Congress, BJP spar over new forest conservation rules

The updated rules ignore rights of tribals: Jairam Ramesh

Updated - July 11, 2022 10:10 am IST

Published - July 10, 2022 09:59 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Union Minister Bhupendra Yadav and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh.

Union Minister Bhupendra Yadav and Congress leader Jairam Ramesh.

Union Environment Minister Bhupendra Yadav and Congress spokesperson Jairam Ramesh on Sunday engaged in war of words on Twitter on provisions of the Forest (Conservation) Rules, 2022. Mr. Ramesh, a former Union Environment Minister, alleged that the latest version of rules, updated last month, allowed forest land to be diverted to industry without settling questions of the rights of forest dwellers and tribals who resided on those lands.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, along with a 2009 government order, makes it mandatory to seek “free, prior and informed consent” of families who would be affected by such diversion of forest land, Mr. Ramesh stated, referencing a report by web portal Newslaundry, that highlighted this issue on Saturday.

A detailed statement from the Congress’ Twitter handle added that the new rules “destroyed the very purpose of the FRA” as once a forest clearance was granted (in this case by a Centre-constituted Forest Advisory Committee), no claims by forest dwellers and tribals would be recognised and settled. “The State governments will be under even greater pressure from the Centre to accelerate the process of diversion of forest land.”

‘Independent process’

Mr. Yadav rebutted Mr. Ramesh’s argument underlining that fulfilling and complying with the FRA, 2006 was an independent process and could be undertaken by States “at any stage” of the (forest clearance process) and that complying with provisions of the FRA is mentioned in the rules before States order diversion of the land. However, he said, it had to be completed before granting approval for land diversion.

The purpose of the updated rules, said Mr. Yadav, was to “streamline the approval process.” Mr. Yadav found support from his colleague and Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda, who tweeted that the Congress’ allegations were “baseless.” States were in charge of diverting forests for non-forestry uses and the Tribal Affairs Ministry regularly reviewed the implementation of the Act with them, he tweeted. The Congress’s charge was merely a “futile attempt” to divert attention from the fact that the NDA’s presidential candidate was a tribal woman (Draupadi Murmu).

‘No role for Gram Sabhas’

An independent expert in legal questions surrounding the FRA told The Hindu that the new rules undermined the role of the Gram Sabha or the village body whose consent was required for any large-scale diversion not involving linear projects (linear projects are construction of roads, highways, railways and are exempt from Gram Sabha approvals). “There is the question of settlement of rights and another of placing it before the Gram Sabha for their consent. Now the ‘consent’ aspect is gone and the Gram Sabha has no power or say in matters of deciding on the use of the land,” said Ritwick Dutta, environment lawyer and founder of the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment.

Though even earlier, the Gram Sabha’s permission was not required for diverting forest land, its verdict had significant “persuasive power” and if there was strong disapproval for a project, it could influence decisions to go ahead with the diversion process. “Now the State government only has to ascertain if officials have settled the land titles and rights provided under the FRA at the location where the forest diversion is to take place. It doesn’t need to go into questions of whether the people are willing to cede their land.”

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