The BJP government in Chhattisgarh appears to have put economic growth ahead of environmental concerns, following the central forest ministry’s lead in attempts to dilute tribespeople’s rights over forestland to push industrialisation.
While the union ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) made several unsuccessful attempts to do away with the requirement of consent from village assemblies under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) to divert forestland for industrial use, some states are now impeding the implementation of the law.
The Chhattisgarh government issued a letter on July 27 to all district collectors to instruct every gram sabha (village assembly) to pass a resolution on August 15 stating all claims of tribal rights under the FRA were settled and no eligible claimants were left.
Experts say the move comes despite the state’s poor record of FRA implementation with the Raman Singh government itself admitting before the union ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) last month that the law was yet to be applied in several parts of the state. Mineral-rich Chhattisgarh has one of the highest numbers of tribespeople and forest dwellers in the country.
Several complaints of district authorities and project proponents forcibly acquiring such certificates from gram sabhas or forging them before diverting forestland for industrial use have been reported across India, with the Chhattisgarh government’s decision being seen as another such step.
Enacted in 2006, the FRA recognises traditional rights of forest dwellers over forestland and resources, which had been ignored historically. It mandates that forest dwellers cannot be displaced from land under their possession unless all the eligible claims of rights under the FRA in the area are settled.
Critics say the state government’s move to bypass the FRA, particularly in Maoist-hit territories will further alienate the local population that lives on the margins of society.
To bring the process of forestland diversion in consonance with the Act, the MoEFCC issued an order in 2009 saying no diversion of forestland would be allowed unless gram sabhas in affected areas certified that rights’ claims under the FRA were settled and they had no objections.
The ministry over the past few months had been attempting to do away with this requirement for forestland to be diverted for linear projects such as highways, railway and transmission lines to facilitate faster clearances.
The MoTA opposed such dilutions, calling it infringement in its territory and on tribal rights.
The turf war between the two ministries seemed to have ended with the union law ministry giving an opinion in the MoTA’s favour.
The minutes of a review meeting of the tribal affairs ministry on the FRA held on July 14 show the implementation of the law is yet to take off in some areas of Chhattisgarh after eight years of its enactment.
MoTA data reveals close to 60% of the claims filed by forest dwellers for rights under the FRA have either been rejected or are pending.
While the Act says every village with forest dwellers should have collective rights over community forests, so far not a single community forest rights title has reportedly been issued by the state.