Dave's views progressive, but many hurdles remain
Union environment, forests and climate change minister Anil Madhav Dave saying, in a Business Standard interview, that it is impractical to get tribal gram sabha (village council) consent for projects involving use of forest land shows how far government thinking has come from the UPA days of letting gram sabhas scuttle big-ticket projects that could have created thousands of jobs in the poorest regions of the country. Remember, it was the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) that fought the case against Orissa Mining Corporation in the Niyamgiri matter, and scuttled Sterlite Industries’ bauxite mining project. To be sure, it is the Union tribal affairs ministry that is the nodal agency for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, which empowers tribal village councils to reject or approve projects involving use of forest land that is also traditionally used by tribals. But, as Dave says in the interview, the larger picture of development could elude the gram sabha—the information made available at the grassroots is often lop-sided, thanks to the anti-development agenda pushed by interest groups. Thus, there is a real need to tweak the laws to allow development to catch up with preservation of rights.
That, however, is where the catch lies. Dave’s predecessor at the ministry, Prakash Javadekar had pushed for tempering the influence of the FRA on forest resources—under him, the ministry had pressed for greater say for the forest department in matters of forest resources, and after a round of persuasion by Javadekar, the tribal affairs ministry endorsed the Village Forest Rules brought by Maharashtra that gave the state’s forest department the power to manage community forest areas in collaboration with forest dwellers. This breakthrough was followed by the ministry putting up a Draft National Forest Policy 2016 on its website, inviting comments from the public. The draft policy had spoken of greater say for the state governments and their forest departments—with significant consultative powers for the village council—on questions of diversion of forest land. That it was withdrawn within days of publication, amidst sharp criticism from tribal rights advocates, shows how difficult it can be to bring some pragmatism to the issue of use of forest resources. What makes matters more difficult is that the Section 6 of the FRA vests in the gram sabha unreserved powers to determine what constitutes forest rights, and this was interpreted by the Supreme Court in the Sterlite matter as gram sabha consent being inviolable for projects. So, if the government were to seriously think of giving development a boost, it would have to go through the legislative route, and there is no gainsaying that it would be very difficult to get political consensus. Dave’s views, till then, would probably be akin to a mere statement of intent, a progressive one nonetheless.