B.D. Sharma

Activist officer

Print edition :

B.D. Sharma, former IAS officer and social activist. A 2012 photograph. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Brahm Dev Sharma (1929-2015), a lifelong champion of tribal rights, will be missed most keenly by the Gonds of Bastar.

B.D. SHARMA devoted his life, at least his years in service and thereafter, to the cause of tribal welfare and tribal development, as it is called from time to time. The advocacy of the cause of tribal people was his main focus. He devoted his service tenure, as Collector of Bastar district in Madhya Pradesh and later the term of his posting in the Central government, to issues of tribal welfare and development.

He was instrumental in bringing back on the national agenda the Fifth Schedule as a vital instrument for the very survival of the tribal people. He was responsible for the formulation of tribal policies, particularly what is known as the “sub-plan” strategy. The concept of tribal self-governance, which acknowledges the competence of the village community to manage its affairs according to its customs and traditions, was embedded in the PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas) legislation, to which he had made a major contribution. As Chairman of the Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes Commission, he impressed on the State Governors their final powers regarding tribal rights enshrined in the Sixth and Seventh Schedules of the Constitution.

After retirement, B.D. Sharma formed Bharat Jana Andolan, a platform of people’s movements, and continued to advocate the causes of tribal people and participated as an activist in their struggles. He was an active participant in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). He regularly joined their meetings to interrogate the State’s rehabilitation policy and its implementation in relation to the Sardar Sarovar interstate irrigation project on the Narmada river. On his petition about the rehabilitation of the displaced, the Supreme Court gave a decision that the dam could be filled up only six months after the rehabilitation of the displaced people in areas of their choice. The court said: “Rehabilitation should be done so that at least six months before the area is likely to be submerged, rehabilitation should be complete in respect of homestead, substitution of agricultural property and such other arrangements which are contemplated under the rehabilitation scheme.”

In November 1990, B.D. Sharma wrote a letter to the Supreme Court urging the formation of a National Commission for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes and proper rehabilitation of the people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam. This letter was entertained and treated by the court as a writ petition under Article 32 of the Constitution. In 1991, the court gave a direction to constitute a committee headed by the Secretary (Welfare) to monitor rehabilitation. B.D. Sharma also made important contributions to the study of tribal people and their problems as the Vice Chancellor of North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU).

In recent years, the structured civil service in India, particularly the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), has seen two types of officers. The first group is of those who go by the rule book, take no sides and keep their feelings to themselves in dealing with matters at work. In fact, they work without fear or favour or partisanship. Needless to say that even this group generally does, and is expected to, use its powers and discretion to interpret rules and instructions in favour of the poor and vulnerable and not of powerful sections, even when the law is formally in favour of the latter.

My husband, Mahesh N. Buch, often quoted the case of the moneylender in Betul district of Madhya Pradesh (where he was Collector in the 1960s) who had come to claim his dues from a loan that he had given to a tribal person. The borrower had told the British officer posted there of how much he had already paid to repay the loan. The officer realised that this was a case of usury, but the law at that time did not recognise this as an offence. The officer recorded that as the law stood, he had no option but to decree in favour of the moneylender for repayment of Rs.200, but he fixed instalments of Re.1 a year for 200 years without any further interest.

It will be interesting to quote the recorded remarks of this officer, J.G. Bourne, who had gained immense popularity for his caring attitude towards tribal people, recorded by him as Deputy Commissioner and ex officio judge of the Small Causes Court in the predominantly tribal district of Betul in what was then Central Provinces and Berar: “I know that the plaintiff is a usurious moneylender who ruthlessly exploits the tribals. I am also convinced that the defendant is right when he says that the loan has been repaid many times over by way of bonded labour. However, I am bound by the law and rules of evidence and in this case the plaintiff has maintained a record and the defendant has no receipt of repayments. Under these circumstances I am bound to decree the suit and hereby do so. However, regarding payment it is ordered that the loan will be repaid in interest-free instalments of one rupee a year” (M.N. Buch ; When the Harvest Moon Is Blue, Har Anand Publications, 2008, pages 56-57).

The second group of officers are those who in the recent past have taken up the cause of particular population groups—tribal people, Dalits, minorities, the poor, and so on. Sometimes, they do so because their personal experience in early life or their interactions with some such group in their area of work makes them aware of the needs of particular population groups. B.D Sharma, who had studied mathematics, came from the Gwalior region of Madhya Pradesh. His posting exposed him to the conditions of tribal people in Bastar. Perhaps the stark contrast between prosperous Gwalior and poverty-stricken Bastar influenced his decision to focus on tribal issues.

The first group of officers is by and large ruled by the head, their decisions being only marginally tempered by the heart. The second group, to which B.D Sharma belonged, is guided substantially by the heart. In a way, B.D. Sharma followed J.G. Bourne’s example but in a very different time and context and therefore with different results. As, for instance, in the case of the marriages of tribal girls to Bailldilla officers. A number of these women ended up in Nari Niketan, a home for deserted women.

Are such officers, committed to better the lot of particular population groups, actually able to help them as much as they want to? Would they have achieved greater success had they not been perceived as the messiah or deliverer of such groups?

It is a question worth some serious thought, for such officers come to be seen as spokespersons of tribal populations and not as fair, responsible and objective officials carrying out their duty to deliver welfare or development services.

B.D. Sharma belonged to the IAS cadre of undivided Madhya Pradesh to which, besides myself, my late husband and my brother-in-law Girish Buch also belonged. All three of us had close interactions with him as friends, cadre mates, predecessors, successors and as part of teams working on the same issues. Mahesh handled the Tribal Welfare Department, though not for a very long period. He was known more for his experience and expertise in urban planning, environment and citizens’ issues. Girish Buch succeeded him in Bastar as Collector and handled the aftermath of marriages of tribal girls to the NMDC officials who B.D. Sharma believed had sexually exploited them when they were working in their households. I succeeded him in School Education. In all these places we had to contend with his critics and with those who had been behind his removal. We witnessed how honest efforts were misperceived because they affected vested interests.

My last experience of working with B.D. Sharma was in Bastar, in securing the release of Alex Paul Menon, Collector of Sukma in Bastar division of Chhattisgarh, who was kidnapped by naxalites in 2012. B.D. Sharma had come as interlocutor for the naxalites, along with Professor Haragopal from Hyderabad. I was approached by the Chhattisgarh government to negotiate from the government’s side.

I could see that B.D. Sharma was there primarily for his love of Bastar and concern for the local tribal people and wanted a conclusion to get on with their welfare and peace. The 10 days of negotiations, I must admit, could finally be concluded peacefully and honourably with the release of the Collector, a process aided by B.D. Sharma’s positive approach.

He and I shared our commitment to democratic decentralisation. He contributed to the concept of PESA legislation, focussing on special tribal ethos in local governance and tribal traditions, primacy to gram sabhas and smaller habitation-level consultations. Even in our discussions for Alex Paul Menon’s release, he repeatedly brought up his concern for tribal rights over local resources and prevention of their exploitation by influential people from outside. His heart was in the right place and, I suppose, that is what mattered.

B.D. Sharma will be missed by his many friends, but his loss will be felt most keenly by the Gonds of Bastar.

Nirmala Buch, an IAS officer of the undivided Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Chief Secretary in the Madhya Pradesh government.

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