The Congress government in Himachal Pradesh on Thursday withdrew its petition challenging a recent National Green Tribunal order that stopped a hydropower project in the state until affected gram sabhas cleared it, within a week of filing it in the Supreme Court.
The move came after the Congress leadership at the Centre took a stand against the position of the state government which party leaders say was seen against the spirit of the forest rights act (FRA).
HT had first reported on Monday that the Himachal government opposed the green tribunal’ order asking it to seek an approval for the Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation project from the gram sabhas of 19 affected tribal villages in Kinnaur district, saying they consisted of “unskilled” people and the project could not be held back for their permission.
Sources said the state government’s petition did not go down well with the party leadership at the Centre, which has been accusing the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of “diluting” the FRA.
The law recognises the traditional rights of forest dwellers on forest resources and makes it mandatory for the projects coming up in forest areas to take approval from the affected gram sabhas before the forests can be chopped.
Sources added the directions to withdraw the petition came from Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s office, who is slated to tour the country demanding proper implementation of the FRA.
“We have an indelible faith in right of gram sabha and gram panchayats as constitutionally recognised entities for protection and preservation of forests rights as also rights of forest dwellers. Himachal government’s decision to withdraw its petition is a testament to this commitment espoused by Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi,” said Congress in a statement.
The role of the central leadership was also clear from the fact that senior Congress leader and Supreme Court lawyer Salman Khurshid argued on behalf of the state government for withdrawing the petition in place of the state government’s counsel a day before the scheduled hearing for the case.
“The matter which had been filed indicated that our commitment to FRA is not strong which is not correct. We told the court that it was important to withdraw the petition right away as there cannot be any misgiving when it comes to tribal rights. Fortunately, the court agreed to dismiss the petition since there were no notices were issued on the matter yet,” Khurshid told HT.
“The central party leadership was in discussion with the state government for the past couple of days. We concluded that there was no reason for the state to file the petition to amend the NGT orders as the NGT order was itself issued with the consent of the state government during the course of the hearings,” Khurshid added.
In May, the NGT suspended the forest clearance for the 130-mw project on grounds that it “prima facie” violated the provisions of the FRA. Residents of the villages affected by the project had approached the green court, saying the consent of the gram sabhas was not taken by the project, a pre-requisite for forest clearance under FRA.