Saturday, December 9, 2023

Unkindest Cut

The Union government has introduced new rules which allow private developers to cut down forests without first ensuring the consent of the forest dwellers

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On June 28, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change notified the Forest Conservation Rules, 2022 to shift onto state governments, the Union’s responsibility of ensuring that the rights of tribals to their traditional forest lands are recognised and their consent is taken before their forests are chopped down. The new rules allow the Union government to permit the clearing of a forest before consulting the people living in it, forcing the hand of the concerned state government to secure consent from tribal and other forest-dwelling communities.

Earlier, the Union government was required to verify the consent of the forest dwellers and ensure recognition of their rights over the forest land before approving handovers for private projects. Now, it can approve the handover of the forest and collect payment for compensatory afforestation from the private developer even before the state government has settled forest dwellers’ rights and ensured their consent for the project. Until the new rules kicked in, it was the forest ministry’s job to assess and approve the clearing of forests under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

Reacting to the new rules, Congress leader Jairam Ramesh tweeted: “If anything demonstrates the Modi Sarkar’s true intent on protecting & promoting interests of Adivasis, it is this decision, which will disempower crores of Adivasis & others living in forest areas.” 

Union Ministers Bhupender Yadav and Arjun Munda hit out at Ramesh and said that the central government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains committed to protecting the rights of the Adivasis.

Quoting Ramesh’s tweet, Yadav, the union minister for environment, forest and climate change, said: “Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022, are reformative with an objective to streamline the process of approvals under the Act, and enable the parallel processing under other Acts and Rules including FRA, 2006. The allegation is an ill-informed attempt to show that the Rules don’t care about the provisions of other laws. The government under Narendra Modi ji remains committed to protecting the rights of the Adivasis.”

Ramesh responded to Yadav’s tweet. “Mantri-ji, Please don’t evade main issue, are you not making the Gram Sabha irrelevant? You may not have been briefed properly. Your new Rules go against the 2015 note of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs of Modi Sarkar, as reported.” Yadav retorted: “Jairam ji, You are trying to insinuate a problem where none exists. There is no dilution of provisions of FRA as being incorrectly interpreted since fulfilment and compliance of FRA 2006 is specifically mentioned in the Rules before State issues orders of diversion. It is very much there and well taken care of under the provisions of the respective Acts. The fulfilment and compliance of FRA 2006 is an independent process, which can be done at any stage by the states, but must be completed before granting approval for land diversion,” Yadav said.

Joining the Twitter war, Union Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda said, “It’s a matter of great misfortune that in last 75 years when Congress party could never thought of having a tribal person as the Constitutional Head of this country, and now when the present government under the leadership of Narendra Modi has nominated a lady from tribal community as the Presidential Candidate from NDA, the Congress party is trying to mislead the nation by making frivolous and baseless allegations.”

Rahul Gandhi has also tweeted on this issue. In a tweet, he said, “Modi-Mitr’ Sarkar at its crony best! For ‘ease of snatching’ forest land, the BJP government has come up with new FC Rules, 2022 diluting UPA’s Forest Rights Act, 2006.” “Congress stands strongly with our Adivasi brothers and sisters in their fight to protect ‘Jal, Jungle and Zameen’,” he added. 

On Rahul Gandhi’s remarks, Union Minister of State for Environment Ashwini Kumar Choubey told reporters over the tweet which Rahul Gandhi had put out. “I don’t think he should have made that misleading point, and thereby trying to mislead the people. This is extremely unfortunate. The Centre will not snatch any forest land, and even after snatching it, where will we go,” he said.

One of the critical aspects is that the new rules have been notified to bring in reforms to approve projects in forest areas and to fasten the ease of doing business as per the claim made by the Union government. On the other hand, the new rules are being criticised on the grounds of not following established democratic norms, more so with the dilution of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Another crucial aspect is the sidelining or nullifying the gram sabha’s role in project approval. 

It is pertinent to note that the local representation of the Adivasis and other traditional forest dwellers (OTFDs) has been completely ignored in the Advisory Committee and Regional Empowered Committee. Under the new rules, these Committees act as a connecting link between the state and the Union government in the decision-making process. The non-representation of the Adivasis and OTFDs effectively captures the inclusive aspects of the decision-making process. The formation of these Committees stands in contradiction to the provisions of the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution wherein the Tribes Advisory Council (TAC) is the consultative forum, as referred by the governor of the state, in the matters of tribal administration and development.

The promulgation of the new rules should be seen as a follow up to Supreme Court’s order on February 13, 2019, asking for evicting more than 10 lakh people from forests. Under pressure from state governments, Adivasi associations and the civil society, the Court has stayed its order and interim stoppage of the eviction of those whose claims were rejected under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.

The new rules along with the amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927, erode the essence of the rights-based legislations such as Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA), and the Forest Rights Act, 2006. The term “survey” mentioned in the Section 2 of the new rules fails to take into account the gram sabha or panchayat consent in the approval of the project.

It seems that the forces of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation are putting pressure on state governments to ease the process of forest clearance, where rights-based legislations hinder the effective diversion of the forest to linear projects and other activities such as mining and natural gas exploration.

—By Abhilash Kumar Singh and India Legal Bureau

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