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Reality Check Of The Sixth Schedule In The North East

Image : Representational Purpose Only
Image : Representational Purpose Only

The scrapping of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 of the Constitution and its reorganisation into two Union Territories has created some concerns in the north east about the future of the Sixth schedule areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura and the special provisions under the article 371 applicable to the states of,Nagaland (371A), Assam (371B), Manipur (371B), Sikkim (371F), Mizoram (Article 371G) and Arunachal (371H). Shri Tarun Gogoi, former Assam chief Minister and a section of the north east media have expressed their apprehension about the future of these protective provisions though as of now it seems to be unfounded.

However it may still be useful to give a hard look at the Sixth schedule from a 21st century perspective and make an appreciation of how well it had served the tribal interest, preserved the tribal way of life ;and whether it would enable the tribal societies to meet the challenges of modern economy and knowledge society emerging from the fourth industrial revolution in the background of the climate change.

The roots of the Sixth schedule lie deeper than probably any other region specific administrative arrangement in the Constitution and may be traced to the expansion of the colonial power to the ” North East frontier” of Bengal, that is the sub Himalayan region beyond Brahmaputra and Surma valleys. These borderlands were inhabited by tribes never under any outside authority and tribal chiefs managed their societies under customary laws and their interaction with the plains was limited to purchase of salt and some commodities by way of barter. This was first recorded in Regulations X of 1822 as follows: “There exist in different parts of the Territories subordinate to the Presidency of Fort William races of people entirely different from the ordinary population and to whose circumstances therefore the system of government established by the General Regulation is wholly inapplicable.” However, after success of Tea in Assam and Jute in Bengal the resources of the tribal areas- timber, coal, limestone motivated the colonial capital to open up the region from the early 19th century even when the complexities of the tribal societies were being studied; and out of this emerged a policy to strike a balance between tribal identity and autonomy to provide administrative cover to the ” extractive colonial economy”.

This led to several protective and area specific laws such as Garo hills Act 1869, the scheduled districts Act 1874, Bengal Eastern Frontier Regulation Act 1874 (Inner Line Regulation), Assam Frontier Tracts Regulation 1880 and Government of India Act 1919 . Section 52A of the GOI Act 1919 declared certain areas of the north east ” backward tracts” which the Government of India Act 1935 continued as ” Scheduled areas”, Excluded and Partially Excluded areas covering all the administrative units which were notified later – 6 areas under Part A and 2 under Part B of the Sixth schedule as it was first enacted in the Constitution.

Thus the recommendations of the sub committee of the Constituent Assembly on the NE Frontier (Assam) Tribal and Excluded areas under GN Bordoloi which led to Sixth schedule may be seen as a part of the evolutionary process of the administration of the North East tribal areas. In this sense the Sixth schedule is a class apart and not a ” transitory” part like the Article 370 of the Constitution.

The Sixth schedule has also been regarded as a model for tribal governance in the north east and its extension to Tripura in 1988 and to Bodoland Territorial Administrative District of Assam in 2003 by constitutional Amendments to meet the aspirations of the Bodos and Tripura tribals demonostrated. One must recall in this connection Pandit Nehru’s dictum of” hastening slowly” in introducing changes in tribal societies- an idea he took from the British anthropologist, and tribal activist Verrier Elwin’s pioneering work – A philosophy for NEFA-(North East Frontier Agency) in which Ellwin argued that rapid and thoughtless changes in the north east tribal areas would do immese harm to the tribal way of life and their ethos. And this has been the founding philosophy of the Sixth schedule.

Notwithstanding this position, the fact that it’s about seventy years now after enactment of the sixth schedule,it is time to give a hard look at some of its core provisions to see how it really impacted the tribal way of life and achieve its objects.

Under the sixth schedule, the Autonomous District councils and the Regional Councils enjoy powers to legislate on 10 wide range of subjects which include land and its principal uses, minerals , water use and Forests other than the Reserved forests, village and town administration, Regulation of trading and money lending by nontribals and the power to levy taxes.

The Autonomous Councils are also responsible for administration of civil and criminal justice in matters involving tribals by application of customary laws ; and appoint judges to preside over the courts set up by the Councils. Some Autonomous Councils like the Dima Hasao Council ( earlier North Cachar Hills District Council) in Assam enjoy additional powers in matters such as trade,commerce and industries, public health and secondary education which made other two “empowered councils”of Assam in Bodoland and Karbi Anglong autonomous districts also ” virtual sub states”; because except public order all develelopment and other regulatory functions have been devolved to these 3 councils by amending the provisions of the sixth schedule and grant of a special Development package. The Autonomous Councils of Mizoram and Tripura have been also strengthened. It may be noted that in the report of the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution headed by Justice MNR Venkatschaliah submitted on March 31 ,2002 , measures to strengthen the administration of the Sixth schedule areas were recommended by introducing village self government and accountability.

However apart from these legal and governance issues we must also note that over the last three decades of economic reforms capitalism and especially in its “extractive” form has spread rapidly in” resource rich Sixth schedule states like Meghalaya which has transformed the economy, created a new class of tribal entrepreneurs keen to get rich quick by extracting coal, limestone, sands and timber with no care or concerns about damage such actions would cause to the environment and the livelihoods of fellow tribals. The tribal ” bourgeoisie” would typically invest in real estate and in assets like any other such class such as hospitality, shopping Mall etc.

In Tribal dominated states, it’s no longer a society or economy of the period when the Sixth schedule was framed. The transformation is most pronounced in Meghalaya and to a lesser extent in Mizoram, Nagaland and other Hill states characterized by gross income inequality among the tribals- a subject ignored by the social science researchers of the region and a change in the structure of the state economy.

In Meghalaya today, the share of mining and industries is 28% and services 56% which shows that the economy has diversified and no longer dependent on agriculture. However, this growth is not sustainable as the huge environmental and social costs it entails are not factored in the calculation of the Net State Domestic Product. Rather the over all situation in all sixth schedule areas is dismal in terms of loss of forest cover, river pollution caused by mining, unplanned urbanization, steep rise of crimes of greed and violent ” identity politics”.

While ” recalibration of the Sixth schedule is the conventional wisdom, a discerning observer might as well suggest a complete review- a subject which was not addressed by the National Commission to review the working of the Constitution from environmental sustainability and climate change perspective as the functioning of these Councils shapes the state policies and together accorded the Sixth schedule areas features of what D. Acemoglu and JA Robinson called ” the extractive state” in their fascinating study – Why nations fail : and signs of failure are already there in the North East.


( The writer is a retired IAS officer of the Assam – Meghalaya cadre and has served as Scientific Consultant in the office of the Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India)

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