The tribal affairs ministry, the nodal ministry for the implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, has told the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that it relies solely on states’ submissions on the provision on village councils’ consent for transfer of forest land to industry being met. As per a Business Standard report, the ministry stated that it doesn’t have the statutory wherewithal to carry out any independent verification. There are, however, contradictory precedents—in the Vedanta mining case, as directed by the Supreme Court, the tribal affairs ministry had constituted a committee to supervise the village council meetings in Odisha’s Kalahandi and Rayagada districts. As a result of the resolutions adopted in these meetings, Vedanta’s proposed mining project in Niyamgiri, which lies in these two districts, was scrapped.
Though petitioners have asked the NGT to review the ministry’s statement, it is an opportunity for the government to review the provision itself as it unnecessarily complicates the process of diversion of forest land. To be sure, the rights of forest dwellers and tribals need to be protected. But this can’t be done by empowering them to stall industrial and development projects that eventually work out to their benefit by creating jobs and boosting local economy. The FRA has complicated the process of granting of forests clearances, a function of the environment ministry. Under the present NDA government, the environment ministry has repeatedly sought the repeal of the consent provision through executive order, but the tribal affairs ministry has maintained that the objective can only be met by amending the FRA. Given the nodal ministry is unable to monitor the implementation of the provision—which is impeding the development process anyway—may be it is time the FRA was indeed amended to this effect.