Settling forest rights a must now

By Sumana Narayanan
Published: Monday 31 August 2009

Vedanta and POSCO may find going tough in Orissa

in a move likely to benefit tribal people and forest communities, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (moef) has made the law tougher for industries and government agencies that want to divert forestland for industrial and infrastructure projects. On August 4, the ministry issued an advisory to all the states saying such projects will be allowed only after the states settle the rights of forest dwellers under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. The law will be applicable to upcoming as well as pending projects.

Though the Act says no forest dweller can be evicted unless his occupancy is verified and recognized, things worked differently on the ground. The states invariably obtain clearances to divert forestland by merely stating rights of forest dwellers would be settled later; the ministry used to accept it. But now the ministry has put its foot down. "We will give final clearance only after the states comply with the forest rights act. Even those projects that have obtained in principle clearance will have to comply," said a senior official in the moef.

The decision may prove to be stumbling block for controversial projects like the Vedanta bauxite mine in Niyamgiri hills and posco's steel plant; both projects are to be set up in Orissa.

The advisory issued by the ministry also says states will have to provide a list of eight proofs that they have complied with the Act. This includes consent of gram sabhas that the rights of forest dwellers have been settled. "The order can be a useful tool for communities and activists to ensure the forest rights act is followed though there are chances the law will be circumvented," said Madhu Sarin, policy analyst on natural resource management. She warned the ministry may end up modifying the circular under pressure from industries.

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