Mass protests in Mumbai, Dehradun against Centre’s attempts to undermine forest rights

Demonstrations follow T S R Subramanian Committee report recommending measures to fast-track environmental clearances

By Vijay Ravikumar
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Representative photograph (Photo Courtesy Shramik Adivasi Sangathan)

Thousands of people gathered in Mumbai and Dehradun on Monday to protest recent attempts by the NDA government to undermine the rights of local communities to manage and protect their forests. Specifically targeted is the requirement for gram sabha consent on all projects seeking to divert forestland for non-forest purposes, as guaranteed by the Forest Rights Act (2006).

Attempts to bypass this consent are illegal, and against the orders of the Supreme Court in 2013, the protestors said.

These demonstrations come just four days after the T S R Subramanian Committee released its review of the environmental laws of the country, with the aim of streamlining environmental clearances for development projects.

Included in the report is a recommendation to implement a "fast-tracking" of "linear projects" such as roads, railways, and transmission lines. This procedure would allow approval of linear projects without gram sabha consent.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) attempted to do away with consent for linear project in February 2013 also. But the move was vehemently opposed by the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA), which asserted in a letter dated March 7, 2014 that any attempt to bypass gram sabha consent is illegal and against the directive of the Supreme Court.
The letter states that MoTA is the competent ministry relating to FRA 2006, and hence MoEF has no authority to issue orders against the spirit of the Act.

Neema Pathak-Broome, of Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, remarked that "the TSR Subramanian Committee's disregard for the MoTA—which is supposed to represent the interests of the tribal population—indicates how seriously this population is taken by the government." She went on to say that through the requirement for gram sabha consent, "communities have a tool in law by which they can assert their right to take part in decisions regarding their environments and natural resources. Unfortunately that law which gives rights to the most underpriviledged of people is being diluted at the stroke of a pen".

The T S R Subramanian report represents only the latest attempt by the government to weaken the Forest Rights Act. For example, on July 31, under pressure from the Prime Minister's Office, MoEF&CC issued orders, claiming that gram sabha consent is not required for the acquisition of forestland. On October 28, MoEF&CC issued another notification, giving certain district collectors the power to decide whether implementation of the FRA is required for the diversion of forestland.

The protests in Mumbai and Dehradun follow a series of actions in Kanyakumari, Wayanad (Kerala), Raipur (Chattisgarh), Bhopal, and Dangs District (Gujarat)

The central demand is for the government to respect the power of the gram sabha to manage, use and protect the forests.

Constitution of High Level Committee under the Chairmanship of Shri T.S.R. Subramanian, Former Cabinet Secretary to review various Acts administered by Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006

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