govts bid to water down tribal rights takes a hit

NEW DELHI: The government's plan to detach tribal rights from clearances to projects requiring forestlands partially boomeranged after the Supreme Court on Thursday ordered that the gram sabha should decide if their customary and religious rights would be impacted by Vedanta's proposed bauxite mining in Niyamgiri hills in Odisha. The decision will dampen the pressure within the UPA to further dilute the norms that empower tribal gram sabhas under the Forest Rights Act to give consent to projects requiring forestlands.

A report prepared by the PMO in December 2012 had recommended that the rights of gram sabhas under the Forest Rights Act to give prior consent to projects should be watered down to operate only in cases of exception. The tribal affairs ministry gave in to the pressure and agreed to the report and the environment ministry followed up by agreeing to do away with the need for consent from gram sabhas for linear projects. But the pressure building up within the government to stand down on tribal rights made it carefully avoid referring to the regulations requiring gram sabha consent in the Vedanta case.

While government remained steadfast on its position against Vedanta mining, there was great unease about a generic ruling on Forest Rights Act in the case impacting other clearances. But the apex court order on Thursday has reverted the case back to the gram sabha, permitting the tribals and not the ministry or any other authority to decide whether their religious rights exist in the contentious hill and would they be harmed by the project. The court said, "Gram sabha has an obligation to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of STs and other forest dwellers, their cultural identity , community resources etc, which they have to discharge following the guidelines issued by the ministry of tribal affairs."

Source - TOI -