September 12, 2014: Recent media reports suggest that the Central government is planning to weaken protective legislations that ensure rights of Adivasis and forest dwellers over their land, forests and natural resources. Specifically, the proposal to do away with the mandatory informed Gram Sabha consent required by the historical Forest Rights Act, which forest dwelling communities got enacted by Parliament through prolonged struggle, for diversion of forest land for developmental projects will be a violation of the Act and a major infringement of forest dwellers rights. The proposed changes are also against the directions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India which has in no uncertain terms affirmed the central role of Gram Sabhas in decision making and the statutory requirement of consent from Gram Sabhas in the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of diversion of forest land from the customary habitat of Dongria Kondhs in Niyamgiri. The fact that such drastic proposals are reportedly being worked out through inter ministerial negotiations without seeking any public opinion weakens the democratic framework of the nation.
This is a cause of serious concern as forest dwellers in India, the majority of whom are scheduled tribes, are among the most marginalized and vulnerable sections of the society. Dispensing with Gram Sabha consent will not only be an infringement of their legal rights and empowerment to protect their forests under the Forest Rights Act but also compromise the larger constitutional obligation of the State to achieve true social and economic justice for these communities.
This move also goes against the circular and guidelines issued respectively by the Ministry of Environment and Forests on the 3rd of August 2009 and the Ministry of Tribal Affairs on 12th July 2012. Both make it a mandatory requirement to ensure that the process of recognising forest rights in the concerned forest is completed and each affected Gram Sabha has given its decision of consent or rejection in writing before the forest land can be diverted for mining or other development projects.
The government has promised to promote development based on “Jan bhagidari” (People’s participation) and has vowed to strengthen the Gram Sabha and to “respect its inputs for developmental processes”, in its election manifesto.
Members of the following movements/civil society organizations urge the government to live up to it’s promise of “Jan bhagidari” instead of making efforts to limit available spaces for participation. Instead, we demand proper implementation of the FRA without any dilution of the rights and livelihoods of the marginalised forest dependent communities in the country.