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"Take away" gram sabhas' rights in diverting forest land for irrigation, gas pipeline, transmission line projects

By Our Representative
Over and above seeking to solicit "utmost complete faith" in the corporate sector in providing environmental clearance, the Report of the High Level Committee on Forest and Environment Related Laws, formed by the Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), has asked the Government of India to scale down the role of the gram sabhas in diverting forest land. Released last week, the report, whose copy is with Counterview, says that the “provisions of forest rights Act (FRA), which make it mandatory to seek the approval of gram sabha, should be amended.”
Headed by former Union Cabinet secretary TSR Subramanian – and consisting of Vishwanath Anand, former secretary, Government of India; Bishwanath Sinha, joint secretary, ministry of forests and environment; member-secretary, Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), Hardik Shah; retired judge of the Delhi High Court Justice AK Srivastava; and senior advocate of the Supreme Court KN Bhat – the committee, interestingly, did not have even one well-known environmentalist.
The need to amend the FRA, the committee said, is necessary to ensure implementation of what are called “linear projects”, including transportation lines, gas pipelines, irrigation canals, and transmission lines, which  “are generally for the benefit of the community at large”. By setting aside the gram sabha approval, it added, will be possible for such projects to be implemented on a "priority" basis.
The further said, the diversion of forest land for linear projects “should be appraised through a special cell” to be set up under the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) (or the State Environmental Management Authority (SEMA)” at the state level in order to “fast-track” these. The committee provides concessions in the “core area of forests and wildlife protected areas”, too. Saying that approvals should not “ordinarily be given for construction of any projects, including linear projects”, it said, there should be “exceptions” such as “re-laying of the existing roads.”
As for the rest of the forest areas, it explained, “In the matters of forest land diversion where the rights under FRA have not been settled and a proposal for linear project is considered for approval, the committee recommends that the provisions of FR Act which make it mandatory to seek the approval of gram sabha should be amended to dispense with this condition in general to ensure that the benefit of such linear projects are available to the recipient population.”
Interestingly, the committee does not seek to provide autonomy to the new authorities it has proposed, e NEMA or SEMA. It said, “In the context of paragraph 7.14 (xiii) as to whether NEMA ought to have final authority to confer approvals, or should refer their findings for a final decision to the MoEF, the committee considered the matter in depth. It was noted that the mandate for implementing the environmental laws, and by implication give environment/ forest approvals has been conferred by the Parliament to the Executive, in this case represented by MoEF.”
It added, “While all technical aspects of an application/ proposal for clearance would be examined on merits by the NEMA, it was felt that the final approval or rejection powers should be retained by the MoEF. This is because there may be many other factors, relating to relationship with neighbouring countries, need to address regional disparity issues, dealing with areas and regions with special problems and issues, and need to take national security issues into account etc.”
The committee underlined, “The NEMA may not always be privy to such considerations; besides the GoI may not also like to share sensitive information in some instances with subordinate formations. Taking these factors into account, the committee felt that the authority for final decision should be with the MoEF, with the proviso that specific reasons need to be assigned when the Ministry disagrees with the findings/ recommendations of the NEMA in a particular instance.”
Referring to the need to amend the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Notification, 2006, the committee said, “The condition on the ownership and the physical possession of the land by the project proponent at the time of submission of application should be dispensed with, and be replaced as the ownership and possession before the construction or enabling activity thereof is started..”
It added, “However, the responsibility for acquiring the land should remain that of the project proponent and the Government shall remain indemnified for any liability on account of acts of the project proponent in this regard.”
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Click HERE to download the full report

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