Dumka, Jan. 17: Santhal village Dhatikobna, a short 16km from Dumka sadar block headquarters, has gone for a smart tweak in its panchayat penalty rules, something a management guru would perhaps grandiosely call “sweating an asset”.
Tucked in the hinterland of Santhal Pargana, Dhatikobna tribals largely live according to their own age-old rules. And sometimes, when they make new rules, it is a revelation for the rest of the world.
Last Sunday, on January 5, Dhatikobna panchayat, in a meeting, unanimously decided to stash away for village development half the money in a bank that they receive as penalty in cases it hears and spend the other half on necessary items for the community.
Earlier, the panchayat would blow up the entire money on country-made liquor, mutton and rice for the whole village.
The tribal panchayat is distinct from the elected symbol of grassroots democracy under panchayati raj institutions. It comprises five village elders who judge cases ranging from theft of grain to land disputes. However, the “trial” sees hundreds or even thousands of villagers and penalty is decided by democratic consensus.
Apart from social punishments such as the guilty being asked to host a feast for the entire village, tribal panchayats also imposes monetary penalty — a grey area for mainstream administration and umbrella tribal outfits such as Gram Pradhan Manjhi Sangathan.
Bhim Mandal, president of Gram Pradhan Manjhi Sangathan, a divisional-level outfit comprising traditional village heads across Santhal Pargana, asserted village panchayats were entitled to settle social disputes by consent but added they were not entitled to receive penalty in cash.
“The practice is unfortunately rampant. Culprits are penalised in cash before the whole village and amounts vary according to the severity of crime and social standing of the guilty. Still, the decision of the village panchayat of Dhitkobna indicates a positive transformation of tribal society,” Mandal said.
Dhitkobna villagers definitely think so. “From now, we will deposit half the money in the bank to save for village development and use the rest in doing things we need such as purchasing a sound system or community utensils, mats, chairs and so on, or for treatment and other exigencies,” a Dhitkobna villager told The Telegraph.
Search the folds of Santhal Pargana hinterland, and village panchayats such as that of Dhatikobna are a dime a dozen.
They are platforms that tribals prefer to go to with disputes, as police look the other way. A Dhatikobna villager who knows his neighbour has stolen his poultry won’t normally go all the way to the nearest Mufassil police station. He’ll walk up to a panchayat member.
Dumka subdivisional officer (civil) Ram Narayan Ram told The Telegraph that they knew about the tribal panchayats and also the system of penalty in cash and kind.
“Traditional tribal societies have their own rituals. But if it is a big case and there is a probability of emotions running high during a panchayat hearing, with the potential to pose a law and order problem, we depute magistrates and police personnel,” he said.