Manuguru, a small town in eastern Telangana, set a record in April 2022 collecting Rs.1.59 crore in property taxes. It even made it to the list of top performing municipalities in the State by achieving more than 95 per cent of its annual property tax collection target. However, the fact is that Manuguru, in Bhadradri Kothagudem district, does not have an elected body and its very existence as a municipality is questionable.
Until May 31, 2005, Manuguru was a panchayat in a Fifth Schedule area under the Constitution, which provides special protection to tribal people, when the government of undivided Andhra Pradesh converted it into a municipality. (Panchayats in Fifth Schedule areas lose their special safeguards when they are “upgraded” to municipalities.) “The State has no legal capacity to do this,” said Palla Trinadha Rao, an advocate and tribal rights activist in Andhra Pradesh.
The formation of the municipality was challenged in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh. An order was passed in an interlocutary application in the original case in 2005, suspending the formation. However, the municipality continued to exist and the legal challenges were cited as the reason for not holding elections since 2005. Since then Manuguru’s right to collect taxes has been challenged in court many times.
Telangana State, which came into being in 2014 with the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, extended its municipal laws to Manuguru. This was challenged again through fresh writ petitions. Petitioners have used the orders passed in 2005 in subsequent cases to challenge the conversion and property tax collection in 2017 and 2020. The High Court site shows the original 2005 case to still be pending, and the interlocutory application to be disposed of.
In 2019, the Telangana Municipalities Act formally notified Manuguru as a municipality. This change resulted in the local gram panchayat losing the powers granted to it under the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, (PESA). The Act empowered gram panchayats in Fifth Schedule areas to protect the customs and cultural identity of tribal people and, most importantly, manage community resources such as land.
The push for urban local bodies in Fifth Schedule areas such as Manuguru undermines the right to local self-governance guaranteed by the Constitution. Such conversion of scheduled land is said to be occurring across the country.
The ‘illegal’ municipality
Manuguru is situated more than 300 kilometres from Hyderabad, between the Godavari river and the Dandakaranya forests. The Manuguru Municipal Council (MMC) is located in one corner, its presence made visible across the town by its name plastered on posts, pillars, and benches. In the absence of elected representatives, Manuguru is now run by officials of the Telangana Municipal Administration and Urban Development Department.
“The population in Manuguru qualifies it to be a municipality,” said K. Madhavi, Special Commissioner in charge of the municipality. Its population of 32,091 exceeds the threshold of 20,000 needed for an area to be converted into a municipality under the Telangana Transitional Area and Smaller Urban Areas (Fixation of criteria) Rules, 1995. Nearly 25,000 of those residents, however, Madhavi said, were tribal people. But the Manuguru municipality website puts the figure at 4,992.
The non-tribal population in Manuguru, hailing from Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, and Maharashtra, is mostly employed by the public sector Singareni Collieries Company Limited (SCCL) and the Heavy Water Plant (Manuguru). The SCCL has been operational in the region since the 1920s, and the HWP is the largest heavy water production facility in India.
K. Tukaram, the MMC bill collector responsible for the record property tax collections, explains that the tax rates of a grade three municipality like Manuguru are far lower than those of other municipalities but higher than that of a panchayat. “It could be five times more for the same 100 sq ft structure,” he said.
According to MMC officials, the presence of mining and industrial units necessitates a municipal council in Manuguru. The MMC undertakes civic services such as sanitation, water supply, and waste collection. Tractors, tankers, and a funeral wagon, parked on the MMC’s premises, are said to be at the service of residents. However, they allege that these benefits seldom reach them.
“Even villages five kilometres from the town have been included in the municipal area,” said Karne Ravi, 34, a tribal resident of Manuguru, and one of the petitioners in a legal challenge pending before the Telangana High Court. Such inclusion, the tribal people claim, is meant to numerically justify the conversion. The municipal limits also include settlements of tribal people relocated from lands acquired by the SCCL. Ravi cites Mallepally, Yeggadigudem, Padmagudem, and Pilot Colony as examples of such relocated settlements.
Kotha Kondapuram or New Kondapuram, less than 2.5 km from Manuguru, is one such resettlement colony. In 1996, the old settlement, which was 20 km away, was relocated to its present site near the banks of the Godavari for SCCL’s open cast mines. Katti Boiena Kottaya, leader of the tribal settlement of 47 relocated families, said the settlement was proof of a history of broken promises. “They took 15 acres from us promising us jobs and gave us six acres,” said Kottaya, 86.
After the resettlement, the SCCL provided Kotha Kondapuram drinking water supply and other civic services. But this may end soon. “They are now saying the municipality should provide water and other facilities,” said Hari Krishna, Kottaya’s 30-year-old grandson. “We are also excluded from the 100 days’ work,” said Kottaya, referring to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. Launched in 2006, it is applicable to gram panchayats and excludes urban local bodies. Villages within the municipal area protested when the conversion was announced. However, nothing came of it.
