In the case of Vedanta, the UPA government took proactive steps to defend the rights of tribals but it has done just the opposite to clear the Mahan coal block in Madhya Pradesh, ignoring tribal and environmental interests.
This in spite of the repeated advice of its statutory expert committee as well as two successive environment ministers and its Tribal Affairs Ministry under the watchful eye of the PMO and a collective decision of the Group of Ministers (GoM), headed by Pranab Mukherjee, who at the time of the decision was Finance Minister.
Documents with The Hindu show how the government, unlike in the Vedanta bauxite mining case, sidestepped regulations and worked proactively to clear the coal block for a Rs. 6,500-crore joint venture of Hindalco and Essar.
The reason for the clearance given under the Forest Conservation Act had little to do with environmental concerns as the projects had already taken off and a cancellation would expose nationalised banks that had provided the funding to a difficult situation.
Signing off on the green nod, Environment and Forests Minister Jayanthi Natarajan wrote, “Despite reservations against the diversion of the dense forest land expressed strongly by the MoEF at the GoM, and the fact that the entire civil work and construction of the plant is already complete after procurement of environmental clearance — and resulting inter alia in huge exposure to nationalised banks — Forest Clearance may be granted to the Mahan Coal block.”
Her predecessor, Jairam Ramesh had taken a similar route of argument, noting that the coal block sat under one of the richest forests in the country. It had also been classified as a no-go area but the policy of declaring rich forests no-go zones itself was done away with later. Mr. Ramesh also noted that the expert panel meant to appraise and advise the ministry on forest clearances — the Forest Advisory Committee — had repeatedly recommended against giving clearance. He noted how the PMO had repeatedly written forwarding letters from the corporates concerned and that the heads of the companies had come to meet him on the issue as well. As had been decided beforehand by the government, he referred the matter to the Group of Ministers on coal and environment issues.
While the environmental concerns had been raised by Mr. Ramesh and Ms. Natarajan, and the FAC, the concern about tribal rights under the Forest Rights Act had been carefully avoided, unlike in the Vedanta case.
The FAC itself was filled with senior forest officials who had perpetually opposed directions of the government to ensure consent of tribals in areas where the Forest Rights Act applies. They had ignored the orders in many cases and Mr. Ramesh, then Minister in charge, also overlooked the requirement. By the time the decision on Mahan was to be taken by the GoM, the PMO recommended that such consent be not asked for.
Though the present Environment Minister did not accept the report, except in cases of linear projects, she did change the rules that required the FAC to consider compliance with the FRA. She ordered that compliance with the FRA be ensured at the second and final stage of forest clearance. At the first stage, the FAC recommends the case and if the government agrees, it will give the State government concerned a stage one clearance with several conditions attached. FRA compliance became one of these.
In due time, Tribal Affairs Minister V. Kishore Chandra Deo wrote to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the Chief Minister, the Governor and the Environment Minister, noting that the Mahan coal block had been ‘wrested in favour’ of the companies despite clear violations of the FRA and strong misgivings about a nexus between local authorities and the companies involved, leading to large-scale violation of rights. He noted that cases of forged consent letters from villagers had come to light.
But Mr. Deo’s own position weakened on the FRA as he had in principle agreed to dilution of the need for consent from tribals in reaction to the earlier PMO report. Ms. Natarajan wrote back to him stating issues of tribal rights would be dealt with before the stage 2 and final clearance was given.
In the case of Vedanta, the government had been pro-active in sending a special committee to examine violations of tribal rights and forest law, while in this case, it collectively worked overtime to overlook the same.