The Forest Rights Act

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Victories in the Fight Against the Loot


If you thought the only story about natural resources in India today is how the “new land acquisition law will impede industrialisation” and that “we need more ‘efficient’ environmental clearances”, you’ve missed something.

In a little noticed action, on March 7th the Ministry of Tribal Affairs sent a letter to all State governments. The letter pointed out that the Supreme Court had held that the consent of the gram sabha (village assembly) is required in all cases before forest land can be used – without any exceptions. Over the years the Environment Ministry has been quietly chipping away at this requirement, arbitrarily exempting projects in one State, then some road projects, ignoring the requirement whenever it suits them, and finally – on the direct instruction of the Prime Minister’s Office – exempting “linear projects” (without defining what those are). Apparently the Environment Ministry believed that it can just decide where people’s rights do and do not exist. The Tribal Ministry has belatedly stated what is obvious – you can’t just exempt yourself from requirements because corporates and bureaucrats don’t like democracy..

And that isn’t the only news. The day before this happened, on March 6th, the West Bengal Forest Department wrote a polite letter to the gram sabha of North Khaibari in Jalpaiguri, saying it “would like to seek permission… for CFC [clear felling coupe] operation at North Khaibari.” This doesn’t look significant until you realise that the Forest Department, from the time it was created more than a century ago, doesn’t ask anyone except its own Central superiors for permission to destroy forests. And in North Khaibari, for more than two years, they have been filing criminal complaints, getting villagers arrested, and otherwise trying to crush the struggle of the Uttar Banga Van-Jan Shromojivi Manch for people’s control over the forests. Today, they “would like to seek permission from the gram sabha.”

Meanwhile, in three different projects – Mahan coal block in Madhya Pradesh, Essel’s proposed mines in Keonjhar, Orissa, and the Tata Steel-Adhunik Ganeshpur coal block in Latehar, Jharkhand – the State governments have been exposed as forging gram sabha resolutions and lying to get their projects through. In all three projects the evidence has been produced and, in one case (Essel), the resolutions have been found to be invalid. Clearly this is the next step – officials and companies tried to ignore the gram sabha and the law in the Vedanta and POSCO cases, failed, and have decided to try forgery instead. Now they’re getting caught at that too.

While the media fusses over who the Environment Minister is and the financial press cries itself hoarse about “speedy clearances”, the world is changing. The corporates and powerful of this country can go on imagining that they can do whatever they want, especially if their chosen PM candidate wins. But the reality is that it isn’t about clearances or Ministers or even laws. People fight back against the loot. And sometimes, they win.