A day before it moved the Supreme Court seeking a stay and modification of its February 13 order directing states to evict over one million tribals and other forest-dwellers, the Centre issued a circular clarifying that compliance with the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and obtaining consent of the gram sabha under the Act was no longer necessary to consider projects on forest land.
According to the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Rules 2016, the district collector needs to complete the process of vesting of forest rights under the FRA and obtain written consent of the affected gram sabhas before any project proposal reaches the forest department for consideration.
This rule has been in effect since August 2009, when the Environment Ministry made compliance with the FRA a precondition for project clearance.
But an Environment Ministry circular dated February 26, however, “clarified” that “compliance under FRA is not required for consideration of in-principle approval” of a project, and that the district collector will complete the process related to the FRA only after a project received in-principle approval.
The ministry, in fact, issued a similar clarification to the Maharashtra government in December 2018. What necessitated the modification was a letter from the Secretary, Ministry of Coal, in October 2018 complaining that proposals of Western Coalfield Limited were “stalled at various levels. for want of certificate in compliance” with the FRA. The latest circular made the ensuing clarification applicable across the country.
Over the years, activists and administrators alike have cautioned against bypassing the FRA in the clearance process. In December 2012, then Union Tribal Affairs Minister V Kishore Chandra Deo had written to the then Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan, underlining that “compliance with the FRA is a critical part of deciding whether a project can be considered at all”.
“…Otherwise, project proponents will be placed in the odd position of having received ‘in principle’ clearance as well as environmental and other statutory clearances, only to be denied at the very last stage as a result of FRA violations…,” Deo cautioned.
In January, a group of rights organisations and researchers urged Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan to withdraw the letter issued to Maharashtra. Pointing out that the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) examined the ecological and social viability of a proposal while considering it for in-principal approval, they argued that the compliance with FRA could not “be submitted only to the forest bureaucracy without FAC scrutiny” after in-principle approval.
“The government’s duplicity needs calling out. It posed as the saviour of the tribal communities before the SC because it anyway could not risk forcibly evicting people. So it adopted this devious means to undermine their rights and force projects in their forests,” said environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta.