The Scheduled tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, which is commonly known as the Forest Rights Act (FRA), provides indigenous communities, through individual as well as community rights, the opportunities to claim legal ownership over the forests that they have lived on and conserved for hundreds of years. There have been many delays and misconducts in the granting of these forest rights to the indigenous people of India, due to the profit making at the extractive commodity frontiers.
However, on January 8, 2016, Chhattisgarh became the first state to outright cancel already given forest rights in Ghatbarra village, Surguja district. Instead this forest was diverted for coal mining of the Prasa East and Keta Besan coal block which has been allocated to Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL) with Adani Minerals Private Limited as the mine developer cum operator (MDO). The latter is a 100% subsidiary of Adani Enterprises Limited which is already under attack due to its Australian Carmichael mines. The state government in its order noted (translated from Hindi): “When the administration tries to get diversion of forests done for the Parsa East and Kete Besen (PEKB) coal block, the villagers, using the context of the land rights given by the collector to them, create barriers and protest to stop work.”
The district administration along with the tribal affairs and the forest department based on latter’s conclusions passed the order arguing that, because the land had been given in 2012 to the company for mining, it no longer classified as forestland in 2013 when it was given to tribals under the FRA. Consequently, the three sets of authorities collectively decided that the government order handing over rights to tribals in 2013 is cancelled.
This is a gross violation of the FRA. The law and the attendant regulations provide only for the government diverting the forest land for some other purpose after prior informed consent of the tribals through their gram sabha. The FRA also requires that the claims and rights of all tribals and other forest-dwellers are settled before the government looks to remove them under section 4(5) of the law and other rules.
But the central government gave the clearance to divert the land for mining in 2012 without settling the rights. Business Standard senior journalist Nitin Sethi found this from the orders of the environment ministry. One set of orders said the land would be diverted only once the rights of the tribals and others had been settled. But then later orders (called stage 2 forest clearance) handed over the land for mining without ascertaining that the rights had actually been settled. In 2014, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had once cancelled the forest clearance noting that the environment ministry had not looked at the impact of coal mining on biodiversity in the region including presence of protected species such as the elephant. It asked the environment ministry to take a look again at the case. But the stay on operations was removed by the Supreme Court even as the NGT orders to relook at the clearance continued to operate. Since then the ministry has not taken a decision on the matter, records show.
The PEKB coal block is a part of the Hasdeo-Arand coal field. This coalfield is spread over an area of 1,878 sq kms in Korba, Surguja and Surajpur districts in north Chhattisgarh. Of the total area, 1,502 sq km area is under biodiversity-rich forest cover. The coalfield has total estimated reserves of 5.17 billion tonne. In 2010, the Ministry of Environment and Forest had declared this area as a no-go zone for mining due to its rich biodiversity and high tribal population. However, the new government not only doesn’t heed to that, it has also allowed for the construction of railway lines through the forest for the purpose of ore transportation.
In October 2014, as many as 17 gram sabhas in this coal field protested against coal mining in their rich forests, and passed a resolution opposing the re-allotment of coal mines by the new government. In December, 2014 thousands of villagers from these 17 gram sabhas gathered under the banner of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA) and signed a six-point resolution demanding to honour provisions PESA Act of 1996 and Forest Rights Act of 2006.
These orders and violations of forest rights could be due to these actions by the villagers. Under the Forest Rights Act, the gram sabha is the only authority empowered to decide the future of traditional tribal lands.
Thus, by delegitimizing the rights of the tribals over their land illegally, this order sets a precedence for other such violations in future over traditional tribal lands for corporate profits due to extractive industries.