In areas covered under the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA Act), municipalities cannot be created. However, in violation of this Act and without consulting the gram sabha " a mandatory process in these scheduled areas " the Vishrampuri village in Chhattisgarh's Bastar region became one of the villages to be declared a nagar panchayat in 2009.
A nagar panchayat is an area in transition from a rural to an urban one. On the face of it, this sounds like development, but the consequence was that the area actually became more deprived of benefits.
Higher status, fewer rights
In the gotul or the indigenous knowledge centre of Vishrampuri, its walls decorated with traditional musical instruments, a group of young and old village representatives gathered to tell the story of the village. Jagat Markam, a youth active in raising awareness about community rights in the area, said, "The nagar panchayat that was formed was a group of 14 villages, each with a population of above 1000 people. All block headquarters were ordered to be changed and the gram sabha was never consulted in all this."
People needed infrastructure facilities at the village level, but they were forced to travel seven to eight kilometres to avail of them. Ramcharan Shourie, sarpanch of Birapara, added, "Nagar panchayat aane ke liye nadi jungle paar karke aana padta tha (We had to cross rivers and forests to reach the nagar panchayat office). We had to take permission to build a house. We did not get work that we would have been entitled to under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). We also lost rights under the housing welfare scheme. Additionally, we had to pay property tax even for kutcha houses. With 15 wards, we were the biggest nagar panchayat in the area, and we were suffering."
Some of these places did not even have electricity. Where available, people had to pay higher unit charges, per city council rules. The patel, the elderly head of the community in Vishrampuri, Saru Thakur, explained, "Ours is a rural area of farmers and labourers heavily dependent on forest produce. We are not rich people."
Whatever few benefits came to the nagar panchayat were claimed by those who were influential or better off financially. In an interview held in his house, Fool Singh, a teacher in the village, said, "Even the street lights were installed close to the houses of such influential people. The budget had to be divided among many villages, so naturally, most of the villages never got to see much of it. In fact, common people were scared to approach the panchayat office because the moment they came forward, they would be asked, 'Makan tax pataye ho ki nahin?' (Have you paid property tax?) These taxes were no meagre amounts but went as high as Rs 25,000 - 30,000. How can an ordinary person pay this much?"
A collective decision, and efforts at change
When the nagar panchayat was formed in December 2009, Kishan Pandey, the head of the nagar panchayat nominated by the administration, was not from an indigenous community. This upset people further. "It was not just about us adivasis," Jagat Markam, who is also a member of Koya Bhoomkal Kranti Sena, a youth group working for indigenous rights, asserted, "Dalits, Other Backward Classes " all groups were against this." What about dissenting voices who wanted Vishrampuri to remain a nagar panchayat? "Those who disagreed were the ones who would have benefited from tenders and contracts as a result of the formation of the nagar panchayat."
The first election in the panchayat was held in December 2010. But the villagers got the elected head, Suman Markam, removed through a no-confidence motion. A re-election took place, but once again, the rest of the village representatives voted the elected head out of power.
The residents of Vishrampuri felt that while they needed the development of basic infrastructure, they could avail of it only if they were small. They started organising gram sabhas to tackle the issue and proposed that they get their nagar panchayat status cancelled, and instead have the area divided into five gram panchayats.
They wrote to the collector and the governor underlining their rights under the PESA Act and a delegation of 20-25 people met the governor in 2014. Thousands of villagers staged a chakka jam in front of the tehsil. "Even cyclists could not cross," Fool Singh recalled with pride. The road block continued for four to five days. An RTI application was filed asking about the status of the villagers' demand to change Vishrampuri back into a gram panchayat. When there was no reply, thousands got into trucks and went to meet the administration in Kondagaon to show that the majority of residents were not in favour of the nagar panchayat. Finally, the administration had to relent and issue an order in October 2015 for the dissolution of the nagar panchayat.
Relief at last
Once Vishrampuri became a village again, each individual village that had been put in the Vishrampuri cluster started getting its due. Santu Ram, ward panch from Birapara, stated in the meeting at Fool Singh's house, "Now finally we are getting work under MGNREGA. Toilets are being built. We can benefit from the Pradhanmantri Awas Yojna, and have anganwadis for our children. We also get assistance for repairs, for zameen marammat. If there are repairs to be done on our farms, we can get government assistance." Because of the equitable budget allocation that could now be implemented across particular villages instead of a whole nagar panchayat, a village like Raunaguda finally witnessed its first bridge and electricity connection being put in place, in 2017.
When Vishrampuri was a nagar panchayat, the residents felt powerless. "But now," said Fool Singh with a smile, "it is the villagers who are powerful again, not officials and contractors."
This transformation came at a cost. Jagat Markam and Ramsharan Shourie had to face police cases, which the villagers say were pushed by those insisting that Vishrampuri should retain its newly acquired status as a nagar panchayat. After fighting for about a year or so, they were acquitted.
There were also other irreparable losses. Rangeelal Markam, the mukhia of Parsadih village, earlier a part of the nagar panchayat said, "A man whose family had been living on a piece of land and farming it for 70-80 years got evicted because the place was suddenly declared government land. His house got bulldozed and he was unable to rebuild it even after the nagar panchayat got dissolved." Still, despite these losses and the FIRs they had to fight, the villagers seemed equally determined in their resolve to resist any further attempt at making Vishrampuri a nagar panchayat again.
After Chhattisgarh became an independent state in 2000, it started transforming a number of villages to nagar panchayats. But Vishrampuri remains an example of a village where people came together in large numbers and put up a strong resistance for years till they could reclaim their rights under the PESA Act and the development schemes that every rural area deserves.