THE SCHEME OF GRANTING AUTONOMY TO SOME LOCAL TRIBES IS FLAWED IN CONCEPT AND PRACTICE, WRITES RANGAN DUTTA
The modern concept of citizenship that ensures citizens fundamental rights was first introduced in the Constitution and was, indeed, a revolutionary measure. During British rule, Indians were the Crown&’s subjects, not citizens, as evident from facts such as limited franchise, lack of protection against inequality and injustice. Even in the princely states there was no attempt to grant citizenship.
Regrettably, even after six decades of freedom, the implications of citizenship for development have not been realised. This compelled Parliament to insert a chapter listing fundamental duties of citizens under Article 54(a) of the Constitution and, later in 1976, by the 42nd amendment and to which a further amendment (86th) was added in 2002, making it the duty of every parent or guardian to provide an opportunity for education to his/her child or ward between the ages of six and 14.
Significantly, duties under Article 51(k) include development of scientific temper, humanism, spirit of enquiry and reform — an unusual feature not found in most constitutions — promotion of harmony and common brotherhood amongst all the people of India.
The citizen, therefore, is central to the Constitution and a perusal of the criteria of citizenship under Chapter 2 of the Constitution indicates liberal provisions designed to expand and not to restrict citizenship so as to include many eligible persons of “Indian origin” as citizens, meaning persons whose parents or grandparents were born in India as defined under the Government of India Act, 1935. Read together, these feature citizenship, fundamental rights and duties and democracy, provide the opportunity to citizens to participate fully in the political process without any hindrance and to contribute to development.
The right to move to any part of the country to pursue a vocation or duty assigned to the state under Article 40 to organise village panchayats and endow panchayati raj institutions with powers to function, as not bodies of local self-government, are provided to create a condition conducive to socio-economic development.
The development experience of post-World War II suggests that economic development is both a product and a process in the sense that while the former is quantifiable in terms of GDP growth, its real impact on development is seen only when the process is inclusive and results in progressive improvement of all sections, alleviation of poverty and availability of development services to the common people. The process has to carry every citizen, regardless of differences in ethnicity, language or religion. If we look at the events in the North-east from this perspective from the 1980s, the inescapable fact is that the region&’s development over the three decades has not produced as yet a societal eco-system opposed to insularity. It is strange that the region now has 17 universities and one Central university in every state — a distinction no other region enjoys — and a number of engineering and medical colleges, and yet a liberal outlook or scientific temper has not been created and sectarian ideas seem to have no problem in gaining a constituency.
Democracy is essentially a citizen-centric system and all-round development of the citizen is the stated objects of all policies. In the North-east, however, state policies have resulted in a steady erosion of rights of citizens that has gone unobserved. To cite a recent case, Assam&’s decision to create autonomous councils in plains districts to meet their aspirations under state laws has caused recurring violence in the Rabha-Hasong autonomous council areas in Goalpara district and simmering discontent in other such places. This scheme of granting autonomy to some vocal tribes is flawed in concept and practice.
After the 73rd amendment, which accorded constitutional status to panchayati raj institutions to enable zilla (revenue district) parishads to function as the local self- government, there is no scope to create an autonomous council within the same district with special powers and rights only for tribes who are just another part of the local citizenry and that, too, a minority group. Since panchayats are constituted on adult franchise, they have acquired the status of local self-governing institutions. The present policy is to transfer not only development funds but also functionaries to the zilla parishad so that it emerges as the district government with the power to prepare and implement district development plans as laid down in the Constitution.
Thus, the superimposition of the autonomous councils in a district is sure to make the scheme of local self-government under the 73rd amendment unworkable due to a conflict of jurisdiction and a duplication of schemes that would result only in wastage, confusion, corruption and the perpetuation of laggard development. The violence in the Rabha-Hasong area on the issue of panchayat election is the product of this misconceived policy that has pitted one group of citizens against others.
The word “autonomy” exists in the Constitution only in respect of the autonomous district councils under the Sixth Schedule. The issue is whether an elected zilla parishad subsumes these councils, and as it does not because a zilla parishad enjoys a constitutional status while the autonomous councils have been set up under state laws, there will be no way to harmonise the two systems and the continuation of the dual system would not allow either of the two to succeed. Apart from destabilising the rural society, this arrangement would go against the letter and spirit of the 73rd amendment. The real sufferer is the citizen who is on the wrong side of the power structure because his/her rights and claims on the state stand relegated to a lower order. He/she is reduced to a “second class” citizen while paying taxes and contributing to the GDP and will not develop any real stake in the state. Talk of inclusive growth is meaningless in this environment and movement of capital, technology, skills and entrepreneurship will not be forthcoming.
The development experience in the 1970s and 1980s of several sub-Saharan African countries shows that no development is possible if a group of citizens is reduced to resident workers. If the North-east is to avoid this experience the divisive politics for short-term gains must be avoided and an enabling environment must be created for all citizens to give their best and achieve inclusive growth. It is not too late.
The author, a former Assam cadre IAS officer and scientific consultant in the office of the PSA to the GOI is presently a Principal consultant to the International Co-operative Alliance-Asia –Pacific, New Delhi