A weak understanding of PESA Act dilutes the powers of the traditional leadership system

One Day Workshop on Panchayat Extension in Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 and Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 was organised by Caritas India under Gram Nirman Project at Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh on March 11, 2019 and March 14, 2019 respectively for its Gram Niram partners.

The workshop critically reflected on the work done under the Gram Niram project in the context of PESA, 1996 and FRA, 2006. Total 89 participants (PRI and community members, village animators, traditional Pahans, program staff) from both the states actively participated in the program.

Since Gram Nirman has a rights-based approach, aligning project work with PESA, 1996 and FRA, 2006 is imperative as these two acts are not only fundamental but also revolutionary for preserving tribal identity and culture.

The approach of the workshop was collective with critical reflection on the work under Gram Niram project to focus the activities for building capacities of gram sabhas to implement PESA, 1996 and FRA, 2006.

Mr. Jhonson Topno and Mr. James Herenz, from Jharkhand and Fr. Satya Prakash and Fr. Stanislaus Tirkey from Chhattisgarh, experts on PESA and FRA explained that PESA ensures self-governance through traditional gram sabhas for people living in schedule areas (identified under the 5th schedule of the Constitution of India) so that the gram sabhas are able to retain their traditional way of working, their traditional identity, values and customs, their system of control over their resources (the village’s idea of resource which can include anything and everything above and below the ground) under the Panchayati Raj system. While issue-based meetings in tribal areas is not new, what is new is the integration of the PRI system with the traditional system of governance.

Mr. Johnson shared that a weak understanding and implementation of PESA at the village level has worked to dilute the powers of the traditional leadership system and despite being a very strong act to advocate for the tribal rights the act has not been used the way it should be.

While the traditional way of knowledge sharing was mostly oral integration of the PRI system in the traditional system means we need to bring a paradigm shift in the way we are working with the gram sabhas. Mr. Johnson said, “We need to build the capacities of the gram sabha to identify its needs and present those needs to the duty bearers through proper documentation. If we want to work with the government then we must follow robust evidence based written communication”. He narrated how his own organization has created village secretariats which have their own letterhead, their stamp, and the gram sabhas send letters and memos in-order to voice their concerns before the duty bearers.

Sharing about the FRA, 2006 Mr. James explained to the Jharkhand partners that FRA depends heavily on a strong, functional gram sabha as it is central to the process of implementation of the Act. The Act has been so made that without the approval of gram sabha, individual or community forest rights cannot be distributed. While there has been a lot of media coverage about the number of IFR claims have been rejected, hardly anybody knows this that if a certain claim has been rejected the concerned gram sabha should be intimated in writing about the rejection of claims. This has not been done yet. Mr. James, who is also the state convener for NREGA watch, presented an interesting case study on how gram sabhas which are weak do not question changes happening around them and tend to lose their resources to unscrupulous corporates. Through an RTI query, he was able to unearth severe corruption in the construction of a road affecting several people across several villages. As per Mr. James, “Gram Sabhas are sleeping giants. They are not aware of their strength. And this is our work to wake them up and make them aware”.

Fr. Satya Prakash highlights the basic facts related to these acts and motivate all stakeholder for effective implementation, he also put some historic points towards these acts. Fr. Stanislaus Tirkey placed his view towards better implementation as well as explained the relationship between Tribal and nature, also elaborate the importance of the acts for tribal community. Every resource person highlights the need and importance of gram sabha and suggested to move this main wheel first then only the whole system got speed up because both Acts depends heavily on a strong, functional gram sabha as it is central to the process of implementation of the Act. In the workshop community leaders and PRI members also share their experiences about the implementation of PESA and FRA.

The fundamental idea of the workshop was to make the participants aware about the need to strengthen the gram sabhas as per the PESA Act, 1996 so that the traditional system of governance does not become redundant due to the onslaught of the PRI system itself. The importance of Manki Munda system, the system of Mundari Khuntkatti needs to be reinforced through the strengthening of gram sabhas. The operational villages under the Gram Niram project are mostly tribal villages in schedule areas. Therefore, our work should be focused on aligning our activities to ensure successful implementation of PESA and FRA in our project operation villages.