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India: PMO asks Ministries to compromise with Laws of the Land

   

Sunday January 13, 2013

India, Violation of Law, PMO, Tribal, Forest Rights Act  
 
Two reports in two different national dailies of India, published in a span of one month, one on December 12, 2012 and the other on January 11, 2013, are not only shocking but enough to convince why the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that leads the government of India should better be termed as the leaseholder of the country than part of a democratically elected government.  
Basudev Mahapatra  
   

Few years back, while in Cochin for a special video shoot, internationally known laparoscopic surgeon Dr Hafeez Rahman Padiyath of Sunrise Hospital – whom I was profiling as an inspirational personality – said, “It’s in India only that people are in the habit of violating and compromising with laws. We are the most disciplined outside India and the most undisciplined inside our own country.” Dr Hafeez said this referring to how people of his city, and the country as well, were so disrespectful to the laws of their own land. I recall Dr Hafeez’s words today when I see that, even, the government of India that sets laws for people to follow is no better in this regard.

 

The recent news of Prime Minister’s Office asking the tribal affairs and environment ministries to compromise with Forest Rights Act to make space for corporate houses and multinationals to set their projects has made it clear violating laws has become a practice of the government as well.

Two reports in two different national dailies of India, published in a span of one month, one on December 12, 2012 and the other on January 11, 2013, are not only shocking but enough to convince why the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that leads the government of India should better be termed as the leaseholder of the country than part of a democratically elected government. While one news speaks about communications between ministries to uphold laws of the land while pursuing development, the other news talks how the PMO advises the ministries to bypass the laws in order to favour certain industrialists whose primary objective is to make business by exploiting the natural and comparatively cheaper human resources of the land.

As per the news ‘PMO wants tribals’ consent in giving forests for projects diluted’, published in The Times of India on January 11, 2013, the PMO advised the ministries of Tribal Affairs and Environment to severely dilute the need for consent from tribals under the Forest Rights Act for diverting forests to projects even though, as the news report mentioned, such an advisory “effectively rolls back UPA's flagship programme for tribals - the Forest Rights Act’ - and also runs contrary to the position taken by the government before the Supreme Court recently in the high profile Vedanta case. In the case, the government had said tribal forests cannot be diverted for projects at all.”

The advisory from the PMO came following communications from the Tribal Affairs Ministry to the Environment Ministry that sought that Forest Rights Act must nought be diluted for faster approval to projects.

The news, ‘Tribal affairs minister against diluting FRA for projects in Odisha’, published on December 12, 2012, in Hindustan Times said, “Tribal affairs minister Kishore Chandra Deo has warned against dilution of the Forest Rights Act for faster approval to projects and has asked environment minister Jaynathi Natarajan to ensure compliance with law while diverting forestland for projects by the ministry's Forest Advisory Committee.” Written in context of different parties in Supreme Court arguing to bypass the provisions of the Forest Rights Act to advance bauxite mine of Anil Aggarwal owned Vedanta in Nyamgiri, the letter said, "it is important that our government takes a clear stand that upholds the law, the democratic process, and the rights of people, and states that our vision is to uphold the law."

As per the news, the tribal affairs minister said in his letter that “no forestland can be diverted until the recognition of forest rights of the dwellers is complete and forest dwellers have expressed their collective prior consent to take-over of the forest.”

While saying that “not recognizing the rights may lead to conflict and injustice,” Tribal affairs minister Deo said, “short cut benefits no one, in addition to being illegal."

As per the laws, particularly the Forest rights Act of 2006, forest land cannot be handed over to industries without an explicit consent from the affected gram sabha (village council) and without settling the rights of tribals affected by the projects. However, the law is hardly complied with in most of the projects because of frequent attempts by the industry and allied ministries to bypass the norms of the law.

Now, in order to make space for industries to operate in areas they are not legally entitled to, “PMO has asked the environment ministry, which gives forest clearances, and the tribal affairs ministry, the nodal point for the FRA, to dilute the regulations,” said the news on advisory from PMO.

In clear violation of law and the rights of the indigenous communities, as the news report said, the PMO has advised as follows.

1. In cases where public consultations have occurred for other clearances, the consent of tribals should be done away with;

2. In the case of linear projects, just a certificate from the state government stating that processes under FRA have been completed would be adequate;

The report published in The Times of India said, “PMO has asked the ministries to do away with the need for consent of the impacted tribals” while giving December 31 as the deadline to the ministries to enact the changes.

It’s not unknown to anyone that the UPA government and its lead political party Congress presented the Forest Rights Act as its major initiative to protect the rights of tribal communities and the non-tribal forest dwellers. Even, Congress’ brand icon Rahul Gandhi tried to create for himself a pro-tribal image with this particular law when Vedanta's bauxite mining licence was cancelled.

The licence of Vedanta for mining bauxite out of Niyamgiri was cancelled after MoEF appointed expert committee headed by Dr N C Saxena pointed at several violations of FRA and rights of tribals by Vedanta and the Odisha government as well. The panel clearly mentioned that Odisha government neither monitored the implementation of the law by the Company nor it took any initiative to implement the law in its strictest terms. Basing upon the report, the MoEF then refused to accept mere assurances from the Odisha government that FRA had been followed in the impacted area.

Forgetting all these and its basic duty of ensuring proper implementation of laws, the fresh advisory from the PMO wants the central government to do a turnaround and compromise with the regulations to promote illegal industrialisation.

On one hand, the UPA government shows PESA Act and the FRA as its flagship enactments to protect the rights of the poor and the indigenous communities and on the other, PMO gives instructions to the concerned ministries to act in violation of the said laws to benefit industries. While such duality raises serious questions on the integrity of the ruling political leaders, it raises the fundamental question - in whose interest that the government takes the role of a violator of laws instead of becoming the protector of Laws?

 
 

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