Following a strong letter from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA) telling the Environment ministry (MoEF) that its orders violated the Forest Rights Act (FRA), the NDA government has shelved its plans to “rationalise” certain provisions of the FRA through executive orders.
On November 12, the MoTA wrote to the MoEF, asking it not to meddle with the FRA and withdraw its October 28 order that allowed district collectors to unilaterally clear diversion of forest land to expedite development projects.
Seeking withdrawal of the order, MoTA secretary Hrushikesh Panda in his letter to Ashok Lavasa, secretary, MoEF, pointed out that “though the Ministry of Tribal Affairs is the nodal ministry of the FRA, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has been issuing advisories to the states relaxing certain provisions of FRA”.
Underlining that the FRA does not provide “any scope to any executive agency for any kind of relaxation” of the applicability of the Act, the MoTA said: “The letter of 28th October takes a short-cut, which can derail the projects completely… The FRA is the law of the land. The above letter violates the law.”
Soon after, Panda and Lavasa met on November 17 and the issues, it is learnt, were subsequently discussed between Jual Oram and Prakash Javadekar, the two ministers concerned. The MoEF, claimed sources in the ministry, was forced to accept the MoTA’s position and is working on a face-saver to modify its order.
The MoEF’s October 28 circular had given district collectors unilateral powers to sanction diversion of forest land in areas notified as forest after 1930, the cutoff date for forest rights, and with no record of tribal population as per Census 2001 and 2011. Under the FRA, tribals and other forest dwelling communities have traditional rights over forests and the power to decide, through gram sabhas, if they want to allow diversion of forest land.
In a veiled reference to the growing Left-wing extremism in the forested districts across India, the MoTA letter also pointed out: “The recent announcements… of the MoEFCC… have conveyed a message that the Government is against fair implementation of the FRA. This is not desirable in the interest of peace and governance in forest areas.”
Panda and Lavasa were unavailable for comments.
At an inter-ministerial meeting chaired by the MoEF secretary on September 25, the ministry proposed exclusion of forest land outside Schedule V (tribal-dominated) areas and those notified as forests after 1930 from the consent clause of the FRA.
In response, the MoTA wrote to the MoEF on October 21, pointing out that “no agency of the government has been vested with powers to exempt application of the act in portion or in full” and any alteration of an Act other than by an amendment passed in Parliament would not be legally tenable.
That did not stop the MoEF from issuing the October 28 order. Armed with the recommendation of the TSR Subramanian committee to exempt liner projects from gram sabha approvals, the government, it is learnt, now plans to bring an amendment bill in the Budget session of Parliament.