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Poll promises: Political parties 'playing down' need to retrieve and restore adivasi land

By Palla Trinadha Rao* 

The Scheduled Tribes population of 10.43 crore constitutes 8.6% of the population in the country inhabiting 26 States and 6 Union Territories. Parliament elections along with Assembly elections in some states have been notified this year.
This is the time to hear the demands of adivasis loud and clear. This is also the time to oppose the national or regional political parties who do not strongly voice on the concerns of advasis in their poll promises.
The constitutional provisions specifically provided under Fifth Schedule to the Constitution and the PESA Act are to be extended to all left out the habitations where STs are the major social group in all the States in the country by notifying them as Scheduled Area. This includes the 10 States where Scheduled Area has been notified as well as other States.
The demand for inclusion of nearly 540 habitations across 30 sub-plan mandals in Andhra Pradesh, 240 villages in Telangana and 2133 tribal habitations, 5 Gram Panchayats and 2 wards in Kerala in the Scheduled Area is are long pending for several years. It is the responsibility of both the State and Union Governments to meet the long pending demand of adivasis.
The Gram Sabha is the fulcrum for local governance, including over land and forest under the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Area Act 1996 (PESA) as well as Forest Rights Act 2006 (FRA). 
The role of Gram Sabha is hijacked, sometimes sidelined by the administrative apparatus in the process of recognition of forest, land rights of adivasis as well as in payment of compensation in lieu of loss of their rights over their resources during acquisition of land, and diversion of forests for both private and public sectors.
Establishment of structure patterned on the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution at the district level in the Scheduled Area under the State law as required by PESA has never been a part of the political agenda of any political parties so far.
All the State and Central laws falling within the purview of PESA subjects are to be amended or nullified to be in conformity with PESA.
For example, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act, 1957, the Indian Forest Act, 1927, the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016 and the Indian Registration Act, 1908 and national policies such as the National Water Policy, 2002, National Minerals Policy, 2003, National Forest Policy, 1988, and Wildlife Conservation Strategy, 2002 etc., Similarly State laws concerning Excise, Revenue, Minor Forest Trading Regulations, Irrigations etc.
The demand of the adivasi groups is that a State level monitoring committee headed by the Chief Secretary of the States shall be constituted to monitor the operationalisation of the Gram Sabha as envisaged under different statutes.
There is a robust demand across the country for mapping of Community Forest Resources (CFR) and their recognition as the jurisdiction of the Gram Sabha. Over 40 million ha of forest land in the country is to be brought thus under the governance of Gram Sabhas’ democratic institutions. Where the village falls within the Scheduled Area, the CFR area is to be added to the Scheduled Area if not within.
While the provisions of PESA covers the rural areas in the Scheduled Area, there is a legal vacuum in the municipal areas. This has created a constitutional crisis in about 181-200 municipalities where the general municipal laws are applied in violation of the 74th Amendment to the Constitution.
More that 50% of the lands in the Scheduled Area is under control of non-tribals in Telangana as well as Andhra Pradesh
The State governments are also taking undue advantage of the situation by upgrading the Gram Panchayats into municipal urban bodies thereby nullifying PESA Act and Article 243 ZC of part IX A of the Constitution. There is an urgent need to enact the Provisions of the Municipalities (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act. Though the draft law was introduced in 2001 in the Parliament, the Central government is dilly dallying on enacting the law.
The incursions of non-tribals to the Scheduled Area continue without respite and any restrictions under any law. The infiltration of non-tribals to Scheduled Area is paving the way for exploitation of livelihood sources of adivasis and pushing them to margins.
Reports indicate that more that 50 percent of the lands in the Scheduled Area is under control of non-tribals in Telangana as well as Andhra Pradesh despite tribal protective land transfer regulations 1 of 70. Adivasis in Scheduled Area is rapidly becoming a minority.
Numbers tell the story. Of the 640 districts in the country, STs are a majority of over 50% in 110 districts, 20 to 50% is 87 districts and 10 to 20% in another 74 districts. 104 districts have Fifth Schedule areas of which 36 districts are fully notified and 68 are partially notified.
External forces and capital through different projects including tourism projects are making inroads into the Scheduled Area changing its character undermining the rights of adivasis and their cultural identity.
While so, the religious forces are extending its tentacles to the tribal areas of the country, vying with each other in extending their religious beliefs undermining the traditions and customs of adivasis who worship mother nature unlike the mainstream religions.
No political party is coming out strongly with any poll promise to ensure that illegally occupied lands would be retrieved and restored to the adivasis in the Scheduled Area, and if required these non-tribals will be resettled outside the Scheduled Area.
The mainstream vote bank poll agenda is overshadowing the voices of adivasis. When it comes to the tribal land question, all political parties having the same vested interests, flock together and undermine the land rights of adivasis.
Therefore it is the need of the hour to use the power of votes to challenge and overturn the vested interests and anti-tribal forces in the country.
*Tribal rights activist and lawyer


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