A standoff between the ministries of tribal affairs and environment and forests over the issue of clearances has stalled three key projects, prompting Nripendra Misra, principal secretary to the Prime Minister, to intervene and question the delay.
The projects, which are being tracked by the project monitoring group (PMG) of the cabinet committee on investment, are in three different parts of the country: the 2×500 MW project of NLC TamilNadu Power Ltd which has a fuel supply agreement with Coal India; the 45-km Sivok-Rangpo new line of “national and strategic interest” which will put Sikkim on India’s railway map; and the 100 MW Tidong-I hydel project in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh.
These projects had sought forest clearances without meeting all conditions under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) and were referred to the tribal affairs ministry by the environment and forests ministry. On each occasion, the tribal affairs ministry refused exemption.
On March17, Nripendra Misra wrote to tribal affairs secretary Hrushikesh Panda, pointing out that the tribal affairs ministry was “unable to see the strong rationale” for pushing development projects.
“The delay speaks volumes of our lack of commitment,” Misra wrote, seeking a response within three days.
Panda replied the very next day, arguing that his ministry only “gave a legally tenable advice” to the environment and forests ministry which had sought it in the first place.
Referring to a note attached to Misra’s letter, Panda took a swipe at the environment and forests ministry for making a “judgmental statement” that projects were being stopped by the “non-application of mind of tribal affairs ministry”.
Panda reminded Misra that the environment and forests ministry “does not need the clearance of Ministry of Tribal Affairs for diversion of forest land”.
Earlier, on March 3, coal secretary Anil Swarup had written to Panda, seeking early clearance since the first unit of the plant was “ready for synchronisation with the grid”.
The FRA compliance certificate, issued by the district collector of Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu for the NTPL project, was referred by the environment and forests ministry to the tribal affairs ministry on January 14.
It was pointed out that no mohalla sabha was apparently constituted in the municipal areas where forest land was to be diverted for the NTPL project.
With the tribal affairs ministry not yielding, the Tamil Nadu government had to constitute a ward committee on March 6. It has since sent its resolution to the centre. The tribal affairs ministry’s view on the legality of the process is awaited.
The Sivok-Rangpo rail project has been stuck ever since the tribal affairs ministry red-flagged two certifications by the Darjeeling district collector — in August and November 2014 — that “gram sabhas have given their consent” to diversion of forest land with a footnote stating “as there is no elected body at the panchayat level, there is no gram sabha”.
For the Tidong hydel project, the PMG wants the forest clearance process to be delinked from FRA requirements for laying transmission lines as it requires only the “right of way”. But the tribal affairs ministry has taken a firm stand that the FRA allows no exemption to any category of projects.
Following instructions from the PMO in January, the environment and forests ministry drafted a fresh notification on applicability of the FRA for linear projects. The tribal affairs ministry also placed on record its comments. Now, it is for the department of legal affairs to take a call.
Tribal Affairs Ministry “unable to see the strong rationale” for pushing development projects… “delay speaks volumes of our lack of commitment”.
-Nripendra Misra, PMO
Tribal Affairs “gave legally tenable advice” to MoEF… MoEF has made “judgmental statement” that there is “non-application of mind” at Tribal Affairs…
– Hrushikesh Panda, Tribal Affairs Secy