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Published on: July 25, 2022, 5:14 p.m.
War over tribal rights
  • Are the rights of forest dwellers and tribals thrown to the wind?

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

While the Bharatiya Janata Party is patting itself on the back for having stumped the Opposition by choosing a tribal woman, Droupadi Murmu, as the next President of India, tribal rights activists have raised concern over the Modi government’s recent notification on the Forest Conservation Rules (FCR) 2022, replacing the earlier rules of 2003 and subsequent amendments, negating tribal forest rights.

These new rules, it is being alleged, are in complete violation of the provisions of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, and the provisions of the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996. Several political parties have raised serious concerns over the notification of the new rules by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

In fact, Jairam Ramesh, former environment minister and Bhupendra Yadav, the current environment minister, have engaged in a heated war of words on Twitter on provisions of the FCR 2022.  Ramesh has alleged that the latest version of rules allowed forest land to be diverted to industry, without settling questions of the rights of forest dwellers and tribals, who resided on those lands. The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, along with a 2009 government order, makes it mandatory to seek ‘free, prior and informed consent’ of families, who would be affected by such diversion of forest land.

A detailed statement from the Congress’ Twitter handle added that the new rules ‘destroyed the very purpose of the FRA’, as once a forest clearance was granted (in this case by a Centre-constituted Forest Advisory Committee), no claims by forest dwellers and tribals would be recognised and settled. “The state governments will be under even greater pressure from the Centre to accelerate the process of diversion of forest land.” 

Yadav has refuted Ramesh’s argument underlining that fulfilling and complying with the FRA, 2006, was an independent process and could be undertaken by states ‘at any stage’ of the forest clearance process and that complying with provisions of the FRA is mentioned in the rules before states order diversion of the land. However, he said, it had to be completed before granting approval for land diversion.

The purpose of the updated rules, said Yadav, was to ‘streamline the approval process’. He found support from his colleague and Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda, who tweeted that the Congress’ allegations were ‘baseless’. States were in charge of diverting forests for non-forestry uses and the Tribal Affairs Ministry regularly reviewed the implementation of the act with them, he tweeted. The Congress’s charge was merely a ‘futile attempt’ to divert attention from the fact that the NDA’s Presidential nominee was a tribal woman.

Ramesh’s charge in turn has drawn support from Palla Trinadha Rao, a lawyer and tribal rights activist. He has said that the new rules have done away with the pre-condition of the settlement of forest rights of the STs and other traditional forest dwellers, under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, before the diversion of forest lands under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980.

The Forest Conservation Act does not permit the diversion of forest lands for non-forest purposes, without the prior approval of the Central government. Now the rules framed in 2022 allow granting of prior and final approvals for diversion of forest lands for de-reservation, assignment of forest land on lease or use of land for non-forest purpose, even before the compliance of the tribal forest rights ensured under the FRA.

  • The Forest Rights Act was enacted in 2006, by the Parliament to undo the injustice done to the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers in the country

Rao believes that it is the responsibility of the District Level Committee (DLC), headed by the District Collector, to finally issue forest land titles for all the eligible individuals and community recognising the forest rights. The Gram Sabha is the authority to declare the completion of the settlement of forest rights of the people in the village and certify to this effect, before diversion of forest lands. It is also the responsibility of DLC to ensure the recognition of habitat rights of particularly vulnerable tribal groups and facilitating the filing of claims by nomadic communities for their community forest rights.

The Forest Rights Act was enacted in 2006, by the Parliament to undo the injustice done to the Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers in the country. This Act overrides other forest laws, including the Forest Conservation Act and recognises the individual, community, and community forest resources rights of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers in the forest areas.

Rao says that the new rules of 2022 are in violation of the ruling of the Supreme Court order in Orissa Mining Corporation Vs Union of India (2013), which underlined the statutory role of Gram Sabha in determination and settlement of individual and community rights, before diversion of forest lands in the case of Dongria Kondhs tribes settled in Niyamgiri hills of Odisha.

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