View of the Rajapur Mining Project in Jharia from Bokahapadi village

The Narendra Modi led National Democratic Front (NDA) government had promised, even before its inception, to increase investment in the country and lay down the ‘red carpet’ for investors and corporates. The process of fulfilling that promise started with the formation of NDA government and under the leadership of Mr. Prakash Javadekar, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) working overtime to ensure huge investment in the forests for the high growth rate of the economy. Within hundred days of the formation of the government MoEF has given environmental clearance to 240 of 325 projects that had been in limbo as the previous government slowed down the process of giving clearances to various projects due to a variety of reasons. The Government has estimated that these clearances would lead to the investment of 200,000 crore rupees and it would help to revive the economy. In this whole process, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) decided on the diversion of 7,122 hectares of forest land into revenue land for the various development projects. It is pertinent to ask, has Modi Government followed the procedure established by law while taking these decisions? Are these decisions in consonance with the promise BJP made to the tribal population, of more decentralized power? Could these decisions empower those communities who have been facing historical injustice from both colonial and post-colonial Indian state? Can we say that this kind of development model would work as a long term strategy to control Maoist violence in the most of the tribal dominated forest areas?

Before the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2008, Forest Conservation Act (FCA) of 1980 was the basis for ‘diversion’ of forest land into revenue land for the purpose of industrial or other development works. It should also be noted that FCA centralized the decision making process related to the diversion of forest land. Many scholars like Mahesh Rangarajan and others have argued that this centralization followed the deterioration in the situation of forests and wild life, and Mrs. Indira Gandhi took personal interest in the enactment of Wild Life Conservation Act of 1972 and FCA of 1980 to establish centralized institutional arrangements for the conservation of the forests and wild life of the country. In the pre-FRA era, environmental clearances and diversion of forest lands were two necessary conditions to use land and resources of forest areas.

Indeed, the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), constituted according to the provisions of FCA, has been the core institution to decide regarding the issue of forest land diversion for different projects. The other important aspect is environmental clearances, which are given by an Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC), a body of experts to examine the environmental impacts of the projects. This kind of assessment was started in 1970s, but the Environment Impact Assessment notification of 2006 made these clearances mandatory for any development or investment project. It has been supposed that both ECA and FAC take their decisions after considering all relevant factors. However, there are possibilities of rigging in this process because there is no representation of local/tribal community in these committees. Only bureaucrats and alleged experts constitute them, who have been easily influenced by the corporate houses to take decisions in their favor. Interestingly, Environment Minister informed the Parliament in 2004 that since 1980 (i.e. after enactment of FCA) total 9.8 lakh hectare forest lands were diverted in revenue land for 11,282 development projects.

However, after notification of FRA the situation changed and now taking ‘prior informed consent’ of Gram Sabha for any diversion of forest land became indispensable. It should be noted that in 2009 MoEF itself released a circular that for every diversion of forest land the meeting of Gram Sabha should be convened and at least 50 percent of the adult members of Gram Sabha should attend the meeting and take decision about diversion of forest land. Later, in 2012 Parliament included this circular of MoEF in the revised rules of FRA. Three judges bench of Supreme Court in its April 2012 judgment in Orissa Mining Corporation Versus Ministry of Environment of Forest and Others case made it clear that before diversion of forest land the implementation of FRA should be completed and Gram Sabha decisions should be final in this matter.

Our Governments, however, regularly violate Acts passed by the Parliament or create some back door system to serve the interests of corporate entities and profits. In December 2013, during the tenure of UPA II, Veerappa Moily, the then head of MoEF, gave environmental clearance for 72 projects, and before taking that decision he did not attempt to ensure that FRA was implemented in these areas. The current Environment Minister Mr. Javadekar is taking decisions in haste and setting a dangerous precedent of violating established laws and the decisions of judiciary. However, the risk for the government with this kind of violation is that judiciary could declare these decisions null and void on the basis of non-compliance with the procedure established by law. So, according to media reports Modi Government is trying to render ineffective the provision of FRA that requires ‘prior informed consent’ of Gram Sabha before diversion of forest land. It is planning to ignore FRA and use the provisions of Environment Protection Act 1986, which only demands public hearing for giving permission to any project. It would not just infringe the spirit of FRA, but also establish the dominance of bureaucrats, experts and politicians on the matters of diversion of forest land and undermine the role of Gram Sabha.

