Forestland diversion for roads, railway lines made easy
Gram sabhas or village councils will no longer have the power to reject building of roads, railways, transmission lines or other such linear projects. The Union ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), on February 5, exempted developers of such projects from the requirement to obtain consent of the gram sabhas to divert forestland for non-forest purpose.
Earlier in 2009, MoEF had made consent of affected gram sabhas mandatory for all projects that need diversion of forestland for non-forest purposes. The order was issued by the ministry keeping in mind the spirit of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 which mandates that forest dwellers cannot be resettled from forests unless their traditional rights over forest resources are recognised. The ministry had ordered that project proponents would have to submit certificates from the affected gram sabhas, stating that the rights of the forest dwellers under FRA have been settled and that the gram sabhas have no objection to the project.
Various ministries had been lobbying with MoEF, requesting it to exempt linear projects such as roads, canals, pipelines and transmission lines which pass through several villages. An inter-ministerial committee formed by the Prime Minister's Office had also recommended in December that linear projects should be exempted from having to obtain gram sabhas' approval. Last month, the National Highway Authority of India dragged MoEF and the ministry of tribal affairs to the Supreme Court, seeking exemption for highway projects.
“Projects like construction of roads, canals, laying of pipelines, optical fibres and transmission lines, where linear diversion of use of forestland in several villages are involved, unless recognised rights of Primitive Tribal Groups or Pre-Agricultural Communities are being affected, are exempted from the requirement of taking consent of the concerned gram sabhas,” says MoEF's latest order.
While tribal affairs minister V Kishore Chandra Deo and the environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan have publicly said they are against dilution of FRA and the ministry's 2009 order, they have both agreed to treat linear projects differently. The MoEF's order specifically mentions that Deo had agreed for this exemption in a letter written to the minister of power on January 21.