Nature Talk : Marginalization of Tribal Consent

No law has been so empowering for tribal communities as The Scheduled Tribes And Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 or in short Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. It provides the tribals legal weapon to protect themselves from grabbing of their land by over zealous protagonists/promoters of industrialization and development. It declares no forestland that provides livelihood to the tribals can be acquired or tampered with without their consent expressed through Gram Sabha, that is, the village council. It also reminds these protagonists/promoters and non-forest dwelling communities not to take the tribals for granted and trample on their traditional resources and customs. It acknowledges the forest dwelling tribals and other traditional forest dwellers as ‘integral to the very survival and sustainability of the forest eco-system’. It carries commitment to undo the historical injustice to such forest dwelling communities and recognizes their ‘responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance’.

The striking power of the weapon of tribal consent could be realized when the tribals of all the twelve villages selected by the Government of Odisha, under the direction of Hon’ble Supreme Court of India, said unequivocal NO to the proposed mining of Niyamgiri hills by Vedanta Resources. But it is an irony that since the implementation of this Act in 2008, there have been attempts to see that this weapon against land alienation is blunted. In fact such attempts became more visible after the environment ministry was directed in 2009 to obtain the tribals’ consent before issuing environmental clearance to the projects on their land. And such attempts bore fruit. Despite initial resistance from the environment ministers and the tribal affairs minister, the mandatory requirement of the tribal consent for the grant of environment clearance to the projects was withdrawn, allegedly on being pressurized by the PMO of UPA government. But euphoria, if any, over this withdrawal was short-lived. The tribal affairs ministry held the clearance by environment ministry without tribal consent through Gram Sabha would violate Forest Rights Act 2006 and hence would be illegal, which too was implied by The Hon’ble Supreme Court’s direction to obtain the tribal consent through Gram Sabhas for mining by Vedanta Resources.

In the background of such developments, the only course left was to explore the possibility of completely doing away with tribal consent. As report goes, the last ditch effort was made in this direction while the country was in the midst of elections, but without any success. The UPA government gave way to the NDA government in the last week of May this year. But the attempts to blunt the weapon that FRA has allowed the tribals to use against land alienation continued. The present government is impatient as to how quickly the projects held up on the issue of green/environmental clearance can be unshackled. Media is replete with headlines such as ‘PMO asks green ministry to relax norms’, ‘Govt may do away with tribal consent for cutting forests’ ‘Govt eases environment rules to attract investments’ ‘Several ministers under pressure from PMO and Environment ministry for relaxing norms in FRA act’ The New York Times wrote in its editorial on the present government’s impatience, ‘It has shown little tolerance for what it perceives as environmental interference with its development agenda. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has moved to exempt proposals to expand coal-mining operations from the public hearings that were previously required’. It is increasingly felt that as if no amount of relaxation of green norms shall be effective without relaxing the requirement of tribal consent as implied by the FRA, though the ministry of tribal affairs headed by a tribal himself refuses to concede as it sends a terse message to environment ministry that, ‘the Forest Rights Act does not provide for any exemption to its provisions for any category of forests, projects, persons etc. in order to prevent any violation of law.’ While the government, currently, is not inclined to amend the FRA, ingenious moves are contemplated which would not hurt the FRA norms, but green clearance would not require tribal consent. One wonders if to circumvent this requirement would not amount to emasculation of FRA. But in the high decibel clamor for development and invitation to investment, how long FRA in its present form shall survive is a matter of speculation.

Thus arises a larger question. Is the opposition to tribal consent driven solely by economic reasons surrounding development and investment or it is an expression of the deep seated contempt of the dominant community or community at the Center for the marginalized community or community at the Periphery? (BKN)