Kotha Kondapuram, like many villages under the MMC, has also never had a gram sabha—a right guaranteed to tribal people under PESA. “Under the panchayat, we had local ward members and a sarpanch who we could approach with our problems. Now with the municipality, there is no way to raise our problems,” said Kottaya.
Fifth Schedule provisions
Manuguru was one of the over 80 mandal panchayats in Telangana that met the Fifth Schedule requirements. Nine other States with considerable tribal populations, among them Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra, have such areas. Telangana has a tribal population of 9.3 per cent or 32.87 lakh according to Census 2011.
One of the criteria to qualify as a scheduled area was a tribal population of 50 per cent or more. Bhadradri Kothagudem is one such Fifth Schedule area. The Governor has the power to restrict transfer of land in these areas. Further, under the Constitution, panchayats and municipalities cannot be established in Fifth Schedule areas.
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The PESA Act has many empowering provisions, which include the creation of special panchayats called PESA panchayats in scheduled areas. Section 4 (i) of the Act requires that before any land acquisition the gram panchayat should be consulted. But once a municipality is notified in an area, there is no provision for a panchayat or gram sabha to exist. This affects the applicability of other pieces of legislation as well.
For instance, Section 41 of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (LARR), makes the prior consent of the gram sabha or panchayat mandatory. But “protections under LARR 2013 are effectively stripped when a gram sabha ceases to exist”, said Shomona Khanna, a Supreme Court lawyer.
The Telangana Panchayat Raj Act, 2018, and other State laws contain the prior consultation clause. All of these laws are circumvented by the MMC’s continued existence. “The State government has no idea on how to proceed,” said K. Sarath, an advocate in the Telangana High Court. Sarath represents Karne Ravi, among others, in writ petitions filed in 2017 and 2020 against Manuguru’s conversion and tax collection. “Under the existing laws, the State government does not have the power to upgrade gram panchayats into municipalities in scheduled areas. This can only be done through Parliament,” he said.
Porugu Srinah and Aalim Koti of Adivasi Hakkula Parirakshana Samithi (Tribal Rights Protection Council), whose members were among the first to raise a legal challenge to the conversion in 2008, reiterated the same point. “Scheduled areas function directly under the Governor and the President, whereas municipalities work under State governments,” said Aalim Koti and asked how this could be unilaterally changed by the State.
“Officially, Manuguru is not even a municipality,” said Ravi. The earlier stay on its conversion still remains, but the municipality is collecting tax, fees, and user charges. “Is this not contempt of court?” he asked. On November 26 last year, Ravi wrote to Telangana’s Chief Secretary and eventually to the Vice President’s secretariat. Nothing happened. There has been no update in the four writ petitions filed either. Praveen Kumar, the legal representative for MMC in the cases, refused to comment.
Obstacle for the State?
The Manuguru municipality website states that no building permissions have been issued by the urban local body owing to restrictions in place for tribal areas. The Land Transfer Regulation Act 1 of 1970, called the 1/70 Act, bars transfer of tribal land to non-tribals in the scheduled areas of Telangana. On the ground, however, lease agreements with tribal people, called white paper agreements, serve as a workaround.
“Manuguru has become a town in four years,” said K. Veerababu, Mandal Parishad Development Officer of Manuguru Rural. “But the new houses mostly belong to non-tribals.”
Bellaiah Naik, vice-chairman of the All India Adivasi Congress, said scheduled areas were seen as an obstacle for the State. According to him, the State governments do not implement Fifth Schedule restrictions as it prevents industrialisation. “There is an attempt to take over large sections of tribal lands,” said Podem Veeraiah, the tribal MLA from Bhadrachalam, the nearest town to Manuguru.
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Bhadrachalam, like Manuguru, was left without an elected body for 30 years until 2013, when an election was finally held. But the impasse resurfaced after its term ended in 2018. Bhadrachalam was a tribal-dominated temple town, but since the 1980s has also been known for ITC Bhadrachalam, said to be the largest site for pulp and paper production in India. Ranga Reddy, a committee member of the CPI(ML) Praja Pandha Party in Bhadrachalam alleged that in 2009-10 there was an attempt to give an additional 2,000 acres to ITC. The attempted conversion, he claimed, was part of an effort to further weaken existing protections and make it easier for the corporations.
“The political system helps non-tribals to systematically take over,” said Sonde Veeraiah, 52, of the Gondwana Sankshema Parishad, a Bhadrachalam-based tribal rights organisation. Veeraiah, who filed a public interest litigation petition in the Telangana High Court asking for elections to be held in Bhadrachalam, said the political process was driven by non-tribal interests.
With a significantly higher non-tribal population in the town (more than 90 per cent), the call for it to be converted into a municipality finds more support in Bhadrachalam. Such conversions come with clear fiscal gains for the State in the long term. In Telangana, as in other States, property tax forms the main revenue source for municipal bodies. Municipalities can also levy charges on water usage, operation of markets, parking, and other miscellaneous items. Such services do not exist or are not lucrative within a panchayat.
Fewer than 150 urban local bodies in Telangana collected Rs.698.25 crore in property tax in 2021-22 compared with 13,000 panchayats collecting Rs.400 crore in 2017-18.
