There was a time when India’s North-East as we understand today did not exist. From Khyber Pass on the Durand Line in the west, right up to the Three Pagodas Pass on the Burmese border with Siam (now Thailand), it was one huge landmass of a country. The promulgation of the Government of India Act 1935 saw the independence and administrative separation of the Union of Burma, bringing the border closer home. But even then, the entire area under reference was just one huge province of Assam, with its capital at Shillong.
After Independence there was a drastic change in the geography of the area with access getting severely restricted. While the entire territory was surrounded by a few thousand kilometers of international borders, within our own country only a narrow belt, just about 25 km wide, connected it to West Bengal. Later, when several states and UTs were carved out, this area began to be addressed as the North-East instead of just Assam.
While the Constituent Assembly in 1949 was debating the provisions for tribals in general, it was Rev. Nichols Roy and Gopinath Bordoloi who took up the matter very forcefully for Assam. In fact they are the real architects of the special provisions in the Constitution in the form of the Sixth Schedule meant for the tribals of Assam. While Bordoloi had stressed that most of the tribal customs of village administration were of an inherently democratic character and had to be preserved, Nichols Roy felt that any outside imposition would be detrimental to the prevailing culture and lifestyle.
Both felt that the best interests would be served in case they were allowed to develop their own system of administration at the local level, as per the prevailing practices and customs within the framework of the Constitution. This finally led to the addition of clause (2) to Article 244 for the tribals in this area of Assam, including the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills areas.
The first signs of strain appeared soon after the state of Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in 1972. Hitherto, the Sixth Schedule areas were only a small portion in the larger state of Assam, but after the creation of Meghalaya, it was realised that the State administration also had to administer only those areas as mentioned in the Sixth Schedule, besides the Cantonments and municipal boards. This situation prevails even today.
These identical jurisdictions have over a period of time led to a situation where narrow political competitiveness often dictate and dominate the investment decision for development. The State Assembly, as per the provisions of Section 12 of the Sixth Schedule, pertaining to Meghalaya, has overriding powers in legislative matters over the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs). In certain areas, this has pitted the MLAs against the members of the ADC under the Sixth Schedule.
At one time, it was felt that the autonomous councils needed to be disbanded in view of the full-fledged state having been created to look after the interests of the very tribals covered in the Sixth Schedule. The idea was later abandoned as in the absence of any conventional village Panchayats, the Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) served a very useful purpose at the grassroot level of administration. According to Article 243 of the Constitution, the Panchayat system does not exist in Meghalaya and hence the importance of ADCs to fill this major gap.
Despite a very extensive role envisaged for the ADCs in the Constitution, financial support is extremely inadequate. The State Government, for various reasons, mainly political, does not disburse the funds in time, or insufficiency. Many a time the local MLA and the local member of the ADC are seen vying with each other to claim credit for the projects accomplished.
Insufficient funds with the ADCs, besides lack of administrative control, impact the developmental process in the rural areas adversely. Under Article 243-I of the Constitution, the State is required to notify a State Finance Commission, but this is not being done as stipulated and at times there is considerable delay. ADCs thus sometimes get a step-motherly treatment in matters of finance, particularly if the MLA and the member of ADC are from different parties.
Yet another anomaly is the issue of dual membership. In the normal course an elected MLA should not be an elected member of the ADC, and vice versa; this should attract disqualification. There are cases in which the MLA finds it useful for his constituency to also continue as an elected member of the ADC, without giving up the membership of the other.
Constitution of the Municipal Boards has also not succeeded, as the civic interests of the people continue be taken care of by the traditional councils headed by Nocmas and their counterparts in Dorbars etc. Customary laws, as such, do not have any scope for constitutionally elected bodies at the local level. Absence of elected municipal bodies had become an impediment to the grant of funds under the JNURM. The prior condition of elected civic bodies, for the grant of funds, under this scheme was asked to be waived. When the Government at one stage decided to go ahead with municipal polls, they had to backtrack in the face of serious violence.
In a PIL filed by one Pawan Sharma in the Shillong bench of Guwahati High Court (as it then was), the State Government was directed, about twenty years ago, to hold the election to the Shillong Municipal Board within two months. This however could not be implemented. The Municipal Act needs to be amended where the Dorbars and traditional bodies should be given an important statutory role, only then perhaps it would become a more acceptable proposition.
Another important feature, now a part of the Constitution as the Xth schedule is the antidefection law. This also needs to be made applicable to the Autonomous District Councils.
The electoral rolls for election to the Autonomous District Councils are to be prepared as per the prescribed norms, but in fact, contain a very large number of omissions. As such omissions are never appealed against, the arrangement continues, with large numbers unable to exercise their franchise.
Despite the Sixth Schedule being a part of the Constitution, keeping in view the complexity of the area, the amending procedures were kept very simple. According to Clause 21 of the Schedule, an amendment to the Sixth Schedule could only be done by Parliament, but it would not be a constitutional amendment, and would not attract the provisions of Article 368.
As the financial, functional and administrative difficulties continue to hamper the pace of the development process, it is high time that a comprehensive review of the Sixth Schedule is undertaken for amendments and the Autonomous District Councils in Meghalaya are further strengthened.
The writer was Governor of Uttarakhand and Meghalaya, a member of the UPSC and Commissioner of Police, Delhi.