In what has been called as “ease of snatching” of forest land, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) notified the Forest Conservation Rules, 2022 under the Forest Conservation Act on 28 June, which will let private developers cut down forests without first ensuring the consent of the forest dwellers, a change that violates a provision of the Forest Rights Act.
The rules shift the Union government’s responsibility of taking consent of Adivasis before the approval of a project on to the state governments, which means that the burden to ensure the rights of Scheduled Tribes to their traditional forestlands also lands on the state governments.
Meanwhile, the new rules allow the union government to permit the clearing of a forest before consulting its inhabitants, making the consent itself fait accompli (leaving them with no option but to accept it), NewsLaundry reported.
Consent From Forest Dwellers Only After Centre’s Approval
Earlier, the Union government was required to verify the consent of the forest dwellers and ensure recognition of their rights over the forest before private projects could be approved.
Now, the handover of the forest can be approved and the Centre can collect payment for compensatory afforestation from the private developer even before the state government ensures consent of the forest dwellers.
This contradicts the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, or Forest Rights Act 2006.
The 2006 law requires governments to seek free, prior, and informed consent of forest dwellers before allowing a project on their traditional lands.
In order to ensure provisions of the Forest Rights Act were adhered to, the forest ministry had mandated through a circular in 2009, that the ministry check whether there are any ST claimants to the forestland, verify their claims and grant them ownership of the forestland well before the in-principle clearance is granted, Newslaundry reported.
Only then, once the claims are settled, can the consent of forest dwellers be sought through the gram sabha, for the take over of their land.
The new rules essentially do way with this crucial process.
Part of the new rules read:
"The State Government or Union territory Administration, as the case may be, after receiving the ‘Final’ approval of the Central Government under Section 2 of the Act, and after fulfilment and compliance of the provisions of all other Acts and rules made thereunder, as applicable including ensuring settlement of rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (No. 2 of 2007), shall issue order for diversion, assignment of lease or dereservation, as the case may be."Rule 9(6)(b) of the Forest Conservation Rules 2022.
The Forest Conservation Rules 2022 are to be placed for approval before the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha for 30 working days in one or more sessions.
Will End the ‘Ease of Living’ for the Vast Many: Ex-Environment Minister
The Indian National Congress and the Union government on Sunday, engaged in a spar on Twitter over allegations of the Centre diluting the Forest Rights Act with the introduction of latest forest conservation rules.
Taking his criticism to Twitter, former Union environment minister Jairam Ramesh claimed that the new rules do not mention the earlier requirement of attainting a gram sabha NOC before diverting forestland for a project. He added that these rules also allow forest rules to be settled after the final approval is granted by the centre.
In his statement, Ramesh said:
“Now, in a new set of Rules issued very recently, the Modi Government has allowed for forest rights to be settled after final approval for forest clearances has been granted by the Central Government. Obviously, this has been done in the name of ‘ease of doing business’ for a chosen few. But it will end the ‘ease of living’ for the vast many. Once forest clearance is granted, everything else becomes a mere formality and almost inevitably, no claims will be recognised and settled.”
Shortly after Congress' criticism, Union Environment and Forests Minister Bhupender Yadav defended the rules on Twitter and said that the notified rules are not inconsistent with the Forest (Conservation) Act, whose compliance can be ensured “subsequently.”