Former policymaker Ashok Pai, who has served as joint secretary in the Tribal Affairs Ministry, believes it is necessary to have a road map for the future. “Urbanisation will happen. It is the reality,” he said. But, according to him, urbanisation must come with governmental oversight.
“The pace and direction has to evolve, involving the tribals in the matter,” he said. “Too many restrictions in the face of thriving economic activities are likely to lead to distortions. Therefore, tribals have to be facilitated so that when mainstreaming happens they don’t get exploited.”
But the question remains: without any law allowing municipalities in scheduled areas, how does the state intend to facilitate tribal rights?
While PESA was enacted to introduce self-governance in rural scheduled areas, no such law exists for municipalities. On the basis of the Bhuria Committee recommendations, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government proposed a parallel mechanism for urban local bodies through the Municipalities Extension to Scheduled Areas Bill, 2001 (MESA) in July 2001.
The Bill proposed the extension of municipalities to scheduled areas, while making provisions for self-governance to urban tribal populations. According to it, MESA municipalities could be designated as nagar panchayats, municipal councils or corporations, as applicable.
On August 6, 2001, the Bill was referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, which in turn recommended its implementation in a report submitted on December 9, 2003. The Bill, however, was allowed to lapse. MESA today finds few takers, partly because of the way PESA has been implemented. “When PESA first came to be, we looked at it as the dawn of tribal rights. But 25 years of its implementation has taught us to expect nothing,” said Dayamani Barla, a tribal rights activist from Jharkhand. “There is not even one State which has truthfully implemented PESA. What are we to expect from MESA now?” In November 2021, MESA was reintroduced in the Lok Sabha as a private member’s Bill by Dr Heenakumar Gavit, a BJP MP, with no new amendments. It is yet to be discussed.
What about other States?
On November 19, 2003, the 50th report of the Standing Committee on Urban and Rural Development (2003) recorded 181 urban local bodies in 86 districts in Fifth Schedule areas. This is the most recent publicly available data.
The data compiled by the authors of this article show that since 2003 there have been an addition of at least 31 new Fifth Schedule districts across the country, taking the number of such districts to 117. However, the Centre has not taken any action to fully assess the growing number of urban local bodies in Fifth Schedule areas. The last attempt was the Bhuria Committee in 2002, which came 42 years after the U.N. Dhebhar Commission of 1960.
“Since 2003, at least 34 gram panchayats have been converted into nagar panchayats in Chhattisgarh,” said Bijay Bhai, tribal rights activist and convener of Bharat Jan Andolan. According to data he has gathered, the number is 68 now. The 2003 report, however, listed 36 such urban bodies in Chhattisgarh.
“In Gujarat, such conversions are driven mostly by small towns growing into urban areas,” said Krishnakant, a Gujarat-based activist, citing the example of Rajpipla, now a municipality in Narmada district. “The more artificial ones are the result of political projects, such as the Statue of Unity in Kevadia,” he said. Located on the banks of the Narmada, Kevadia is a small town that boasts the world’s tallest statue. Villagers protested its conversion but to no avail.
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Ashwani Kange, a tribal advocate, cites Vishrampuri in Bastar district as the only village in Chhattisgarh in his knowledge to mount a successful pushback. Tribal people protested the decision to turn Vishrampuri gram panchayat into a nagar panchayat in December 2009, and the Governor overturned the decision on September 21, 2015.
Tribal people in Chhattisgarh have been protesting against similar conversions since then. The current Governor, Anusuya Uikey, who has been involved in a political tussle with the Bhupesh Baghel government, has been vocal about the issue.
A recurring difficulty in assessing the scale of such conversions is the lack of newer, more relevant data. This is because of constantly changing district boundaries. For instance, since 2003, the administrative boundaries of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh have been completely redrawn. Chhattisgarh alone has seen five new districts carved out of notified scheduled districts. “Once outsiders enter tribal areas, tribals get marginalised,” Bellaiah Naik said.
Naik fears this change in demography will be used as a ground to justify the abolition of the scheduled area status itself. “Eventually, tribals will become watchmen and domestic helps in their own land.”
Anmol Gupta is a lawyer and Jeff Joseph is a journalist working with Land Conflict Watch, an independent network of researchers studying land conflicts, climate change, and natural resource governance in India.
- The push for urban local bodies in Fifth Schedule areas such as Manuguru undermines the right to local self-governance guaranteed by the Constitution.
- Election has not been held in Manuguru since 2005. In the absence of elected representatives, Manuguru is now run by officials of the Telangana Municipal Administration and Urban Development Department.
- The Land Transfer Regulation Act 1 of 1970, called the 1/70 Act, bars transfer of tribal land to non-tribals in the scheduled areas of Telangana. On the ground, however, lease agreements with tribal people, called white paper agreements, serve as a workaround.
- On November 19, 2003, the 50th report of the Standing Committee on Urban and Rural Development (2003) recorded 181 urban local bodies in 86 districts in Fifth Schedule areas.