National Commission for Scheduled Tribes’ position on new Forest Conservation Rules ‘will be same’

The Hindu | January 02, 2023
Remark by national body’s Chairperson follows government’s dismissal of their concerns that the 2022 rules will invariably violate the Forest Rights Act, 2006

In a sign of escalating conflict between the government and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes over the Forest (Conservation) Rules (FCR) 2022, NCST Chairperson Harsh Chouhan on Monday said that the ST body’s position on the new rules being violative of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 “will be the same” even as the Environment Ministry has dismissed these concerns.

“The Commission’s stand will be the same. It is the Commission’s duty to intervene and recommend corrective measures whenever any rules run the risk of violating rights of tribespeople. This we will continue to do,” Mr. Chouhan told The Hindu.

This comes after Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav wrote to the NCST dismissing the concerns flagged by Mr. Chouhan, saying they were “not legally tenable”.

Flagging concerns over the provision in the new rules that proposes to do away with the consent clause for diversion of forest land for other purposes, the Commission had recommended that these rules should be put on hold immediately, in a letter to the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoFCC) in September 2022.

In response, Mr. Yadav has insisted that the rules were framed under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 and that the NCST’s apprehension of these rules being in violation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006 was “not legally tenable”. The Minister added that the two statutory processes were parallel and not dependent on each other.

Citing Rule 9(6)(b)(ii), the government said the FCR 2022 already provides for diversion of forest land “only after fulfilment and compliance of all provisions, including settlement of rights under the Forest Rights Act” and also does not bar or infringe upon the operation of other laws mandating consent of Gram Sabhas.

The NCST had pointed out that the FCR 2022 had done away with the clause to mandatorily seek consent of Gram Sabhas before the Stage 1 clearance, leaving this process to be done later and even after Stage 2 clearance. In such a scenario, project proponents, having received partial clearance, will be pushing State and Union Territory governments for “diversion at the earliest”, which would be “seriously impacting the process of recognition of rights under the FRA”.

The Commission had also pointed out that between 2009 and 2018, of the 128 applications for forest diversion for mining, 74 were cleared at the Stage 2 and 46 at the Stage 1, and none of the rejections were based on FRA non-compliance. It added that in a subset of 14 cases, all post-2014) certificates showing the completion of the FRA process were issued “in violation of ground realities” and “no CFR (Community Forest Resources) process had been completed anywhere”. The Commission said the new Rules will only increase such violations.

“The requirement for consent and recognition of rights prior to Stage I clearance in 2014 and 2017 Rules at least provided a legal space for ensuring completion of the processes for recognition and vesting of rights under the FRA in areas where forests are being diverted,” the Commission has said, noting that this is why the two processes cannot be seen as separate, parallel ones.

The Minister has not yet responded to requests for a comment on Mr. Chouhan’s remarks.