‘Central government's attempts to do away with consent of Gram Sabhas for diverting forests unconstitutional’
A group of activists and non-profits have written a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, expressing concern over recent attempts by the government to do away with the mandatory requirement of Gram Sabha consent under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) for diversion of forestland for development. The proposed changes in the process of diversion of forests, the petitioners said, “will be unconstitutional and will impact the decisions taken by our august Parliament”.
The plea follows reports that the Union ministry of environment and forests is working to do away with the mandatory consent of the gram sabhas for clearing forest for non-forest uses. “The proposed modifications are in direct violation of the Forest Rights Act, a historic legislation which was enacted by Parliament after a prolonged struggle by Adivasis and forest dwelling communities, with the intent of overturning 150 years of injustice done to this country's poorest communities,” said the petition signed by more than 30 organisations and individuals working on Forest Rights Act. The signatories to the petition include Y Giri Rao and Tushar Dash from Vasundhara, Neema Pathak and Meenal Tatpati from Kalpavriksh, Pune, and forest rights advocate Madhu Sarin.
The activists and academicians also pointed out that the proposed changes are also against the directions of the Supreme Court of India. The court has affirmed the central role of Gram Sabhas in decision making and the statutory requirement of consent from Gram Sabhas in the landmark judgment in the case of diversion of forestland in customary habitat of Dongria Kondhs in Niyamgiri in Odisha, the letter stated (see ‘Battle for Niyamgiri’).
FRA was enacted to address the historical injustice meted out to Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, including those displaced by developmental projects. It mandates that no forest dweller can be evicted from forestland until his or her forest rights are settled. Drawing from the fact that FRA gives absolute authority to the Gram Sabha to take decisions on the forests under their jurisdiction, MoEF, in 2009, made it mandatory for industrial projects to take consent from the Gram Sabhas before applying to MoEF for the permission.
The petitioners pointed out that several states continue to violate the provisions of the MoEF circular regarding Gram Sabha consent. “To fulfill the 50 per cent quorum requirement, Gram Sabha resolutions have been forged by local level officials and project proponents, for instance, in Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh, for the diversion of forestland for Mahan Coal Ltd, and in Hensamul village in Angul District of Odisha where no Gram Sabha meeting was conducted in the first place. Often, project proponents themselves conduct Gram Sabha meetings without the knowledge of the district administration,” they said.
The activists said that they were deeply shocked that the Central government had not taken actions against such projects. “We seek your immediate and urgent intervention to prevent such violation of the letter and spirit of a historically significant Act and to fulfill your promises,” said the petition.
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