‘Ministry says villagers were already provided rehabilitation’

A complete U-turn in a matter of one month by the Union Ministry for Tribal Affairs (MOTA) on the application of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) now promises to remove hurdles before the controversial Mapithel Multipurpose Project in Manipur, which has been under construction without mandatory green clearances for eight years.

In an extraordinary move the Ministry has gone back on its views to say that the Forest Rights Act should not apply to the acquisition of land from the Tanghkul and Kuki tribal people as a ‘rare and unique’ exception.

The Hindu accessed the two contrasting decisions of the Tribal Affairs Ministry conveyed to the Environment Ministry, which is assessing the forest clearance for the project as ordered by the National Green Tribunal. Under the existing rules, a forest clearance can be given for the use of forestlands only when the rights of tribals and other forest dwellers have been settled and their consent sought for the project.

The Ministry in its first letter on November 26 laid out the provisions and the preamble of the act in detail to justify its views that the law was to ‘correct historical injustice’ and therefore also be enforced in this case. It said, that not applying the law in this case to settle the rights of the tribal communities would be a violation.

But, in its second letter to the Environment Ministry, dated December 18, the Ministry did a volte-face. It said that the villagers had already been provided rehabilitation and resettlement. It noted that this was done under a memorandum of agreement signed between the State government and the villages before the FRA was passed and the acquisition of land had been completed. It said the ‘spirit of the law seemed to have been followed’ in the case. It then went on to recommend that the FRA should not be applied in this project and the case should be treated as a one-off ‘unique isolated’ one which “cannot and should not be treated as a precedent in future.”

The Hindu had earlier reported on the peculiar case of the project which was sanctioned by the Planning Commission in 1980 at a cost of Rs. 45 crore then. The cost of the project, which failed to take off the ground in time, ballooned to over Rs 1,000 crore of which more than 80% the government claims has been spent by now.

The turnaround by the Tribal Affairs Ministry has brought the project in near sight of the forest clearance by the Environment Ministry, the appraisal for which is now scheduled for this month.