The Ministry of the Environment has made an alarming change to the Forest Conservation Rules. On June 28, the union’s Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change notified Forest Conservation Rules 2022 to transfer to state governments the responsibility of the union to ensure that the rights of tribes to their traditional forest lands are recognized and consent is taken before cutting down their forests.
Project developers can purchase plantation land from private parties to submit as compensatory afforestation against forest diversion to non-forestry activities, in accordance with Forest (Conservation) Rules 2022 notified earlier this week.
In accordance with the Forestry (Conservation) Rules, 2022, announced Tuesday, the Ministry of Environment ordered the establishment of a project selection committee in each State/UT for an appraisal project involving forest land diversion.
Under the guidelines, the five-member committee must meet at least twice a month and provide timely advice on the project to state governments.
The announcement states that the committee will review each application without regard to its merit after receiving it from state governments or Union Territory (UT) administrations. The committee will consider whether the proposal is complete in all respects, as well as its location in relation to restricted areas or categories. The committee may contact the user agency for clarification or additional documents, depending on the notice.
The new rules also specify the time frame for reviewing various types of projects. Non-mining projects from 5 to 40 hectares must be reviewed within 60 days, and mining projects must be reviewed within 75 days.
Another significant change introduced by the new regulations is that all linear projects (roads, highways, etc.), projects involving forest land of up to 40 hectares, and projects involving forest land with a canopy density of up to 0.7, regardless of its extension for survey purposes – must be examined in the Integrated Regional Office.
“The process has been decentralized, with integrated regional offices responsible for considering all linear and hydroelectric projects, but all mining projects will be evaluated by the central office,” the official added. The notification also transfers responsibility for ensuring that the rights of forest dwellers are restored to state governments.
The amendment violates the Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dweller Forest Rights Recognition Act, or Forest Rights Act. The 2006 law requires governments to seek the free, prior and informed consent of forest dwellers before allowing a project on their traditional lands. This reading of the law was also affirmed in the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Orissa Mining Corporation Ltd v Ministry of Environment and Forest & Others, popularly known as the Vedanta ruling.
The State Government or Union territory Administration, as the case may be, after receiving the ‘Final’ approval of the Central Government under Section 2 of the Act, and after fulfilment and compliance of the provisions of all other Acts and Rules made thereunder, as applicable including ensuring settlement of rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (No. 2 of 2007), shall issue an order for diversion, assignment of lease or dereservation, as the case may be.
in 2009, the MoEF issued an order laying down the process by which detailed evidence of 1. FRA settlement & 2. Gram Sabha consent would be collected. It would be submitted to the union govt before forest land was diverted. The tribal ministry also issued guidelines on this.
In 2014, the MoEF amended the FC rules, entrusting the responsibility of completing the process of settlement of rights under the FRA & consent of the Gram Sabhas to the District Collector. Again, before the grant of in-principle (stage-I) approval.
The changes to the Forest Conservation Rules come after years of fighting between various ministries, failed take-offs and a strong legal warning against such a move in 2015 by the ministry of tribal affairs, which oversees the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, government records show.
“This change only makes things worse by making clearing forests almost a fait accompli,” said Sharachchandra Lele, Distinguished Fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment. “We cannot imagine a harvester doing due diligence on FRA rights after the union government has already approved forest clearing.”
Those applying for forest land diversion in a hilly or mountainous state with green cover covering more than two-thirds of its geographic area, or in a state/UT with forest cover covering more than one-third of its geographic area, may assume the compensatory afforestation in other states/UTs where coverage is less than 20%, according to the new rules.
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