India’s history of organised “democracy” goes way back in time. While the post-independence political transition witnessed democratic values and institutions enshrined at its very foundation, historical accounts suggest that such a system has previously existed in India, albeit in different shapes and practices.
The Padaha system of Oraon tribes, for instance, has long had an arrangement of organised gatherings, the election of leaders and “institutions” of economic planning. Also, there were provisions for the distribution and allocation of power. Such systems make for an important ingredient of the cultural identity of the groups that they belong to.
India is home to a significantly large number and diversity of tribes. According to the 2011 census, tribal people constitute 8.6% of the nation’s population, counting over 104 million. A large part of this population still resides in closed habitats and Scheduled Areas, as identified by the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution.
Suffering previously from the colonial operation, the Scheduled Tribes often find themselves marginalised under modern systems of engagement. The loss of access to forests and displacement due to rampant land acquisition for developmental projects have contributed to their vulnerability and further isolation in the system.
The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act or PESA was introduced in 1996 for ensuring self-governance through traditional Gram Sabhas for people living in the Scheduled Areas. Through PESA, the 73rd Amendment or Panchayati Raj Act provisions were extended to 10 states with a predominantly tribal population.
The core of the law is to recognise and empower tribal institutions to implement Panchayati Raj in tribal areas, giving them the right to address and resolve their issues. PESA prohibits the government from passing laws that may violate these rights or go against their cultural establishments.
The Act of 1996 also gives legal recognition to ethnic claims of tribes to their lands. PESA provisions empower the Panchayats and Gram Sabhas at appropriate levels to implement an arrangement of self-governance around subjects such as customary resources, minor forest produce, minor minerals, minor water bodies, selection of beneficiaries, sanctioning of projects and control over local institutions.
The idea of self-governance alongside social and cultural safety nets bears a resemblance to the long-standing systems followed by the tribes, thus, comforting them out of their fears around the modern, “alien” system of engagement.
India’s population composition is extensively diverse and constitutes sections that differ across numerous lines of status and identity. Thus, the vision for a collective, all-round development must acknowledge and establish a system of flexibility. For the marginalised communities, our institutions must respect and protect their cultural and ethnic conventions while also empowering them to decide the pace and precedence of development.
The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 provides for a similar addition by establishing rights for the tribal population to be the “guardians” of their people and habitat.