Govt may backtrack on forest rights

Last Updated: Sat, Feb 16, 2013 04:36 hrs

A week before presenting an affidavit in the Supreme Court, the Union government could have diluted its interpretation of the Forest Rights Act, if sources are to be believed.

The move could have provided Vedanta an advantage in arguing its case for bauxite mining in the tribal area of Odisha's Niyamgiri hills. But, sources say, the government might say mining should not be allowed in Vedanta's case, as it involves the sentiments of the area's tribal community, which believes its Gods reside there.

Even as the ruling Congress party's vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, vowed to protect the rights of tribals to forest land, the government could be planning to make the consent of a gram sabha necessary only if a project affected quality of life and involved submergence, rather than for all diversions of forest land.

If it does so, the government would be taking a stand contrary to its own December position, which was that the law (FRA) did not permit unapproved diversion of forest land for any project. However, it would be in sync with the stand of a committee set up by the Prime Minister's Office, which had left out the requirement of gram sabhas' approval for forest diversions - a proposition earlier rejected by both Environment & Forests Minister Jayanthi Natarajan and Tribal Affair Minister K C Deo.

Deo, in three letter written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November and December 2012, had said: "The consent of gram sabhas with at least 50 per cent quorum (as stated in the Rules of FRA and in the 2009 Ministry of Environment and Forests order) is the bare minimum required to comply with the Act before any forest area can be diverted or destroyed."

The government's new position could be that wherever diversion of forest land over which forest rights are recognised is unavoidable, these rights could be circumscribed using the state's domain by following the procedures in the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, or any other Act that provides for acquisition

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