Disempowering gram sabhas

The Hindu || Chitrangada Choudhury || MARCH 20, 2019

Since 1980, through the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) has “diverted for non-forest use” (bureaucratese for destroyed) over 1.5 million hectares of forest. How many Adivasis and forest-dwellers have been evicted by this ‘lawful’ forest destruction? Stripping these forests has yielded thousands of crores of rupees for corporations to which a bulk of these forestlands were diverted, and for forest departments via compensatory funds. But how have the original inhabitants of these forests, already among the most marginalised, coped with the loss of homes and livelihoods?

A deafening silence meets these questions. We cannot find answers, yet, in Supreme Court hearings on a petition by a set of conservationists and former forest officers motivated, self-admittedly, by forest protection concerns. On February 13, the court ordered the eviction of 1.8 million Adivasi and forest-dwelling claimants under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, to stem supposed forest destruction. On February 28, it stayed the order until a July hearing. Shouldn’t the destruction of over 1.5 million hectares of forest, and the misuse of the FCA, seize the court and petitioners? And how would the FRA perform on forest stewardship, where the FCA is failing?

Shredding a reform to bits
The FRA was enacted to recognise the pre-existing rights of forest-dwellers. Recognising them as “integral to the survival and sustainability of the forest ecosystem,” the FRA gives their gram sabhas “the responsibilities and authority for sustainable use, conservation of biodiversity and maintenance of ecological balance.”

A key 2009 regulation actualised gram sabha powers by mandating that all forest diversion proposals and compensatory and ameliorative schemes be presented in detail to the relevant gram sabhas to award or withhold its free, prior, informed consent, and also be preceded by the settlement of all rights under the FRA. This long overdue move created for the first time a space for forest communities to participate in decision-making around diversion proposals, making forest governance more accountable, ecologically informed and resource just.

A decade on, the state and corporations are shredding this reform to bits. In 2016, for instance, I studied a proposal whereby the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC) sought 1,400 acres of forestland across seven Adivasi villages of Keonjhar in the ecologically sensitive Gandhamardan mountains, for an iron ore mine. The diversion proposal sent by the OMC and the Odisha government to the MoEF included seven copycat gram sabha resolutions, supposedly representing the seven villages. Each identical resolution depicted villagers, over 2,000 in all, as saying they were not using the forests for cultivation, house-building or any livelihood, had no individual or community claims to it, and that they “request” the government to implement the forest diversion. In the villages, these resolutions evoked shock and rage. Residents told me they were fake.

After my news report on the case in 2016, the MoEF asked the State government to probe the matter. What followed is a telling comment on forest governance. The probe report, neither shared with villagers nor made public, glossed over testimonies it gathered of 11 villagers. On how all seven gram sabha resolutions could be identical, officials said, “This may have been done as the same officials conducted the meetings in all villages, and the agenda of the meetings was also the same.” Effectively, the OMC, abetted by officials, created resolutions tailored for forest diversion, thus emptying the gram sabhas’ free informed consent powers of any substantive meaning. Last October, despite letters by villages about the forgery and pending FRA claims, the MoEF issued permission to the OMC to destroy this stretch of forest.

Fighting back
The NDA government has effectively ensured that forest diversion is a given, and the only sanctioned role for Adivasis and forest-dwellers is that of mute rubber stamps. On February 26, the MoEF tried to formalise this travesty by writing to all States that FRA compliance is not needed for ‘in-principle’ approval for diversions. Violating the FRA, this damaging move eliminates gram sabhas from decision-making, and makes diversion a violent fait accompli for forest-dwellers.

But communities are increasingly rejecting such disempowerment, evident from protests like a 30-km march days ago by villagers in Chhattisgarh’s Hasdeo Arand against the MoEF’s recent decision to divert over 2,000 acres of forest to a mine, despite gram sabha forgery complaints.

A model of forest governance, forged on the back of usurping gram sabha powers, is servicing a ruthless resource grab. The Supreme Court should examine this sabotage of the FRA that is damaging our forests and our democracy.