Will not dilute gram sabha consent requirements, says MoEF

In a joint strategy for their meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh next week, Environment and Forests Minister Jayanthi Natarajan and Tribal Affairs Minister Kishore Chandra Deo both reportedly plan to oppose any dilution of tribal rights in forest areas. This, despite the fact that their respective secretaries have signed on to a deal with the Prime Minister’s Office last month agreeing to such a dilution.

Highly placed sources at the Environment Ministry say that Ms. Natarajan has spoken to her counterpart at the Tribal Affairs to communicate her determination to stand firm by an August 2009 circular which requires local gram sabhas to certify that the rights of tribals and other forest dwellers have been settled under the Forest Resources Assessment process and to consent to the diversion of forest land for a project.

Mr. Deo has already made public his stance that the current norms should not be diluted, as it would violate the Forest Rights Act, a politically important legislation for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

Late last year, complaints from infrastructure ministries and industry lobbies that delays in green clearances were obstacles to investment and growth had pushed the PMO to look into the issue, and a committee headed by the Prime Minister’s Principal Secretary Pulok Chatterjee, and including the Secretaries of the Tribal and Environment Ministries, was formed.

The committee recommended that a State government’s certification that the FRA was being implemented was sufficient, and gram sabha consent was not needed unless a project “substantially or significantly affected the quality of life of the people residing in the site of diversion.”

Tribal and forest rights activists were up in arms at this suggestion, pointing out that the gram sabha’s involvement is at the heart of the FRA and that in several high-profile and controversial cases such as the Vedanta, Posco and Polavaram projects, the State government’s certification had been found to be false and against the gram sabha’s wishes.

While Mr. Chatterjee wrote to both Ministries indicating that the committee’s recommendations should be implemented by the end of 2012, both Ministers have ignored that deadline, claiming that their secretaries acted without their consent. Now, at their own meeting with the Prime Minister himself, they intend to explain their stance.

‘Amend the law’

Environment Ministry sources say that Ms. Natarajan will point out that the PMO recommendations would effectively overturn key provisions of the FRA. If the government wishes, it should amend that law, rather than pressuring the green ministry to break the law, they said.

The sources also pointed out that the complaint of environment and forest clearance delays is a red herring, camouflaging the many other factors that actually stymie projects. Ministry records show that delays only occur when complete documentation is not received from the project proponents, they say, adding that the need to get gram sabha consent is rarely a reason for project delays.

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