Several ministers under pressure from PMO and Environment ministry for relaxing norms in FRA act

    RNA Research & Archives

    Several ministers in the NDA government have openly talked about bringing changes in the Forest Rights Act 2006 to ease green clearances process but it seems their path won’t be easy. In several orders, in the past few weeks, the union ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) has clearly spoken against any exemptions to provisions of Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006 for any projects setting itself for a fight with other wings of growth oriented NDA government.

    In a strongly worded office memorandum, the tribal affairs ministry headed by BJP leader Jual Oram, said that “the Forest Rights Act does not provide for any exemption to its provisions for any category of forests, projects, persons etc”. A copy of order was also sent to the environment ministry headed by BJP leader Prakash Javadekar.

    Sources told dna that need for such an office memorandum arose as moves advocating dilution of FRA Act provisions have reportedly come from several quarters in the NDA government including that from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) itself. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar had recently said that, if needed, FRA Act could be amended. Taking cue from statements of PM Narendra Modi himself regarding easing green clearance norms, Javadekar has been batting for same.

    In FRA Act, mandatory requirement of seeking consent from the gram sabhas (village committees) while seeking green clearances has been the biggest hurdle for companies seeking to start their infrastructure or other kind of projects.

    The tribal affairs ministry order further stated that, “in addition to Forest Rights Act, there are special regulations under the Fifth Schedule which also cannot be overridden by any executive instructions”.

    The 5th Schedule of constitution of India covers tribal areas in 9 states of India – Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Orissa and Rajasthan – and it deals with administration and control of scheduled areas and scheduled tribes in these areas. It basically guarantee to tribals the right over the land they live in and thus any work in these areas cannot go ahead without their consent.

    MoTA further added that,” As regards combined public hearing under FRA and Forest Clearance, it is clarified that the Gram Sabha meeting under FRA is a statutory requirement, while public hearing under Forest Clearance is through an executive instruction. The Gram Sabha meeting under FRA can also consider the issue of forest clearance, which is consistent with PESA provisions. The necessary quorum required under FRA Rules for Gram Sabha meeting shall be met in every case.

    Oram, who himself is a tribal, was also India’s first tribal affairs minister when the ministry was created during rule of the former NDA government by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In an interview with dna in July, Oram had said that he would not allow dilution of the FRA Act.

    Thus the memorandum by his ministry would for sure put it at loggerheads with other ministers in the NDA government who have been strongly advocating and moving towards dilution of such statutory requirement. Similar situation had arose during UPA government’s tenure when demands for dilution of FRA Act were being made.

    In another office order (on September 16 ), that shows the differences between tribal affairs ministry and environment ministry, the tribal affairsministry voiced against National Tiger Conservation Authority’s plan regarding “Gujjar relocation from Corbett’.

    The issue that came in the NTCA’s meeting on 26th August last month was attended by Hrusikesh Panda, who is the Secretary of tribal affairsministry.

    “This Ministry is of the view that no person should be displaced unless funds for rehabilitation are available and spent. In this connection, it is observed from the agenda papers of the 10th meeting that the budget of NTCA does not seem to have funds available for relocation of persons displaced due to various measures linked to tiger conservation activity,” said the order of the tribal affairs ministry.

    Not just that, MoTA further said that, “the displacement and rehabilitation issues will also require FRA clearance from the concerned gram sabha(s) in all cases where relocation from tiger reserves are envisaged”.

    In another order (on September 9), MoTA expressed its reservations regarding diversion of 342.602 hectares of forest land for mining activities in Keonjhar district of Odisha for Essel Mining and Industries.

    After going through letter of a local MLA and Keonjhar collector, MoTA in May 2014, had written that “it appears, prima-facie, that reported decisions of gram sabhas have got vitiated and the process followed lacks objectivity and fairness”.

    MoTA had requested environment ministry “not to go ahead with the diversion of forest land in the instant case without following due process of ascertaining individual and community claims in an objective and fair manner, and in the manner prescribed under Forest Rights Act and Rules.”

    MoTA in its September 9 letter reiterated its views to the environment ministry regarding the project.