WHICH GOVERNMENT department addresses injustice done to tribals in the country? Tribal rights activists from Chhattisgarh have been trying to solve this conundrum for a year now. Their efforts have resulted in a huge pile of official communication explaining one thing: no department wants to take responsibility.
Lakshmi Chauhan, who works among the tribal communities in Chhattisgarh, began his quest a year ago when he came across the plight of tribals getting affected by an expansion project of a coal mine. A public sector company wanted to acquire land belonging to five villages in Korba district.
So, when the company began pushing for the acquisition process in late 2011 without taking the tribals into confidence, Chauhan knocked on the doors of Chief Minister Raman Singh, asking him to safeguard tribal interests in accordance with the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA). The Act makes it compulsory for project developers to take the gram sabha’s consent in matters affecting villagers.
In response to the letter written to the chief minister, the Korba district administration wrote that the state government can direct the company acquiring the land, South Eastern Coalfields Limited (SECL), to implement the law. The state, however, did not take any action.
Distraught, Chauhan wrote to the Union law ministry and the tribal affairs ministry enquiring about the agency responsible for the implementation of PESA. Both the ministries transferred his application to the Chhattisgarh government and other ministries, including the panchayati raj ministry. In its reply, the ministry quoted from PESA, saying that the due process has to happen at the state level.
Meanwhile, Chauhan’s application kept on moving between various departments of the Chhattisgarh government until the panchayat and social services department gave up in July 2012 explaining that answering Chauhan’s query does not come under its purview.
This lackadaisical attitude by the state government allowed the district administration to go ahead with the land acquisition for the expansion of the coal mine in January. The district administration did so despite knowing that the implementation of PESA was still pending.
Chauhan has now filed a public interest litigation in the Chhattisgarh High Court, asking for the responsibility of the Central and the State agencies to be established in implementing the law. “The state government implements PESA only when land is acquired under the Land Acquisition Act. Under the Coal Bearing Areas Act, that isn’t guaranteed,” he says.
PESA, enacted in 1996 for nine tribal-majority states, has been ignored to such an extent that only three states — Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan — have made rules to implement it. “If any specific instances of violation are brought to my notice, I will take action,” says Union Tribal Affairs Minister KC Deo.
A delay in expansion of the mine, which is one of the largest in India, can exacerbate the coal crisis. The mine has exhausted its potential and is stuck in a lengthy acquisition process since 2001.
“There are two pieces of land and the expansion is taking place only where the panchayat has granted its approval under PESA,” says Korba District Collector Rajat Kumar. “We are very clear about differentiating between the two, and have demarcated the areas where we have permission to go ahead and where we have not.”