In a marked departure from his predecessor’s stand in the previous UPA government, Union Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram has said he is open to Forest Rights Act being diluted with respect to linear projects, in order to exempt such projects from seeking consent of gram sabhas, as per the Act.
“We don’t think the FRA should be diluted, except in case of linear projects. Some relaxation is needed as far as these projects are concerned given their very nature. After all, tribals will also benefit from these projects like roads, railway lines, power transmission lines etc,” Oram told The Indian Express.
The FRA, introduced in 2006, recognizes the rights of forest dwellers and its rules mandate the consent of gram sabhas for diversion of land for any project in forest/tribal-dominated areas. The Tribal Affairs ministry is the nodal ministry for the Act’s implementation, even though the authority to grant clearances resides with the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
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In February 2013, the UPA government had mooted a move to dilute the FRA to exempt linear projects from seeking the consent of gram sabhas, but was forced by severe opposition from various quarters, including activists, to put it in cold storage. The MoEF, then under former minister Jayanthi Natarajan, made a push to this effect but the move was vehemently opposed by then tribal affairs minister V Kishore Chandra Deo.
According to Oram, while there is no “formal concrete proposal” to this effect yet, giving “some exemptions to linear projects is a part of informal discussions in the government”. “There has been a movement from earlier (last government) to exempt linear projects, but nothing has been formalized yet. It is under informal discussions in our government,” he said.
He added that while he had not received any such proposal yet, his ministry was willing to “consider” it. Government officials say any such dilution would require an amendment and it is the Tribal Affairs ministry which has powers to initiate and circulate such an amendment.
Deo, a strong advocate of not diluting the Act, said: “Basically, they want to dilute the whole Act. This gives us a glimpse of things to come. This is very unfortunate,” he said. The FRA is often criticized by some quarters for delays in clearances, who claim it acts as a hurdle to speedy development.