Ministry vs ministry over forest land

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  • Published 21.11.14

New Delhi, Nov. 20: The tribal affairs ministry has objected to an order by its environment counterpart that allows diversion of forest land for linear projects without seeking consent from local village councils as laid down in the forest rights act.

At a meeting last week, tribal affairs secretary Hrushikesh Panda and senior officials took up the matter with their counterparts from the environment and forests ministry, represented by secretary Ashok Lavasa and other bureaucrats.

In its October 28 order, the environment ministry, headed by Prakash Javadekar, said forest land could be diverted without seeking the consent of the gram sabhas concerned if plantations were found to have been notified as forests after December 13, 1930.

It said diversions — under the forest rights act (FRA) — would be allowed for linear projects such as roads, canals, pipelines and transmission lines, echoing what road transport minister Nitin Gadkari had recently said.

Gadkari had said national highways were meant for development of local areas and the process of taking over land for such projects should be made smooth.

Under the Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act — also known as the forest rights act — forest dwellers get heritable rights to land they have been living for three generations, or 75 years, till December 13, 2005.

The FRA said the consent of gram sabhas has to be taken for every project coming up in forest areas. If the tribal dwellers don’t have a record of rights over the land, they must be accorded such rights and their consent taken before acquiring the land, although the law has an exemption provision for projects such as schools, dispensaries and hospitals, where the land required is less than a hectare.

The officials of the Jual Oram-headed tribal affairs ministry questioned the environment ministry’s authority to issue any order under the FRA. According to the Union government’s business rules, only the ministry of tribal affairs can issue guidelines or instructions under this act, sources said.

The tribal affairs ministry has also challenged the legality of the environment ministry order, which said the 75-year time norm should be applied to exclude some plantations from the purview of the FRA. That means any area notified as a forest land after 1930 is exempt from FRA norms.

An official in the tribal affairs ministry said applying the time norm amounted to a violation of the act. “The FRA does not segregate between forests notified before 1930 and after 1930,” the official said.

At last week’s coordination committee meeting, the environment ministry officials agreed with their tribal affairs counterparts that the tribal affairs ministry was the competent authority to issue guidelines under the FRA.

As for the second argument, they said the environment ministry would examine whether the October 28 order amounted to a violation of the FRA or not.

Social activist Shekhar Singh said the “grassroots-level” gram sabhas had been given the powers to decide how best local resources could be used. “This order amounts to denying that right,” Singh said.

He said if forest land is allowed to be diverted for linear projects without seeking the approval of the gram sabhas concerned, this “scope for relaxation” could be expanded later for industrial projects.