The environment ministry will not clear any mining in forest areas unless local village councils give their consent, Kishore Chandra Deo, minister of tribal affairs and Panchayati Raj, said in an interview. A Congress leader from Andhra Pradesh, Deo took charge of the two ministries in July. He said the revival of village councils is the best way to ensure larger people’s participation in governance Edited excerpts:

What are the new initiatives you have taken in the ministry of panchayati raj?

As far as the Panchayati Raj ministry is concerned, my actions were to ensure that the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) are strengthened. Many of them do not have proper infrastructure. I have been writing to the state governments. Under the MGNREGA scheme, 2% has been allotted for buildings, out of which 75% is given by the central government. I would like this to be extended to every panchayat on a 50:50 basis, for which I have sought clearance from the Planning Commission. On the same share basis, I would like to give them three personnel—an accountant, a panchayat secretary and a technical person or a junior engineer. Unless these three are in place, it is very difficult for a panchayat to function effectively. I want all panchayats to be connected by broadband. I have been told by the ministry of telecommunications that this would be achieved by 2014.

Another thing I am very particular about is to ensure that the gram sabhas (village councils) become more effective. Gram sabha is an entire village body consisting of all the voters. Generally gram sabhas take correct decisions when it comes to a common cause. It will also ensure transparency, and corruption will be minimized. In fact, I have already sent a circulation to all states that there should be at least four compulsory gram sabhas—on 26 January, 1 May, 15 August and 2 October—and have also asked them that all gram sabha meetings should be video-graphed and state government representatives should be present. Once it is done, you cannot contrive gram sabha resolutions.

What’s the status on the implementation of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) law?

When the Act was passed, it was a dream come true for forest dwellers. Of the rules framed, some negate the very purpose of the bill. Some condition in the act makes the forest dwellers prove that they have the rights on it. About 14 lakh claims have been recognized, but as far as I am concerned, more appalling thing is that an equal number has been rejected. I want to change some guidelines and I have finalized some of them. I have issued orders also and now it is with the ministry.

The 13th Finance Commission report, which the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) has accepted, has given thrust to a third tier—panchayat and municipalities? What has the ministry done to implement it? How will you ensure the implementation of it without hurting the federal nature?

The 13th Finance Commission has recommended more financial powers and the 73rd amendment (of the Constitution) also has said 29 items have to be devolved. The devolution of three Fs—funds, functionaries and functioning. This has not been done satisfactorily. Ours is a federal structure and to what extent I have to go, I have to get it legally examined. Each state is expected to pass its own Panchayati Raj in compliance with the 73rd amendment. I cannot implement them directly. As far as funds are concerned, the only fund I have in this ministry is the BRGF (Backward Region Grant Fund), which does not even go to all districts and all other funds are routed through the ministry of rural development. I am constrained even to say funds won’t be released unless you comply.

One major complaint against NREGA was the absence of skills for capacity development? What are you doing about it?

As far as capacity building is concerned, especially with the BRGF, half of the fund goes for developmental work and rest is meant for capacity building. We have these SIRDs (state institute for rural development) in some states. I have suggested these SIRDs could allow the ministry of Panchayati Raj to have its extensions there so that we can use it for capacity building. My colleague Jairam Ramesh (minister for rural development) has accepted it and we will be signing an memorandum of understanding (MoU) for it. Under the MoU, we will be able to have our own building in the same campus or an additional floor to the existing building, where we can train people for PRIs. Recently we have sent all 40,000 elected panchayat raj people to be trained in SIRDs.

In a recent interview you expressed anger and anguish over the functioning of the public sector units (PSUs). Who is responsible for it? What can be done to make PSUs successful?

As far as PSUs are concerned, this is something I felt during my tenure as the chairman of the committee on public undertakings. It is okay with the government to have some kind of policy guidelines for them and also, since it is public money, they have to be answerable to Parliament also. But day to day interference is something that should not be there. You cannot directly or indirectly interfere in its administration.

Do you agree with the view that there is a policy and governance paralysis because of the scams and controversies involving the UPA government?

Paralysis is not because of the corruption scandals. It comes and government deals with it. It’s a parallel process. But I think basically this inertia is because of various political parties that are in the government. They have different ideologies and differences to the policy. The numbers matter a lot in a parliamentary democracy. I would not say coalition compulsions are stalling the governance totally, but to an extent.

The budget session is to begin in March. What’s your expectation for your ministry in the budget?

I am expecting more money for my ministries. The only fund available for tribal affairs ministry is through article 275 (1), and this has not changed for 10 years. Apart from this, I would like to have special funds for some backward areas and some discretionary funds have to be there for the crucial areas like education, health, etc.

With the government effectively removing the concept of go and no-go zones and projects to be awarded on case-to-case basis in mining, will it not affect the indigenous people?

As far as the indigenous people are concerned, I have some points. They are the people who are living in that area. Nothing can be done as far as their land is concerned until the Forest Rights Act (FRA) is implemented because there is no basis for their issues of compensation to be raised. The environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan has responded positively to it. Unless there is a total clearance on FRA, no clearance would be given by the ministry of environment and forests. Even after the total compliance of the FRA, in the scheduled area where Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) is extended, the Gram Sabhas have to give full consent. PESA clearly states gram sabha for this purpose means not the village council but the village itself. Nothing can be done without these two.

How will you strike a balance with most of the coal-bearing areas falling in tribal-inhabited areas?

After all these are for development. Development for whom? These people are the most deprived, oppressed for centuries. So for the developmental purpose, if they are going to be ignored, what kind of development is that? Getting coal for energy is fine. But for that if these people have to be thrown out and left to starve, it is not acceptable to me.

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