11-year-old order for relocating three Maharashtra villages used for conversion in 18 states
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has changed the legal status of 122 villages in 18 states, which were relocated from protected areas (PAs).
“The approval of the competent authority of the MoEF&CC is hereby conveyed for change in the legal status of forest land to revenue land in respect of all the 122 villages in 18 states, which have been relocated to forest areas from the National Parks/Wildlife Sanctuaries/Tiger Reserve,” says the circular, dated May 20, 2019.
The ministry has also set conditions to be followed when relocating villages from the core areas of PAs to their periphery. Now, relocation within the boundary of the notified forest will only happen if the District Collector gives a certificate, stating that no non-forest land is available for relocation to National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA).
The circular, which is based on a Supreme Court (SC) order of January 28, 2019 says that the SC accepted the recommendation of the Central Empowered Committee (CEC) report of September 28, 2018.
The CEC had recommended that the SC order of November 21, 2008, where it allowed MoEF&CC to relocate three villages — Kosla, Botezari and Palasgaon in Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary in District Chandrapur, Maharashtra — to the periphery of the PA, should be extended to the entire country.
The apex court had also allowed the MoEFCC to change the legal status of the forest land to revenue land. “The MoEF&CC circular has made many additions to the earlier SC order on Maharashtra. That order was site specific and dealt with only three villages. They have now extended it to the entire country,” said Shomona Khanna, an advocate who works on Forest Rights Act related issues.
“The court appears to have been kept in the dark about the detailed provisions under both the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 and the Forest Rights Act, 2006. These require completion of rights settlement processes like carrying out scientific studies on coexistence, taking consent from gram sabha, etc, prior to any relocation,” added Khanna, who was also former legal consultant at the Ministry of Tribal Affairs.
However, the main implication of this decision will be on the relocated people. “When you change the legal status of the land from forest to revenue, then the protective legislations around forest land like Forest Rights Act, 2006 and Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 will go too. It’ll be very easy to grab or alienate the lands of these people,” said Tushar Dash of Community Forest Rights- Learning and Advocacy (CFR-LA) — a national level group of experts and activists working on rights of forest dwelling communities.
“Conversion of forest land to revenue land militates against the basic principle of the FRA, which prohibits any kind of land alienation. Such conversion would make these lands vulnerable to land mafia and market forces of all sorts,” Khanna added.
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