These decisions and attempts to void FRA in several ways only shows the continuity of historical injustice with tribals. Though there are many provisions in Indian constitution which empower adivasis, but post-colonial Indian state used forest resources for ‘national development’, which led to the dispossession and displacement of forest dwelling communities (most of them are adivasis). They have been compelled to live under the arbitrary rule of Forest Department (FD). In this background FRA 2008 came as a crucial change because it gives a framework for the democratization of forest administration. This law gives forest rights and the right over forest and its resources, to individuals in forest dwelling communities and to the communities themselves. There are some limitations of this Act, of course. For example, to be eligible for these rights, Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) have to ‘prove’ that they have been living at the same place for the last 75 years. Nevertheless, it gives a tool to local communities through which they can challenge the dominance of FD and have their say on the various issues related to forests. On the one hand the individual rights given by this Act have been implemented partially, on the other, the provisions of community rights over forest and its resources have been deliberately ignored by the Government.

Forest Department has created many obstacles in the implementation of FRA 2008 and during my recent fieldwork in Dudhwa National Park, I found that forest officials were not even ready to accept the existence of community rights given by FRA. In Dudhwa National Park, Rajaji National Park and other places, FD officials discarded the community rights of FRA because they felt that giving such rights would be counter to the interests of forest and wildlife. However, the other side of the story is that in most forest areas (where I did my field study) FD took money and other resources from the tribal people to give them permission to use forest produces. Obviously the community rights of FRA are dangerous for the control of the FD and the illegal system that has been set up for extraction of forest resources and exploitation of tribal people. In this manner, community rights of FRA are a hindrance for both FD and the supporters of corporate investment based development. So Central and State governments are trying their best to sideline community rights. For instance, the Congress led Maharashtra government made a rule that if forest villages, which got community forest rights, did not properly conserve forests, then these rights would revert to the FD. Interestingly, though Minister of Tribal Affairs Joel Oram claimed that this rule was against the spirit of FRA and he ordered the deferment of this rule, but two heavyweight ministers of Modi Government, Nitin Gadkari and Prakash Javadekar supported this rule. It underlines that both Congress led Maharashtra Government and NDA led Central Government oppose the community rights given by FRA.

It is has been argued that UPA  Government had at least two positive aims behind introducing Forest Rights Bill in the Parliament: first, it wanted to ensure some basic livelihood sources for forest dwelling communities and second, it also wanted to present a moderate and caring face of Indian nation state before adivasis. It was hoped by the policy makers that FRA would reduce the discontent of adivasis and it would diminish the support base of Maoists in forest areas. It is also true that through the pressure of movements, tribal organizations successfully made some important positive changes in the final Act.  However, on the one hand Indian state used armed forces and measures like Salwa Judum to curb Maoists and on the other hand it did not implement the FRA in the appropriate manner. FD opposed community rights and created many obstacles in its implementation, the policy makers too realized that certain provisions of the FRA are perilous for the corporate led development. Indeed for Narendra Modi the easiest way to return the favors of corporate houses, who gave him all kinds of help, is to give them the right to exploit forest resources and earn enormous profit from them, in the name of ‘investment’, ‘economy’ and ‘development’. Obviously, this policy of laying down ‘red carpets’ for corporate houses would be dangerous in the long run and it would led to the increase of ‘red revolutionaries’ in the forest areas. This kind of arbitrary politics would create an environment of despair among adivasis and their dissatisfaction would ultimately help Maoists. It should also be noted that in many tribal areasvarious groups are struggling for the proper implementation of FRA (Dudhwa National Park is one such example), and the clear violation or dilution of FRA would not be easily acceptable to these groups. The fear is that like the previous Government, but in a more certain and hasty manner, the present Government could declare all resistances against these nefarious designs as ‘Maoist’ and curb them through violent means.

In any democracy the more desirable way is that instead of brazenly violating the Acts passed by the Parliament, the Government should follow the procedures established by law, make forest dwelling communities’ equal partners in the management of forest and co-owners of its resources and take their opinions and aspirations seriously before deciding about any development or investment project. The present regime, however, is working in the opposite direction, violating the promises made in its own election manifesto. This only underlines the huge influence of some corporate houses over the Indian state, and this is the tragedy of Indian democracy.

Kamal Nayan Choubey is Junior Fellow at Nehru Memorial Museum and Library