Days after the environment ministry relaxed rules to help create strategic defence infrastructure, the tribal affairs ministry refused to exempt these projects in the border states of north and north-east India from the purview of the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
The decision, conveyed to the defence ministry on February 24, affects at least 35 projects — it involves more than 20,000 acres of forest land — in eight states under the eastern, northern and central commands.
Pointing out that most rights over forests in the Sixth Schedule areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Tripura are vested with the local communities and forests in states like Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and hill areas of Manipur are owned by communities through village councils, the tribal affairs ministry told the defence ministry that the FRA “has no provision to exempt in part or full from the process laid down therein”.
Of the 35 defence projects that involve forest land, 11 are in Arunachal Pradesh, six in Sikkim, five in West Bengal, four each in Assam and Himachal Pradesh, three in Uttarakhand and one each in Mizoram and Tripura (see box).
The tribal affairs ministry’s refusal came after the environment ministry on January 29 granted general approval for diversion of forest land for all security infrastructure projects of the Border Security Force (BSF) and Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) within 5 km of the international border. On February 3, the ministry relaxed norms further to exempt all linear projects — such as highways — in the border states from the mandatory public hearing.
Earlier, in July 2014, the environment ministry granted general approval for diversion of forest land for all road and highway projects of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) within 100 km of the international border. In August, however, the defence ministry asked the environment ministry for further relaxation, including exemption from the purview of FRA, in the border states of north and north-east India.
Arguing that the environment ministry’s July 2014 exemptions alone “may not yield the desired benefit”, the August 29 letter of the defence ministry stated: “The MoEF may kindly consider all infrastructure projects of the armed forces coming up in the border states of north and north east India for general approval.”
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Following a series of consultations over the next four months which involved participation of the home ministry, the environment ministry decided to extend general approval to Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) road projects as well and to all strategic security projects within 5 km of the international border.
On January 12, the environment ministry wrote to the defence ministry, asking it to request the tribal affairs ministry to “issue appropriate advice” on exempting defence projects from FRA purview. Accordingly, the defence ministry wrote to the tribal affairs ministry on January 27.