Under the Forest Rights Act
dwellers have rights over individual and community lands,
minor forest produce, water bodies, grazing areas, and so
on. They also have the
legal right and power to protect and manage forests. Despite this
being a clear provision of law, the Ministry of Environment and
Forests has been granting "forest clearance" (i.e., permission for
handing over forest land) to hundreds of projects as if people's
rights don't exist. This is far worse than the much-discussed issue
of land acquisition, for in that case there is at least some legal
process of issuing notifications, hearing objections, paying
compensation, etc. In forest land, people are simply being driven
out like animals without any process at all.
This process goes through the Forest Advisory
Committee of the Ministry, which has been steadfastly ignoring law.
Between November 2011 and January 2012, the Committee recommended
diversion of more than 4,166 hectares of forest land for 20 mining,
dam and other large projects - in direct violation of the Act. The
Committee has even recommended diversion when it was told that
forest dwellers have titles on the land. Between Jan 2008 and August
2011, 1,82,389 hectares of forest land was diverted by the Ministry
for projects - and yet, in July 2011, the Central Ministry informed
a reporter that it has no information regarding whether the Act
was complied with or not.
In July 2009, the Environment Ministry finally
issued a circular stating that, before any forest land can be taken
for a project, State governments have to obtain resolutions from the
affected gram sabhas (with a 50% quorum) stating that the rights
recognition process is complete and that they consent to the
diversion. Yet the Ministry merrily ignored its own order as well -
notwithstanding massive protest in many affected areas and repeated
protests from people's movements, political parties and government
committees. In one case, POSCO, where three separate committees
found the Ministry to be in violation, the Ministry
cleared the project by simply lying - and declaring that it is
"learning and evolving" how to comply with the law.
Now, at last, on April 2nd, the Forest Advisory
Committee has taken a formal stand that no project will be given
Stage I "in principle" clearance without the requisite certificates
from the gram sabha. The Committee states in its decision that
"No project proposal will be considered complete until these
documents are submitted as required... under the terms of the
aforesaid enactment of 2006 [the Forest Rights Act]. These documents
are to be given in full and complete form at Stage I of the process
of consideration and clearance and need to be in accordance with the
said circular in all respects."
The challenges ahead are clear - another
declaration of this kind can also simply remain on paper. Indeed, in
its subsequent meeting of April 20th, the FAC has gone back to its
old pattern. With the exception of the Renuka Dam in Himachal
Pradesh, all other projects were considered without any reference to
the Forest Rights Act or the circular. Hypocrisy and illegality are
of course nothing new to our forest bureaucracy.
It is also vital therefore that, in future,
the Ministry should comply with the recent decision of the Centrral
Information Commission that all papers for such proposals for
clearance - particularly the executive summary and the gram sabha
resolutions - should be made public. This would be the logical
next step, if the Ministry or the FAC care for the law.
admission by government bodies of their illegal actions, the
struggle only grows stronger. And, the struggle goes on.