MoEF takes away right of gram sabhas to clear mega projects

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    In what could result in legal trouble for the BJP government, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) has gone ahead and diluted the Forest Rights Act (FRA) Act 2006 through an office order making it possible for district collectors to clear change of forest land use. This is in clear violation of Supreme Court orders and the position of the Union tribal affairs ministry which is that only village councils or gram sabhas can give such permission, The order will also will have wide ranging impact on the fast diminishing forest cover in the country.

    What does the new order say?

    The MoEF order of October 28, 2014 basically exempts proposals seeking diversion “of plantations which were notified as forest” from the requirement of “initiation and completion of process for recognition and vesting of forest rights of scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers”. It then goes on to say that in such case certifying letters from district collectors would be enough for diversion of land.

    What will be the impact?

    Acres of forest will be lost. It is the gram sabha under the FRA Act, which is the authority to initiate this process. Under FRA Act 2006, gram sabhas are empowered to give consent for diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes like setting up of industrial projects and that has been the problem area for industries in India. This office order eases the way for corporates and frees them from getting consent from village councils which in most cases denied permission.

    Does such an office order have legal validity?

    This order is meant to circumvent the need to bring an amendment and get it passed in Parliament. Such an order can be questioned in court . In the Vedanta case of 2013, the Supreme court asserted that any decision regarding diversion of forest land cannot be taken without consent of gram sabhas.

    What is the position of the tribal affairs ministry?

    Tribal affairs ministry has already issued a note in March 2014 explicitly mentioning that no exemptions from FRA compliance are permitted. In its latest rebuke to MoEF, tribal affairs ministry in a letter on October 21 to MoEF, stated that, “no government agency has been vested with powers to exempt application of the (FRA) Act in part or full”. The ministry also said: “It is further advised that any action or process inconsistent with the due process laid under the (FRA) Act would be legally untenable and is likely to be struck down by the court of law. Orissa Mining Corporation vs MoEF of 2013 is a case in point.”

    What do activists say?

    Activists also questioned the legality of MoEF’s latest order stating that it is a new step in MoEF’s long drawn attempt at destroying the implications of the FRA Act for diversion of forest land for industrial and infrastructure projects. “This order is one more in a long run of steps — going on for the past few years, and starting with Pulok Chatterjee’s PMO Committee in November 2012 — that tries to say that either the state government or the district collector should certify crucial aspects of FRA compliance rather than gram sabhas,” Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and dignity told dna.

    What is the position of the tribal affairs ministry?

    Tribal affairs ministry has already issued a note in March 2014 explicitly mentioning that no exemptions from FRA compliance are permitted. In its latest rebuke to MoEF, tribal affairs ministry in a letter on October 21 to MoEF, stated that, “no government agency has been vested with powers to exempt application of the (FRA) Act in part or full”. The ministry also said: “It is further advised that any action or process inconsistent with the due process laid under the (FRA) Act would be legally untenable and is likely to be struck down by the court of law. Orissa Mining Corporation vs MoEF of 2013 is a case in point.”

    What do activists say?

    Activists also questioned the legality of MoEF’s latest order stating that it is a new step in MoEF’s long drawn attempt at destroying the implications of the FRA Act for diversion of forest land for industrial and infrastructure projects. “This order is one more in a long run of steps — going on for the past few years, and starting with Pulok Chatterjee’s PMO Committee in November 2012 — that tries to say that either the state government or the district collector should certify crucial aspects of FRA compliance rather than gram sabhas,” Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and dignity told dna.

    Source: dna