With elections due in some states, it is a good season for the tribals as chief ministers queue up with promises and schemes for their ‘empowerment’. The Rajasthan chief minister is enthusing tribals through schemes that provide food, water, jobs. Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister has announced that all collections from the sale of Minor Forest Produce (MFP) would be given to the tribals and this will elevate the forest dwellers and workers from mazdoor to malik (workers to owners). All of this sounds good.

The bad news, however, is that these are promises made in expedient times. One recent precedent has been set by the Kerala CM who could not hold on the promise of distributing land to the Advasis, leading to a violent upheaval and avoidable deaths. The problem with all such promises is that they are made as if the mechanism to honor them is well in place.

Nothing could be farther from truth. Take the recent promise of maliki (ownership) of MFP to the tribal forest dwellers in Madhya Pradesh. Anyone who knows the administrative and legal regime governing forest produce in the state knows that mazdoor to malik is easier said politically than done on the ground. Apart from the total lack of awareness in the villages of the new policy pronouncements, it is the Joint Forest Management committees controlled by the forest departments of the states that regulate and manage the MFP in the state. Tribals in great numbers recently thronged the Rajasthan capital asking for food, water and jobs. Even as new schemes are launched for them, the Rajasthan State Scheduled Tribes Advisory Council last month strongly underlined the need for effective implementation of the existing schemes. Here again, only if the state could have given effect to one small piece of legislation the need for more schemes could have been obviated. The law in point here is the Provision of Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA).

The Constitution of India, through its 73rd Amendment, paved the way for a separate and progressive legal and administrative regime for tribal areas to usher in genuine tribal self-rule. The framework was laid down by PESA, a law enacted in pursuance of the constitutional mandate in 1996. All ten states with tribal areas were to adopt this law within one year.

Perhaps the most progressive law passed since Independence, the PESA, was to enable the gram sabha, ie, the collectivity of village adults, and gram panchayat to take control of their destinies. It empowered villages to protect community resources, control social sector functionaries, own minor forest produce, manage water bodies, give recommendations for mining leases, be consulted for land acquisition, enforce prohibition, identify beneficiaries for poverty alleviation and other government programmes and have a decisive say in all development projects in the villages.

Here’s what Rajasthan did with the law. It adopted the law but took three years in doing so, after PESA came into being in 1996. It then affirmed all provisions of the law in principle, but made their applicability subject to framing of rules or “as may be prescribed”. Those rules then refused to come and only last year some feeble perceptions began to surface, primarily through revocable official circulars. The operative provisions not being in place, a promising radical law has been redefined as a sterile paper law.

This degeneration of the law and its mandate is not confined to Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh also the provision in PESA that “ownership of minor forest produce” is to be vested with the gram sabha has been applicable for more than five years now. It is not surprising that in the recent ‘Jangal mein mangal’ show, there has been no talk of the fact that this initiative is not a bold new attempt but a small way of implementing one of the provisions of a lost law. It is precisely the failure to take PESA out from the books and on to the ground that has prompted over 200 villages in Rajasthan to declare themselves as ‘gaon ganrajya’ (village republic), doing for themselves what the state couldn’t do. The ganrajya movement in Rajasthan is a reminder that time might be running out for formal law and policy framers to redeem themselves. It is time government delivers on the promises it makes—promises that would provide lasting solutions through an enforceable rights regime, not mere listless paper schemes.