By exempting some projects on forest land from gram sabha consent, the government has undermined the rights of local communities and their crucial role in protecting the environment

In early February, the Ministry of Environment and Forests partially revoked a crucial order it had issued in August 2009, which made the consent of gram sabhas mandatory for projects seeking diversion of forest lands for non-forest purposes. Now, the ministry has exempted “projects like construction of roads, canals, laying of pipelines/optical fibres and transmission lines etc. [sic] where linear diversion of forest land in several villages are involved” from obtaining the consent of the gram sabhas concerned. The requirement for gram sabha consent, in the 2009 order, was provided to uphold the rights of forest-dwelling communities, in keeping with the Scheduled Tribes and other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (or Forest Rights Act) and duly incorporated in guidelines issued by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs in July 2012.

Rejecting bauxite mining

The 2009 order had empowered forest-dwelling communities to reject projects harming the local environment, livelihoods and culture. The best example comes from the affected gram sabhas of the Dongaria Kondh and Kutia Kondh tribes in Odisha refusing their consent to Vedanta’s bauxite mining project in the Niyamgiri hills. Until the recent order, the Forest Rights Act and its requirement of gram sabha consent had been publicly supported by both the ministers for Environment and Forests, and Tribal Affairs even in the face of sustained pressure from more powerful quarters in government and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).

In December 2012, the Tribal Affairs Minister wrote to Ms Jayanthi Natarajan, his colleague in Paryavaran Bhavan. The emphatic letter stated: “... the consent of the gram sabha, with at least a 50% quorum (as stated in the Rules and in the 2009 order) is the bare minimum that is required to comply with the Act before any forest area can be diverted, or destroyed.” A handwritten postscript said: “any dilution of the above mentioned circular of 2009 will have an adverse impact on the ‘Vedanta case,’ which is sub-judice.” One can imagine the pressures when the same Tribal Affairs Minister, weeks later, in a letter to the Power Minister, was forced to set aside this requirement of gram sabha consent for power lines. Following this, the environment ministry revoked the requirement for an even broader range of linear projects.

Dangerous consequences

When two central ministries, one tasked to protect the environment and forests, and the other to empower tribal and forest peoples, are strong-armed into relinquishing even the “bare minimum” required to implement the government’s flagship forest rights law, it utterly discredits the United Progressive Alliance’s commitment to “inclusion” in its proclaimed agenda of inclusive economic growth. Further, the consequences of this single action go well beyond the intents of those who embark on it.

Linear infrastructure projects, such as roads and power lines, while often integral to growth and development, can also have negative effects. A 2010 background paper, prepared at the initiative of the National Board for Wildlife (NBWL), lists a range of ecological impacts caused by linear infrastructure intrusions in natural areas: habitat loss and fragmentation, the spread of invasive alien species, fires, animal mortality (e.g., roadkills, electrocution), disruption of animal corridors, increased developmental and hunting pressures, and an increase in pollution and other disturbances. Social impacts may include insensitive developments in tribal areas, encroachments and land-grabbing along roads (witnessed recently in the Aravallis around New Delhi), changes in local communities due to the entry of a large workforce from other regions, and an increase in tourism, and garbage. It is therefore important that gram sabhas and rural communities retain their right to provide consent after due consideration of how such projects may benefit or affect them.

The recent order also appears unjustified and arbitrary because the criteria for arriving at exemption for linear projects and what is meant by “several villages” are unclear. No evidence is provided as to whether gram sabha consent was in fact hindering vital development projects. Arguably, for large projects that involve a large number of gram sabhas, a situation where dissent from one or a few gram sabhas holds up a project that most other gram sabhas want, may be undesirable.

Yet, revoking the requirement for local consent is an undemocratic step that also removes opportunities for critical exploration of alternatives, such as realignments, or other ways of mitigating a project’s ecological and social impacts. Instead of viewing local consent as impeding development, it needs to be seen as a legitimate avenue for collective bargaining and peaceful action, vastly preferable to situations where forest communities are forced to turn to violent protest. In ways that an exclusively bureaucratic clearance process can never achieve, gram sabha consent can ensure that citizens are truly made partners in development and its benefits actually flow to the poorest.

The recent order of the environment ministry also conflates projects such as roads, power lines, and canals (not to mention the ominous ‘etc.’). Bundling them together just because they are all linear is a serious error as the effects of roads or canals on the environment or forest cover and on local communities are substantially different from the effects of power lines. For example, roads through forests can lead to soil erosion and wildlife deaths through collision with vehicles. Roads and canals can change hydrological and agricultural patterns, unlike power lines. While some social or environmental effects may be common to different kinds of linear projects, the distinctions are serious.

For more balance

Another danger in the order is that it weakens and vitiates the process of settling rights under the Forest Rights Act, which, as many rights groups have pointed out, has not been progressing smoothly, especially in areas where economic interests vie with the claims of forest dwellers. The ministry’s exemption affects rights settlement processes and may lead to an unfair rejection of claims. An overarching concern is the issue of precedent. If the Forest Rights Act can be diluted of its most crucial provision for some categories of projects, what is to prevent a cascade of claims for other exceptions, as are already emerging in the case of mining projects? This leads to a slippery slope that can ultimately defeat the entire spirit and intent of this rights-enabling legislation. In the words of the previous Environment Minister, Mr. Jairam Ramesh, “The question before the country is very, very simple. Are these laws to be enforced or are they to just adorn the statute books, honoured more in their breach than in their observance?”

The gains of economic growth frequently carry environmental and social costs. Instead of denying their existence or making arbitrary exemptions for projects, the trade-offs need to be acknowledged, making them explicit and transparent to citizens, strengthening the democratic foundations of decision-making, and creating more efficient and faster processes so that projects that further inclusive growth and development are not unduly hindered.

India’s remaining forest cover, particularly natural forests with native species (in contrast to planted forests of alien species such as eucalyptus), has declined in the last few decades. Remnant natural forests continue to be threatened by loss, degradation and conversion. Conserving remaining forest tracts is critical to safeguard India’s threatened biodiversity, watersheds, and minimise conflicts between people and wildlife, besides providing for vital livelihood and resource needs of forest-dwelling communities. When large infrastructure projects such as roads and canals run roughshod over rural communities without paying heed to social and environmental costs, society will only stand to lose in the long run. In that sense, even the term ‘infrastructure’ for such projects is a misnomer, as roads and canals are merely superstructures built upon the real infrastructure represented in human and natural capital.

The present order of the ministry, masterminded by the PMO, to dilute legal requirements meant to safeguard forest dwellers and the environment, is a move towards greater opacity and central control, favouring corporate-industrial interests over local people and marginalised communities. Where the government could be working to reconcile the needs of development and environment, it is instead driving further wedges between the two.

(T.R. Shankar Raman and M.D. Madhusudan are scientists with the Nature Conservation Foundation, Mysore. E-mails: trsr@ncf-india.org; mdm@ncf-india.org)