Changes to Forest Conservation Rules dilute forest rights, say tribal communities

Consent from forest dwellers not mandatory for changing land use under new amendments; Activists demand withdrawal

By Himanshu Nitnaware
Published: Wednesday 27 July 2022
Tribals use the revenue forest land for livelihood purposes, which comes under threat under the new amendments

Tribal communities across the country have asked the central government to withdraw the recent amendments to the Forest Conservation Rules. Activists said the amendments directly axe the rights of tribes and forest dwellers over forest resources.

Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) — a national forum for tribal communities and forest dwellers — has written to Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MOEFCC) over the issue.

An order by the MOEFCC June 29 notified the Forest Conservation Rules (FCR), 2022. The notification replaced the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2009 and its subsequent amendments in 2004, 2014 and 2017.

Read more: Forest conservation & consent: How Gram Sabhas halted risky projects in the past

The changes offering ease to businesses will also dilute the essence of forest rights and environmental conservation, activists said.

FRA had made it mandatory to seek “free, prior and informed consent” of families affected by the diversion of forest land, said Gopinath Majhi, state convener of CSD.

“A letter from the district collector was required seeking permission for land-use diversion,” he said. However, now the rights have been delegated to the state governments.

Removing the clause dilutes the rights, as permission from the states is merely a formality for the users.

Allocating land under the FRA is just for show as diluting the rules takes away their rights, he added.

MOEFCC ignored the objections raised by the tribal affairs ministry, said Tushar Dash. He is an independent researcher working for the rights of tribals.

“Only the Gram Sabhas have the authority to decide on the diversion of forest land to potential users under the FRA,” he said.

Corporates and other commercial entities can now easily arm twist tribal communities to obtain necessary consent or suppress any opposition, a conservationist said on the condition of anonymity.

Dash said another issue is the introduction of land banks for afforestation purposes.

“Tribals use the revenue forest land for livelihood purposes. The new guidelines allow private players to use the land for plantation, which can lead to monoculture cultivation — thus affecting biodiversity,” he added.

Plantations for commercial use by private players are another threat as the locals will be deprived of the use of land primarily meant for them, Dash added.

The new provisions also provided exemptions on projects requiring over 1,000 hectares of land, he further said.

“The clearance process is relaxed. So, a developer does not need to take clearances at one go for diverting land use,” he added.

One may take approval over a part of the land to begin the work and take clearances at the final stage. Such a provision would encourage illegalities and confusion and the statutory requirement of obtaining consent of locals can be ignored, Dash said.

Change in the rules cannot override a statute, said Y Giri Rao, executive director of Vasundhara. The non-profit works for tribal rights.

“Section 5 of the FRA empowers Gram Sabhas to stop any activities detrimental to forests and biodiversity, wildlife, and eco-sensitive zones,” Rao said.

Read more: How Nagri, a modern nagar panchayat in Chhattisgarh, fought for its traditional forest boundary

Omissions like these in the amendments have irked marginalised communities, said another activist working for tribal rights.

“The government is derailing the spirit of FRA by deleting the provisions, especially some rules that were mandatory earlier,” the activist said.

However, the activist suggested approaching the issue differently.

“Tribal communities can move the court in case of a dispute. Investors may not necessarily want to lock their investments in disputed areas,” they said, adding that people from scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST) communities can claim atrocities under the FRA.

The FRA also guaranteed ensuring the conservation of biodiversity, sensitive ecological zones, wildlife and its habitats and the heritage of forest-dwelling communities before considering any development activity.

“But the ground reality is that the Gram Sabhas are not empowered and may face difficulty in opposing corporates,” the activist said.

Dash said that the new amendments defeated the motive of India becoming carbon neutral by 2070.

“Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Glasgow, 2021 announced to become carbon neutral in coming decades. However, if we continue to destroy our forests, how will we achieve those targets in the absence of carbon sinks like green cover?” Dash asked.

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