Assam embarked on an experiment of decentralization of powers by granting tribe specific autonomous councils starting with the creation of Bodoland Autonomous Council in 1993 by enacting the Bodoland Autonomous Council Act. 1993 as per the Bodo Accord signed on February’ 1993, between Act Government of Assam and the representatives of ABSU and Bodo Peoples Action Committee.
The concept of village centric contiguous area without a defined boundary was borrowed from the recommendations of the Bhupinder Singh Committee which recommended constitution of village councils, regional councils and apex councils for the Bodo and the Mising communities on the north bank of the river Brahmaputra.The committee named the apex councils for the Bodos as Gojou Jothum and the apex council for the Misings as Bane Kebang.
The recommendations of the Bhupinder Singh committee was rejected by both the Bodo and Mising leadership. However after the formation of the Bodoland Autonomous councils, other ethnic groups such as Rabha-Hasong, Mising, and Lalung stepped up their demand for similar autonomous councils.
After several rounds of discussions with the representatives of Rabha- Hasong Demand Comq’hteejakam Mising Porin Kebang, Mising Mimag Kabang, Mising Bane Kebang, Autonomous Lalung District Demand Committee, All Tiwa Students Union,the State government led by the Chief Minister Hiteswar Saikia a entered into memorandum of settlements with the parties accepting their demand for constitution of separate autonomous councils for Rabha-Hasong,( 10.3.95) Mising ( 14.6.95)and the Lalungs on 13.4 1995.
The Rabha Hasong Autonomous Council Act was passed and received the assent of the Governor on iulv’,, i 1995 while the Mising Autonomous Council Act and the Lalung Autonomous Council Act, 1995 received the assent of the Governor on October 27, 1995. Thus four autonomous councils were created during the Chief Minister ship of Hiteswar Saikia. Another three autonomous councils were created hastily during the fag end of the first term of Tarun Gogoi as Chief Minister in 2005 with an eye on the next election.
These were the Deuri Autonomous Council, Sonowal Kachari Autonomous council and the Thengal Kachari Autonomous Council. The memoranda of understanding known as Deuri Accord and Sonowal Kachari Accord were signed on March 4, 2005 while the Thengal Kachari Accord was signed on the August 10, 2005.
The Deuri Autonomous Council Act, the Sonowal Kachari Autonomous Council Act and the Thengal Kachari Autonomous Council Act were passed in the same year. The original concept was to create tribe specific autonomous councils with villages having more than 50 per cent the specific tribes as per the accord or the MOU entered between the Government and the parties.
However, the basic characteristics of the autonomous councils underwent change with the Memorandum of Understanding known as Deuri Accord,Sonowal Kachari Accord and the Thengal Kachari Accord.As’per the MOUs villages having 50 per cent or more ST population and not tribe specific population were to be included in the proposed autonomous council areas.
The reservations of seats in the General Council of these autonomous councils were also made for the ST and not for a particular tribe. Only in respect of Deuri Autonomous Council 5 out of ten seats in a village councils were to be reserved for Deuri Community. The Mising, the Tiwa and the Rabha Hajong Autonomous Council Acts were also subsequently amended replacing ST for the specific tribes.
Therefore the tribe specific autonomous councils became autonomous councils for the Scheduled Tribes which was not the intention when the idea of autonomous councils were conceived. The villages within these autonomous councils could not yet be identified even after lapse of more than a decade. All these Autonomous Councils had government nominated Interim Executive Councils and elections could not be held so far though the MOU in respect of Deuri,Sonowal Kachari and Thengal Kachari stipulated holding of elections within six months of signing the Accords.
The Executive Councils responsible for administration of the autonomous council areas did not have the mandate of the people and not accountable to the people. Such an anomalous position was created and perpetuated by the State government for purely political consideration. As the Bodoland Autonomous Council ceases to exist, we would not discuss BAC any further and our discussion with the other existing six autonomous councils.
The MOU with the Mising. Lalung and the Rabha Hajong contained a provision which was violative of Art 243 (M) of the Constitution of India. Clause 5(a) of the MOU stipulates that the provision of the Assam Panchayat Act, 1994 and the Assam Municipal Act 1994 shall not be applicable to villages included in the respective Autonomous Council areas,whereas under Art 243(M) of the Constitution, areas covered by fifth and Sixth Schedule of the Constitution and States of Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram.
Darjeeling Gorkha Hills Council are only excluded from operation of Part IX of the Constitution relating to Panchayats. The Accords entered into in 2005 did not contain such a provision excluding the operation of Assam Panchayat Act and Assam Municipal Act within the Autonomous Council area.This provision has emboldened the Rabha Hajong Autonomous Council to stop Panchayat elections in the Rabha Hajong Autonomous Council Area.
Once the village Councils are constituted after election, conflict between the village councils and the Gram Panchayat is bound to arise due to overlapping of functions of these two elected bodies. Clear demarcation of functions and jurisdiction sdiction would be necessary. The M0U for Mising, Lalung and Rabha-Hajong provided for a general council with 30 members and an Executive Council with one Chief Executive and three Executive Members. But when the Mising Autonomous Council Act was passed the number of members for the general Council was increased to 40.
