Representatives of several opposition parties have come together to criticise the government for continuing to try and dilute the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, which makes it mandatory to get consent of tribals before using of their traditional forestlands.
Jitendra Chaudhury, CPI(M) member of Parliament from Tripura, shared copies of government documents secured through the Right to Information (RTI) Act showing that the environment ministry, tribal affairs ministry and the PMO were engaged as recently as December 2015 in revising the regulations through an executive fiat. Exceptions were provided to the need for consent from tribals and other forest-dwellers.
Representatives from the Congress, CPI(M) and JD(U) were present at the meeting, the National Convention on Illegal Takeover of Forest Lands and Resources, held in Delhi on Wednesday. Leaders of the Telengana Rashtriya Samiti, Bahujan Samaj Party, CPI and the CPI (ML) Liberation sent statements of support for the meeting. The same day, the National Green Tribunal passed an order cancelling forest clearance to the 130-Mw Integrated Kashang Stage-II and Stage-III Hydro Electric Project in Kinnaur, Himachal Pradesh.
It ruled that the proposal be sent to the gram sabha for approval following a Supreme Court's order. In a Vedanta mining case, the court had upheld a government notification of 2009 requiring the forest clearance process follow the Forest Rights Act and seek consent in areas where tribal or other people's traditional rights exist.
This is one of the few reported cases after the Vedanta judgment where a central government forest clearance has been suspended by the judiciary for not having secured the mandatory gram sabha consent of tribals. Chaudhury said, "The environment ministry and the PMO have continuously tried to dilute the requirement of gram sabha consent for diversion of forest lands for projects. I have documents that show what they have tried. Some officers from the tribal ministry have steadily opposed this. But this illegal effort has not stopped."
Jairam Ramesh of the Congress, also present at the meeting, said: "If the link between forest diversion and Forest Rights Act is broken, it will severely damage the latter."
The documents provided by Chaudhury on Wednesday, which Business Standard reviewed, showed that discussions and correspondence on possible route to dilutions and changes continued within the government at least till December 2015. In November 2015, the documents showed, the environment ministry drafted rules that would de-link the forest clearance process from the provisions of the Forest Rights Act. The ministry sought exemption from seeking tribal consent for underground mining as well. The tribal affairs ministry, the documents showed, again re-iterated in a meeting in December 2015 that clearance cannot not be given without tribal consent. It noted that in cases where the government had tried to de-link clearance from tribal consent, the projects had landed up in court.
The documents suggested the matter has not been resolved conclusively. Discussions would be held, including on new draft rules on how communities run their own forestlands. This has been a bone of contention between the two nodal ministries, with the environment ministry and the state forest departments preferring to continue management of community forests in a manner that provided a greater control to state forest departments.