Env Ministry Body Accepts that Projects Cannot Get Forest Land Without Certificate, Consent of Affected Villages
Forest Advisory Committee finally accepts that forest rights have to respected when diverting forest land
Almost four and a half years after the Forest Rights Act came into force, and two and a half years after the Ministry's own order on the issue, the Ministry's key body for deciding on allocation of forest land - the Forest Advisory Committee - formally accepted on April 2nd that it cannot permit diversion of forest land to companies and government agencies without respecting the rights and legal powers of the local gram sabhas (village assemblies). This means that no land can be given without resolutions being passed by all affected gram sabhas (with at least 50% quorum) stating that the Act has been fully implemented, all rights recognised and that they consent to the diversion. In its very next meeting the Committee has gone back on its words and carried on with its illegal recommendations, but it now stands exposed before its own decision.
Under the Forest Rights Act, forest 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.
With every admission by government bodies of their illegal actions, the struggle only grows stronger The struggle goes on.
For more information on the implications of the Forest Rights Act for projects, see our pages on the Forest Rights Act and Large Projects and our note on Using the Forest Rights Act to Fight Displacement and Projects.
The full minutes of the April 2nd Forest Advisory Committee meeting are here.