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Order "undermining" gram sabha in diverting forest land would "promote cronyism, corruption": NGO

By Our Representative
Prominent people’s organizations have begun to object to the latest Government of India move to undermine the right of the tribal gram sabhas (or general body meetings of villagers) to be consulted before kickstarting any non-forest activity in the forest areas. In a strongly worded letter to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), Government of India, the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD), Odisha, said the move funs against the spirit of the “historic” Forest Rights Act, 2006 passed by under the previous UPA government.
Pointing out that such “diversion” without gram sabha approval was unacceptable, the NGO said, “The Act was supported by all parties and lauded as a step towards addressing the historical injustice done to forest dwelling communities in the country.” Targeting the MoEF, the CSD alleged, “We are dismayed to find that the Ministry appears to be intent on undermining this Act, destroying its transparent processes, and giving all powers to officials.”
In its order dated October 28, the MoEF had said, following “representations” from several Union ministries, and after obtaining “concurrence” of the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, it has decided that projects – like construction of roads, canals, laying of pipelines/ optical fibres and transmission lines etc., “where linear diversion of use of forest land in several villages are involved” – should be exempted from the requirement of obtaining consent of the concerned gram sabha.
Saying that the MoEF was acting in an “ill-intentioned” manner, the CSD said, “MoEF’s repeated attempts to restrict the requirement for the consent of the gram sabha before diversion of forest land are unfortunate. Despite the Supreme Court's ruling in Orissa Mining Corporation vs. Union of India - which clearly upheld this requirement, flowing from section 5 of the Act - the Ministry continues to try to exempt various projects from this requirement.”
Calling it a “patently illegal order”, the NGO said, the effort was to empower district collectors to decide whether or not the Forest Rights Act is applicable in a particular area. It added, “The requirement for the consent of the gram sabha is in no sense a source of delay for project clearances and is the minimum requirement if the Forest Rights Act is to have any meaning. There is no point in empowering people to manage forests if those forests can then be destroyed on the whim of a bureaucrat”.
CSD said, “The attempts to empower district collectors or other officials to decide when the rights recognition process is complete (as in the Forest Conservation Rules notified in March). This is also illegal as it is in direct violation of section 6(1) of the Forest Rights Act. Moreover, it amounts to empowering precisely the same officials who are responsible for the denial of forest rights till date.” It added, “It is no surprise that in every single case where a Collector's certificate of rights recognition has been inquired into, it has been found to be false.”
CSD further said that the October 28 order was seeking to “incite” companies and government officials to “violate the law and commit criminal offences under the Forest Rights Act and the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act in the name of easier clearances". It was seeking to “mislead” investors and project proponents that the Forest Rights Act could be bypassed.
Calling this as nothing but an effort to promote “corruption and cronyism”, the letter warned, “Ignoring the actual sources of illegality, corruption and arbitrariness in the clearance process” is in “direct violation of the orders of the Supreme Court and will lead to a flood of litigations.” It added, “We hope that the Ministry will take swift action to ensure that diversion of forest land takes place in accordance with the law, without incitement to illegality and corruption.”

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