Kishore Chandra Deo, the new Union minister for tribal affairs and panchayati raj, is emerging as the voice of conscience in the Manmohan Singh government. One of the most respected parliamentarians, he seems all set to speak for people’s rights when they come in conflict with corporates and mining companies. Excerpts from an interview to Saba Naqvi:
As a new minister, you have taken a position that some may describe as anti-corporate.
I have not taken an anti-corporate position. I have taken a pro-tribal stand. I am not against mining per se, but you can’t do mining by ousting people who have been staying there for centuries. I am here to protect people’s rights.
There is a perception that Jairam Ramesh was removed from the environment ministry because he was blocking certain big projects. The PM has publicly admitted that he had to overturn certain decisions. So, are you becoming the new pro-people voice of conscience in this regime?
Corporate interests cannot override people’s interests. Specially those living in very abject conditions, are very poor and have been exploited for centuries and whose voice has not been heard. My job is to take care of their interests.
"The Forest Rights Act is not a bonanza for distribution of forest land. It was introduced to recognise the pre-existing rights of forest-dwellers."
There is a view that the Manmohan Singh government is dominated by neo-liberals who are interested only in growth, and POSCO, Vedanta, Balco are powerful companies with deep pockets and interests. Can your ministry really block their interests?
In tribal areas, one of the historic legislations UPA-I achieved was the Forest Rights Act. This Act has not been understood properly. It is not a bonanza for distribution of forest land. This Act was introduced to recognise the pre-existing rights of forest-dwellers. My priority will be to see that this Act is properly implemented. I would like to emphasise that the Act does not give the dwellers the right to sell their land. It does not give them the right to fell timber. People think it allows a sort of loan mela where tribals can be persuaded to distribute and sell all their lands. I want to specify this is not so. Any proposal to sell tribal land has to be taken by the gram sabha and this means the entire village. The panchayati raj ministry is also under me, so we can have clarity on this. We have to be clear that we can’t have a contrived resolution of the entire village to sell, it has to be a genuine decision. Today if you catch tribals by the scruff of the neck and throw them out of the forest, they have no proof to show that the land is theirs. So if you have to give them land for land, or compensation, or a share in the mineral wealth, you have to first give them some basic rights. So my priority will be to see that the Forest Rights Act is scrupulously implemented and that a genuine gram sabha must meet for decisions.
As far as POSCO goes, some promoters are saying that there are hardly any tribals who are protesting, so it’s not a tribal issue you should speak on...
Even if it’s not a tribal issue, that is no argument. Non-tribals are also poor people who cannot be forced out of their land.
Has there been any reaction or pressure after your remarks on POSCO?
No, what I have said is not against POSCO. But I have spoken for the people.
"The gram sabha has to take up any proposal to sell tribal land. It has to be a genuine, not a contrived, decision of the entire village to sell.”
Your positions may be surprising some colleagues in government...
(Laughs) No, I have absolutely no restraints on me. I don’t think the PM wants growth without taking care of social sectors and the Congress president has clear positions on some issues. We need growth but it can’t exclude certain sections.
Can the tribal affairs ministry veto certain decisions of other ministries?
As far as environmental clearances are concerned, in forest areas I feel it should be mandatory for the environment ministry to first insist that there has been compliance with the Forest Rights Act. Only after that should they consider other grounds for clearance.
That will effectively shut down all new projects...
(Smiles) Let them first give people their rights, then consider giving away their land. I will talk to the PM also about the importance of the Forest Act.
Do people actually intend to do mining or do they just trade on the basis of land and permissions that state governments give them?
Yes, yes, exactly, that is the problem. I think there is a need for a national mineral policy today. I personally feel minerals have to be declared a national wealth. And if you are going to use it for your country’s development, then preserve this wealth. But do not hand out leases where a few get rich quickly. That is not on. Minerals are not meant to be exploited to fill the pockets of a few. And we can’t deny that is being done in many cases. Today many countries in the world are preserving minerals and we are in a very nascent state of development where we keep handing out mining permits.
"Declare minerals national wealth. And use it for the country’s development, don’t hand out leases where a few get rich quickly. That’s not on."
What has gone wrong in states like Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand? Is the exploitation through mining at the heart of the Maoist problem?
Basically, it is the abject poverty. These areas have not been developed at all. That has led to a certain frustration which is quite natural and we have to blame ourselves for that. Under these circumstances, pattas are just given to corporates who want to oust these people. Naturally then, there is bound to be a reaction.
I think there has been an over-eagerness on the part of some state governments to go with these kinds of projects. Probably they think it will give them development. My question to you is, does this development exclude the category of people who you want to throw out?
You are from Andhra Pradesh. Do you think the Congress has mishandled the Telangana issue?
I think right now talks are going on with MPs and MLAs from Telangana. I have no position on Telangana. I am not a fanatic either way, so whatever the leadership decides I’ll do. But I have another view that all the big metro cities should be made union territories. Delhi already is. Mumbai, Calcutta, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad all have central government establishments, educational institutions and are IT and business hubs. I don’t believe Mumbai belongs only to Maharashtrians or Hyderabad to any particular group. I personally believe that the tussle over Telangana could also be a struggle to control Hyderabad.
Your report on the cash-for-votes scandal is still making news. Besides what you wrote in the report, what do you think actually happened?
It was very confusing and vague. But from the evidence we had, there was nothing very clear. At the same time, we could not say everything was hunky-dory and nothing had happened. So we recommended further investigation of Sanjeev Saxena, Sohail Hindustani and Sudheendra Kulkarni. When we spoke to Sudheendra Kulkarni, he very loudly and proudly proclaimed he was the mastermind behind it and was doing it to expose UPA corruption, but when we asked him for proof, he could not provide any and said the TV channel had betrayed him. We asked the TV channel if they had further evidence and they said all the tapes were handed over to the Speaker.
In the past, we have spoken about the changing nature of Parliament and business interests in parliament committees.
It is something leaders of political parties will have to take a call on. They have to use their discretion while giving tickets. All parties are now becoming aware of this, public awareness about corruption is growing and sooner or later checks will have to be introduced.