Deforestation and disease affecting Indian forests in Arunachal Pradesh. Shuttershock/Daniel J Rao. All rights reserved
Despite the bold warning from the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of the catastrophic impacts of rising temperature on the global climate, Narendra Modi's Government is all set to enact changes to weaken the existing environment and land acquisition laws of India, in order to promote industrialisation and ensure high economic growth, allege activists and environmental experts.
The Minister of State for Environment, Prakash Javadekar, has “delinked forest clearance from clearance by the National Board of Wild Life and halved NBWL clearance requirements from 10 km to 5km around forest reserves, besides emasculating the Board by replacing eminent experts and concerned NGOs with rubber stamps. He has also relaxed procedures for the application of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) in precisely those areas where FCA is most required: Naxal-affected areas; linear projects in forest areas; and in eco-sensitive areas along the international border”, says Mani Shankar Aiyar, a Congress leader and Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Indian Parliament).
“Modi’s government has further threatened to heavily dilute the landmark Land Acquisition Act that they themselves voted for but a year ago, and amend with a view to diluting a whole raft of environmental protection legislation ranging across the gamut of the Environment Protection Act, the Wildlife Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act, and the Water and Air Pollution Act, while preserving the highly discriminatory colonial legislation that is the Mother of all forest Acts in its current form - the Indian Forests Act, 1927”, Aiyar adds.
Diluting the Forest Rights Act
In its attempt to dilute the norms of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) from 2006, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has exempted projects seeking the conversion of plantations categorised as forests after December 13, 1930 that have no tribal population as per the recent census, from the requirements of “initiation and completion of the process for recognition and vesting of forest rights of scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers.” The recent order from the Ministry empowers the district administrative authorities to clear the land conversion proposals at their level in these cases.
Most of the forests across the country can thus be handed over to corporations without any hassle because most standing plantations presently operating under various working plans of the forest department have emerged after this cut-off date (1930), says Soumitra Ghosh of the All India Forum of Forest Movements (AIFFM).
Condemning the attempts to empower District Collectors or other officials to take decisions over the conversion of forest land, Campaign for Survival with Dignity (CSD), a non-government organisation working for the proper implementation of FRA, says, “It amounts to empowering precisely the same officials who are responsible for the denial of forest rights to date.”
Undermining village councils
The MoEFCC order, issued on October 28, 2014, discards the specific provision in the 2006 Forest Rights Act, which seeks "prior informed consent" of gram sabhas ( the village council body) before acquiring forested land and clearing forests for industrial or any other non-forest activity.
“The Ministry has also weakened clauses for public consultation with communities affected by mining and other infrastructure projects, and sought to dilute provisions mandating “free, prior and informed consent” of Adivasi (indigenous) communities, says the India chapter of Amnesty International.
In its original form, while recognising the rights of indigenous tribal communities and the non-tribal forest dwellers over the forest land, FRA empowers the communities to certify that their rights will not be violated by an upcoming project.
"This new order is a direct violation of the FRA Act, directions issued by the tribal affairs ministry as well as the Supreme Court order in the Vedanta case last year, in 2013, which upheld the authority of gram sabha and statutory rights provide under the FRA," says Tushar Dash, an activist working on FRA implementation.
Such an order, while freeing the corporations from getting consent from village councils, will lead to the rapid depletion of India’s forest cover.
Since several of the corporate-led infrastructure projects could severely affect the rights of communities, “to clean air, water, health, livelihood and a healthy environment.” people affected by these projects “must have a say in whether and how they go forward,” says Aruna Chandrasekhar, Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International India. She also believes that the recent attempts to shut these communities out of the decision-making process are, “short-sighted and counter-productive.”
“Some of the amended laws also fall short of international standards on consultation and consent, and could further marginalise vulnerable communities who seldom have a voice in decisions taken around their lands and resources,” Chandrasekhar added.
About the need for community engagement or consultation, the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), in its guide to negotiating investment contracts for farmland and water, says, “It has become clear that the relationship between the investor and the local community is of paramount importance to the chances of long-term success or failure of the project.”
“Consultations must include all people affected, including those who may not reside permanently in the area, such as pastoralists or shifting cultivators, and those whose legal rights to the land may not be recognized, but who may have customary rights or traditional claims to the land,” the IISD guide mentioned.
Conflict and legal complications ahead
In view of the people’s resistance to most of the large industrial and mining projects across the country for issues relating to land, environment and water, it can only be hoped that the changes brought in by the government and its environment ministry may result in more conflict on the ground because, “in India, loss of forest cover is not just an environmental issue but an issue concerning livelihood and food security of the communities dependent on the forest,” says Ranjan Panda, an environmental activist and convener of Water Initiatives Odisha.
Highlighting that these changes would lead to legal complications, the tribal affairs ministry has warned the MoEFCC by reiterating that “any action or process inconsistent with the due process laid under the Act would not be legally tenable and is likely to be struck down by the courts of law."
The tribal ministry has also warned that it holds the power to inquire into any complaints against the violation of the FRA and infringement of the rights of people under the law while making it clear that, "No agency of the government has been vested with powers to exempt application of the act in portion or in full."
In its 10th biennial convention held recently in Pune, the National Alliance of People’s Movement (NAPM) has also decided to mobilise for a massive ‘Convergence of People’s Movement’ on December 2 to protest against the move by the NDA government to amend the Right to Fair Compensation, Resettlement and Rehabilitation and Transparency in Acquisition Act 2013, NREGA, RTI Act, Forest Rights Act, NGT Act, EIA & CRZ notifications, labour laws and so on.
Activists, academics, and members from organisations working on the environment, human rights and indigenous people’s rights have also expressed their concern over the dilution of environmental laws and objected to the order issued by the Environment Ministry. They sought, by writing letters to the Prime Minister and the Minister of State for Environment and Forest, to establish that the spirit and text of the FRA be upheld by the NDA government as a showcase of its commitment towards inclusive and sustainable development and pro-people governance.
Environment – government’s last concern
The order for weakening environmental laws is a clear indication that the Modi government is least concerned about environmental issues.
“It is clear that the government considers the environment laws, as currently implemented, as constituting a roadblock, and wishes to expedite the process of development at the cost of environmental protection and sustainable growth,” says Armin Rosencranz, co-author of Environmental Law and Policy in India.
As the policies for realisation of the Modi government’s development agenda become clear, activists like Shankar Gopalakrishnan of CSD can only hope that the Ministry will take swift action to ensure that the conversion of forest land takes place in accordance with the law, without incitement to illegality and corruption, and without violating the rights of the poorest people of our country.