Tribals’ consent on forestland only in exceptional cases: Govt

NEW DELHI: The government has diluted its stand on requiring consent from tribals before handing over their forestlands for projects in an affidavit filed before the Supreme Court on the Vedanta case.

The changed policy cited in the affidavit of the government, contrary to existing regulations, could now make it easy for hundreds of other projects as well which require formal consent from tribals who have rights over forestlands under the Forest Rights Act.

Congress scion Rahul Gandhi had projected his pro-tribal image by leading the cause of tribals while the government rejected Vedanta’s proposal to mine bauxite in their traditional forests basing its decision on the lack of consent from the Dongria Kondh tribe inhabiting the Niyamgiri hills.

TOI accessed a copy of the government’s affidavit prepared jointly by the tribal affairs and environment ministries that said such consent would be required only in exceptional cases where the government decides the ‘quality of life’ of the tribals may be affected and ‘a large number of them displaced’ – both provisions absent in the existing law and regulations and left undefined by the government in the new affidavit.

Instead of citing its regulations which bar use of forestlands by project developers without the consent of tribals, the government has instead defended its Vedanta decision on the ground that the project fell over land which is a sacred ground and would deny the tribals “their sacred places of worship and thereby amount to a violation of their fundamental right to manage their own affairs in the matter of religion”.

The new position is all the more contrary to the one it had taken previously before the apex court claiming tribal rights handed over through the UPA’s Forest Rights Act could not be extinguished for development projects.

On an odd note, now the consent, government has said, would be required for setting up dispensaries, fair price shops and providing other such basic needs to the tribals in the forestlandbut not for most of the industrial and development projects.

The line taken by the government takes its cue from a report the PMO had prepared in November 2012 recommending dilution of tribal rights. The report itself was recently rejected by the government with the environment minister raising concerns that it was in violation of the Forest Rights Act.

The PMO had then decided along with the two nodal ministers to only seek exemption for roads and other linear projects from the need for gram sabha consent. But in the court affidavit it has now stated that consent would be required only in exceptional cases when it so decides.

The environment ministry had in August 2009 passed orders bringing the forest clearance process in agreement with the Forest Rights Act and making it mandatory that rights of tribals over forests not be extinguished without their consent. But the unease of the government ensured the rules were followed more often in breach though in the case of Vedanta, they were cited, besides other reasons, for blocking the project, while Rahul Gandhi took lead in claiming he would work like a ‘sipahi (solider)’ for the tribals.

The first formal attempt to do away with the regulations came from the PMO after the infrastructure ministries complained against it. But leaking of the PMO report in the public domain led to uproar from tribal groups and forced the government to not go the whole hog in diluting the rules. But stealthily, it seems to have decided to get the same done through an affidavit in the Supreme Court where a judicial approval on the position could help the government seal the diluted norm without an explicit move in public domain.

[Source — Times of India]

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