New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government got numerous regulations related to forestland governance either re-interpreted or changed, all significantly in favour of corporate interests, but at the cost of tribal rights.
On February 26, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) wrote to state governments “clarifying” that compliance under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 or Forest Rights Act (FRA), was “not required for an in-principle approval” in the initial stage of project approval where diversion of forest land was required.
In other words, the Environment Ministry has made one point clear that the consent of Gram Sabhas under the FRA can be obtained for projects on forestlands in the latter stage, as specified under the Forest (Conservation) amendment Rules, 2016.
Numerous projects, according to news reports, have been getting clearances in line with such interpretation, which the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) and several state-level bureaucrats in various states were opposing so far, stating that such interpretation would override FRA. Also, the MoTA even opposed the MoEF&CC stance in a January Meeting on this matter.
This is not the first time the Environment Ministry had overridden the Tribal Ministry, especially in matters related to FRA. This was preceded by a series of exchange of letters between the two ministries, wherein MoEF&CC claimed in many instances that it was in accordance with the directions or instructions of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Consider this: The central government changed regulations helping hundreds of miners whose mining operations were ended by various court orders. These changes, which comforted the miners, were said to be made in a coordinated manner by the Environment Ministry, the Tribal Affairs Ministry and the Mines Ministry.
A review of letters exchanged between the two ministries in 2015, before MOEF&CC came up with a draft order which permitted private underground mining in forest areas exempting such projects from the consent clause under FRA show that the Environment Ministry was doing at the behest at the Environment Ministry. MoTA had then clearly expressed its resentment which even termed the MoEF&CC exercise as “illegal, encroaching upon the jurisdiction of the judiciary and the legislature.”
These developments have only intensified the worries of millions of Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs), amid poor implementation of FRA in most states. On February 13, the Supreme Court ordered eviction of over million tribes from forestlands whose claims for land titles have been rejected which was later stayed. When raged tribes called for a countrywide shutdown, the central government had to urge the apex court to stay its order in this matter.
The FRA was a rights-based legislation which was a result of people's movements intended to correct the historical injustice to the tribal and forest dwelling communities on forestlands. Thirteen years since the law was passed, the interpretation on the implementation of the law has always been in question, such was the role of subsequent governments.
Reportedly, there are cases wherein many mines have gotten clearance without settling rights under FRA. In one rare case, even community claims given under FRA were rejected by the Chhattisgarh government in the previous state government under BJP. The forestland in question was Parsa East coal block which was allotted to a government entity -- Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam (RRVUN) in 2007, which chose Adani Enterprises as its partner for mining operations. As mining is still underway there, the Supreme Court in November last year had issued a notice asking the Adani company to respond. The petition was filed by a Chhattisgarh-based lawyer Sudiep Shrivastava who alleged that the Joint venture -- Parsa Kente Collieries -- owned by RRVUN and Adani Enterprises -- was formed in contravention of the apex court’s earlier order on coal block allocation and in the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act 2015. The petitioner also sought cancellation of the joint venture stating that any such joint ventures between public and private companies wherein if mining rights are transferred to private company, such contracts as illegal under the Coal Mining Nationalisation Act, 1973.