In what could come as an embarrassment to the Congress that has been accusing the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of “diluting” the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the Himachal Pradesh government has opposed an order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which asked it to place a hydroelectric project proposal before the affected gram sabhas for approval under the tribal rights law. The Himachal government said the NGT order cannot be followed as the gram sabhas members are unskilled.
“The gram sabha is the deciding authority to comply with the directions of the NGT but it consists of unskilled persons/local residents. Hence, it is not possible for the state to comply with the directions of NGT,” the state-run Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation (HPPC) said in a petition filed in the Supreme Court against the NGT order, which will come up for hearing on Monday.
On May 4, the NGT had suspended the forest clearance for the 130-mw Kashang Hydro Electric Project of HPPC on the grounds that it “prima facie” violated the provisions of FRA. The law recognises the traditional rights of forest dwellers and mandates that none of them would be displaced from the forest unless their rights under the law are recognised.
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.
The NGT found that rights of the forest dwellers had not been settled in the region and ordered that the HPPC project proposal be discussed in the gram sabhas of the four affected villages in presence of a judicial officer, where the gram sabhas would decide on the project’s impact on forest dwellers’ rights.
The HPPC countered in its petition that it had taken a ‘no objection certificate’ for the hydroelectric project from one of the affected panchayats in 2007. “Despite the alternative remedies available with the NGT, it had again put the rider on the forest clearance, subject to the approval of the gram sabha of the (four affected) villages… which is against the principles of natural justice and transparency in public administration,” the petition says. It claimed that all the required conditions had been fulfilled on the basis of which the Union environment ministry had granted it the forest clearance.