The government did well to dilute the requirement for gram sabha consent for projects on forest land on which tribals and other forest dwellers enjoy certain rights, but must move cautiously on this on ground. As per The Indian Express, the Centre has freed in-principle approval for projects of the need for gram sabha consent under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). Under the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Rules 2016, a project had to first receive clearance from affected gram sabhas before the forest department examined it for approval. While dispensing with the requirement for the gram sabha nod at the initial stage itself should prove a boon for cases like Coal India subsidiary Western Coalfield Limited s, with many of its proposals stuck at various levels because of the lack of FRA compliance certificates, the new protocol could prove a double-edged sword. Pushing FRA compliance to a later stage risks projects getting scuttled or stuck at the last moment, after having received in-principle nod and other clearances. At the same time, it gives proponents of the project the opportunity to negotiate particulars of rehabilitation and resettlement to the satisfaction of those who would be potentially affected by the project.
The government must keep the considered opinion of ministry of tribal affairs (MoTA) in mind as it goes about implementing the new norm. In a meeting with the ministry of environment, forests and climate change, the MoTA stated that, given how, on many occasions, projects got stuck because FRA clearance was applied for at a later stage in the approval process, the project proponent should move on FRA clearance in the Stage I of FCA clearance. The MoTA also flagged that pushing gram sabha clearance under FRA clearance to a later stage makes it a fait accompli for the affected people. As per Down to Earth (DTE), many mining projects obtained clearances without settling rights of the project-affected people under FRA. The forest clearances for the mines then became a tool to reject forest land rights of tribals and other forest dwellers that they could have got under FRA. Claims already given under FRA in the Parsa East coal block in Chhattisgarh were later rejected, citing the grant of clearances to the mining project granted before the land rights were recognised under FRA.
The fact is that India has managed to recognise a very small proportion of the community forest rights claims made after 13 years, under 3% of the community forest rights claims raised have been recognised, compared to a China s 55% and Brazil s 13%, both enjoying vastly larger forest cover than India s. While tripping a Niyamgiri-like project with FRA hobbled India s industrial growth, the fact is that India has struggled to improve its forest cover meaningfully as per the 2017 State of the Forest report, it continues to be under 22% of the total area of the country even as it targeted a 33% cover for decades now. The rapid deforestation in recent years can be squarely pinned to industrial projects 23,716 projects, as per the government s own data, stripped 14,000 sq km of forest cover in the last 30 years. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that India has focused on tapping carbon markets in its reforestation strategy rather than ecology and biodiversity. Therefore, whatever compensatory reforestation has happened has largely been monoculture. At the same time, the government has sat on large reserves of compensatory afforestation funds, losing lengths of time crucial for developing real forests.