The provision relating to the Executive Committee was also enlarged by subsequent amendments to provide for one CE and 7 EMs in respect of Mising Autonomous Council and one and 6 EMs in respect of Lalung and Rabha-Hajong Autonomous Councils. The Deori Autonomous Council has 20 member General Council with 1 CE,1 Dy CE and 1/3 member of the General Council as EMs (amounting to 6).The Sonowal Kachari Autonomous council has a General council with 30 members while the Thengal Kachari Autonomous Council has a General Council of 26 members.
This clearly showed that the Autonomous Councils inherited a top heavy administration so that more leaders could enjoy the spoils of power. Members to the General councils in all the autonomous Councils are to be elected. As elections to any of councils have not taken place so far all the office bearers of the Councils were nominated by the Government. The Autonomous Councils are therefore not elected bodies responsible and accountable to the people-an anachronism in the age of democracy. The Lalung Autonomous Council became Lalung(Tiwa) Autonomous Council by an amendment in 1996 and Tiwa Autonomous Council in 2001.
The State Election Commission was made the authority to conduct elections in the Lalung Tiwa Autonomous Council by an amendment in 2001 which was also not in conformity with the Constitutional provision as the State Election Commission was authorized to conduct Panchayat and Municipal elections only. This was subsequently rectified by another amendment in 2008.However,till now the state government has not notified the authority which would be responsible for conducting elections in the six autonomous councils.
As a result of this, village councils in all the autonomous councils could not be formed depriving the grassroots level democracy to function. The three councils namely the Deuri, Sonowal Kachari and the Thengal-Kachari were formed in 2005 to placate the smaller tribes to satisfy their demand for separate identity without considering the feasibility of the councils. Out of the total population of 12 per cent tribal in Assam the Deuris constitute only about 2 per cent of the tribal population whereas Thengal-Kacharis were never enumerated separately in the Census figures.
The population of Thengal-Kachari is estimated to be more or less equal to the Deuri population as per expert demographer. It would be a Herculean task to identify the Thengal-Kachari villages. What was the need for two separate councils; one for the Sonowal Kachari and the other for a Thengal Kachari? The working of the Autonomous Councils in Assam also invites criticism from sections of the tribes for whose benefit the Councils were created.
The commonly labeled criticism is misuse of funds.During 2005-06 a sum of Rs 33 crore was provided under the plan for all the six autonomous councils which had been increased to Rs.93 crore in 2008-09. Fund for the welfare of the community is used by the Chief Executive Members and the Executive Members at their own discretion without any transparency.Huge sums are spent in salary,TA and vehicle hire by these functionaries.
The Interim Councils are loaded with people who are hobnobbing with the Minister I/c but do not enjoy the confidence of the people. Though 34 subjects are transferred to the Autonomous Councils, the officers are not directly responsible to the councils. Therefore implementation of any scheme is bound to suffer. In view of inherent difficulties the Autonomous Councils have failed to live up to the expectations of the tribes for which it was meant.
If this innovative experiment in decentralization of power is to succeed, then the government must identify the villages to be included in the respective Autonomous Councils, notify the authority to conduct elections to these councils to form elected village councils general council and elected Executive council, make clear demarcation of responsibility between the Gram Panchayat and the village Council, Zilla Parishad and the respective Autonomous Councils. If there is transparency and accountability, the Autonomous councils would improve their functioning.
Otherwise, the Autonomous Councils would remain a breeding ground of disaffection and corruption. The Bodo Autonomous Council during its ten year of existence could not fulfill the aspirations of the community.A group continued its armed struggle culminating in the second Bodo Accord in 2003 and constitution of a Bodo-Territorial Council under Sixth Schedule of the Constitution of India. The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council is more or less defunct and a fresh agitation has started demanding a separate Gorkhaland State.
The Central government, the West Bengal Government and Subhas Ghising agreed to a Council within Sixth schedule of the Constitution, but the new leadership has rejected the agreement and ousted Subhas Ghising from leadership. In Assam another Bodo militant group-NDFB which has agreed to a cease fire and talk with the Central Government probably would not be satisfied with the existing Bodo Territorial Council.
It appears the Autonomous Councils have also failed to fulfill the aspirations of the ethnic groups for whom such council was created but prove the adage that power corrupts and whet the appetite for more powers. Now that the Autonomous Councils are no longer limited to look after the welfare of a particular group of tribals but Scheduled Tribes population as a whole, the need for six separate Councils for the same objective should be relooked.
Plethora of organizations to look after the welfare of the ST such as Assam Plains Tribe Development Corporation, the Assam Tribal Development Authority and the six Autonomous Councils may adversely affect the delivery system and prove counter productive unless their respective areas of work and jurisdiction are clearly spelt out and demarcated.
(The writer is former Home Commissioner, Assam)