Forest Conservation Rules infringe upon land rights of tribespeople: ST panel chief

It is our duty to ‘caution government’ when its policies have potential to affect the rights of tribal people, says Harsh Chouhan, Chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes

Updated - October 21, 2022 12:14 am IST

Published - October 20, 2022 09:38 pm IST - New Delhi

Women hug trees in Odisha’s Jhinkargadi in November 2018 as part of a mass movement to save a forest.

Women hug trees in Odisha’s Jhinkargadi in November 2018 as part of a mass movement to save a forest. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

It is the duty of the commission to “caution the government” when its policies have the potential to affect the well-being and rights of tribal people, Harsh Chouhan, Chairperson of the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes (NCST), told The Hindu on Thursday. He said this was why the NCST had recommended to the Union Environment and Forest Ministry to put the new Forest Conservation Rules, 2022, on hold.  

“We wrote to the government about the rules, which essentially eliminate the requirement of consent of local tribespeople and forest dwellers for diversion of forest land for other purposes,” Mr. Chouhan said. He said this would amount to infringing upon the land rights of tribespeople under the Forest Rights Act, an argument the Opposition Congress had been making since the rules were issued. 

The rules were issued by the Environment Ministry in June this year under the Forest Conservation Act and both Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav and Tribal Affairs Minister Arjun Munda have repeatedly defended the rules, which were issued in a bid to aid the government’s “ease of doing business” mission. 

Six-member working group

But soon after the rules were issued, the NCST formed a six-member working group that included members of the commission and experts to look into whether the rules issued in June violated any provisions in the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and if they infringed upon the rights of tribal people, according to officials. Based on the conclusion of this working group and repeated dialogue with villagers in forest areas and other stakeholders, the commission decided to recommend that the new rules be put on hold, Mr. Chouhan said.

The NCST chief then wrote to the Environment Ministry on September 2, pointing out that the Ministry should, for now, focus on implementing the rules framed in 2017 and put on hold the new rules issued this year. It also dismissed the Tribal Affairs Ministry’s and Environment Ministry’s defence that provisions of the FRA are implemented parallelly and that the rules will not affect or dilute land rights of tribespeople. 

This intervention from the NCST gave impetus to the Congress’ repeated calls for withdrawing the rules, with General Secretary in-charge of Communications Jairam Ramesh saying on Twitter, “The Minister @byadavbjp will not listen to me or the Congress party, but he must surely listen to his own colleagues in the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes and withdraw the anti-tribal Forest Conservation Rules.”

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