elections in scheduled areas. The Jharkhand government has failed to make such rules till now.”

Pal said that the state government had framed its own Panchayati Raj Law in 2001. “The state government did not frame rules under the law before that,” he said. “This law also did not address the issue.”

“According to state law, panchayat elections should be held every five years,” he said. “However, the first such election was held in 2010. The law said that there would be gram sabhas in Adivasi areas and only an Adivasi can head such sabhas.”

“All the posts in the third tier of local governance would be filled by Adivasis only,” he added. “However, there were lacunae in the law that were problematic. The powers and identity given to the Adivasi people in Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension Schedule Area) Act were diluted through the state law.”

Adivasi village residents and local outfits protest demanding implementation of Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension Schedule Area) Act in Khunti district in Jharkhand. Photo credit: Sanjay Verma

Explaining further on the importance of Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act in the state, Sudhir Pal said, “In Scheduled areas, the law prohibits the land transfer, development and other works without the consent of the Gram Sabha. But the state government is doing everything in such areas without any consent. If all works are done as per the provisions of the law and the gram sabhas are given due importance, the panchayats and the government will work as per the mandate of the gram sabhas.”

When Mongabay-India questioned the State Panchayati Raj Minister Alamgir Alam, he cited his limitations on such matters. “I will not comment on this,” Alam said. “This should be asked to the Tribal Advisory Council. Tribal Advisory Council was framed for the welfare and protection of the tribal communities in the state. The Chief Minister of Jharkhand has been the head of the institution. Such matters should be put before the Tribal Advisory Council.”

The state government-owned Jharkhand Tribal Development Society claimed that in 169 blocks and 1,779 villages of the 14 tribal-dominated districts, where they are working, all the village heads are from the Munda tribe.

Self-governance model

The traditional Adivasi model of self-governance has been common over generations in the Adivasi-dominated villages of Jharkhand. Munda, Manki, Tana Bhagat, Parha Raja, Manjhi Pargana are traditional designations in such villages. They have special cultural and religious importance. There are no elections for such posts but it passes from one generation to the other. The head of gram sabhas is also selected through this model.

There is one Munda in one village. Manki lies above Munda in the hierarchy. One Manki controls many villages. It could be even 28 villages. According to the Manki-Munda Union from Kolhan Porahat in Western Singhbhum, Kolhan Division has 75 Mankis while it has 1,200 Mundas.

According to the Parha Council, there are 22 Parha Kings in Jharkhand in Gumla, Khunti, Western Singhbhum, Ranchi and Simdega. A Parha King is the head of many villages, which means that many gram sabhas come under them.

When asked if the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension Schedule Area) Act can safeguard the traditional practices of the Adivasi communities, Sudhir Pal said, “100%.”

“This law clearly says that the Union or state government should not frame such laws which are in contrast with the traditional, conventional practices, governance and traditional systems of the local communities,” he said.

Chandan Hanhaga, the General Secretary of Manki-Munda Union and Rejan Gudia from the Parha Council are now protesting against the proposed panchayat elections in the state.

“The rights of Munda-Manki are slowly getting diluted,” Hanhaga told Mongabay-India. “We have had our traditional system for several decades. Now the mukhiya has been presiding over the gram sabha instead of the Munda. All controversial projects are passed with the signature of the mukhiya. This has happened several times. Those who become mukhiyas work as per the whims and fancies of the government and the BDO.”

Rejan Gudia meanwhile talked about the case where the state government acquired 400 acres of land for a Knowledge City in Khunti. “In maximum cases, the consent of the gram sabha was not taken,” he said. “Through such actions, the power of gram sabhas are getting diluted and with the panchayat elections, there are apprehensions of more dilutions.”

Similar examples were also shared by Bineet Mundu, a researcher and Adivasi social worker. “There are several cases in Jharkhand where the land was acquired without the consent of the Gram Sabha,” Mundu told Mongabay-India. “Such cases were seen in Baghbeda-Chota Govindpur in Jamshedpur, Sarjamda in Singhbhum, Tikagarh, Pradhan Tola, Moiguttu and Kasidih. Similar is the case in Saraikela Kharsawa areas like Zariadih, Kuchudih and Naarbera. In such rural areas, in some cases, Sarna Masna [religious sites] and the farmlands, were taken away by the government without the approval of the gram sabha.”

Land issues

The protest by Adivasi communities on the issue of land has been continuing for decades. During the pre-independence era, the British government had to come out with Chota Nagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 and Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act of 1949. These are called historic for the Adivasi people and they often use these acts to protect their land. During the previous government in the state, which was led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Adivasi fought vehemently through the Pathalgadi movement, which is considered a big fight for them.

The previous government, however, had declared this as an act of sedition and had filed cases against more than 10,000 persons. However, the present coalition government of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Congress and Rashtriya Janata Dal government formed in 2019 announced the dropping of cases in the same year against those involved in the agitation. In March 2021, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren also approved the resolution of the State Home Department to take back such cases and moved the court into this direction.

In 2016, the previous BJP government had also come up with the scheme of creating land banks, against which the Adivasi communities protested en masse. According to media reports, 21 lakh acres of barren land were included in these land banks. These included three categories of land – playgrounds, grazing lands and village roads, second was the religious sites of Adivasi communities like Sarna, Desawli and Jahersthan while the third category included Adivasi land for which the Adivasi communities were supposed to get land deeds.

A Gram Sabha meeting in the Torba Block in Jharkhand. Photo credit: Md Asghar Khan/ Mongabay

Dayamani Barla, Convenor of Adivasi Moolvasi Astitva Raksha Manch told Mongabay-India, said: “Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension Schedule Area) Act not only entitles the people’s control over natural resources but also protects the constitutional values.”

“It gives us the right of equality and independence to live and claim equal rights on the land,” Barla said. “The law was framed 25 years back and the state was formed 21 years ago but it has failed to benefit the Adivasi people of the state. The state which was formed in the name of protection of Adivasi rights is still to give them their genuine rights. The community is still on roads demanding from the state their legal rights.”

She added that whoever ruled in the state acted against the interests of the Adivasi people when it came to Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension Schedule Area) Act and said that the plan to conduct panchayat elections in such areas as per the norms of the Jharkhand Panchayati Raj Act of 2001 is in contravention of the law.

Translated by Manish Kumar.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.