A series of official letters exchanged between the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) and the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) indicates that the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is in a clear mood to sidestep the provisions of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) in order to permit private underground mining in forest areas. The letters written between June 2015 and December 2015 document a tug-of-war like scenario between the two ministries regarding the implementation of the Forest Rights Act. While the MoTA has repeatedly made its stand clear that gram sabha’s informed consent, as mandated in the Act, was necessary for any diversion of forest land towards industrial projects, the MoEFCC seems to be adamant on diluting this significant clause.
The letters suggest that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) views the FRA as a roadblock in its development projects. The debate between the two ministries started in April 2015 when the MoEFCC, under the directions of the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat, framed a unilateral draft order for diluting the consent clause in the FRA. Following this, the MoTA, the nodal ministry to administer the FRA, expressed its resentment against the order and called this draft order “illegal, encroaching upon the jurisdiction of the judiciary and the legislature.”
Thereafter, the PMO, almost acting at the behest of the MoEFCC, intervened in the verbal duel and asked the law ministry to review the draft order. However, the law ministry did not provide its comments on the matter despite the MoTA requesting it to clarify its stand many times in the month of June and August last year. Despite this, the letters, accessed by The Wire (see below), show that on 18 November, 2015, the environment ministry called a meeting between the secretaries of the two ministries to discuss “exemption of proposal seeking prior approval of Central Government under the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA) for use of forest land for underground mining from the requirement of initiating and completing the process of recognition and vesting of forest rights in accordance with the provisions of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.”
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At the meeting on 24 November, 2015, the MoTA agreed to “re-examine their comments on draft guidelines formulated by the MoEFCC to de-link grant of approval under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for use of forest land for non-forest purpose…,” suggesting that the MoTA could not stand up to the pressures of the MoEFCC, seen to be acting under the directions of the PMO.
However, the minutes of the meeting, documented by the MoTA and signed by the deputy secretary of the ministry Roopak Chaudhuri on 14 December, 2015, documents MoTA’s reservations about circumventing gram sabha’s consent for underground mining clearly.
“…FRA empowers the Gram Sabha to protect the forest and their Community Forest Rights (CFRs). Therefore, in any proposal involving underground mining, it would be necessary for the Gram Sabha to examine the same and ensure that there is no ecological damage to its CFR and to the livelihood of the forest rights holders. It is also necessary that the process of recognition and vesting of the rights under FRA should be completed in the event that such mining results in damage to such forest rights in the future requiring relocation and compensation to the forest rights holders,” the minutes state.
“For instance there are well documented evidences of damage to groundwater acquifers and hydro-geological destruction along with underground fires resulting from underground coal mining in Jharia coal field in Bihar. Such consequences may manifest many years after the underground mining project is underway and prior recognition and vesting of forest rights will ensure that the rights holders are not left without remedy or redress,” it adds.
The MoTA also notes that exemptions, both under the FCA and FRA have been stuck down by the Supreme Court (SC) and the National Green Tribunal, and that the SC had noted that the “FRA process can go on parallel to obtaining the clearances under the FCA.” In clear terms, the MoTA said in the meeting that the diversion of forest land for non-forest purpose under the FCA, if de-linked from the FRA’s provisions, will be “retrograde step.”
The FRA was enacted in 2006 to grant adivasis and traditional forest dwellers right to live out of the forest lands, denied to them in the past because of archaic colonial laws. However, since the times of its notification in 2008, successive governments and corporates that want to tap into the enormous natural resources of forests have seen the Act as an obstruction in their path of privately-funded development. The centre had last year approved diversion of 35867 hectares of forest land for infrastructure projects.