Forest clearance & application in Manipur

Jajo Themson *

Introduction: There have been records of historic injustice done to the forest dependent tribal communities in India from various angles especially due to developmental interventions such as industrial expansion, airport expansion, mega dam projects, mining, quarrying, High-way & Railway construction etc.

In the wake of such projects, wide spread devastation of forest and natural landscape which gave direct impacts on ecological balance, threat on livelihood, socio-cultural, economical life of forest dwellers leading to jeopardizing the further existence of their lives in their respective regions.

There are intrinsic relationship between Forest and indigenous people in terms of socio-cultural, history, even religious aspects and economic that sustains their survival throughout different stages of their life. The tribal or indigenous peoples depend their life on nature produces like the grass for livestock, food, water and also the medicine they need.

Tribal community’s foundations were laid on forest which inspires their culture, traditions, science and all their walks of life. They used to struggle for conservation of nature, preserving the balance of the ecosystem which has always been the indigenous way of life. The inseparable relationship between them and the free gift of nature cannot be compromised in any case. Forced alienation from the forest land led them to an irreparable havoc throughout generations where-upon they survived.

Forest Clearance and mega projects in Manipur: Taking of Forest Clearance is a mandatory in any project undertakings which comprised diversion of forest for non-forest activities. Mega dams, Wild life sanctuaries, Highway and Railway projects and mineral mining projects inevitably involve diversion of forest and hence, shall fall under the conditions stipulated in the section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) 1980, which ought to obtain Forest Clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment & Forest Climate Change (MoEFCC) prior to diversion.

However, in the context of Manipur, there has been no record of initiative or full compliance of mandatory procedures, rules and norms established under the FCA and FRA in the forest clearance process.

In a recent development, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) court, Eastern Bench, Kolkata in its judgment dated 6 December 2017 confirmed lack of implementing Forest Rights (Recognition of Scheduled Tribe and other Traditional forest Dwellers Rights), Act (FRA) 2006 in the forest Clearance for Mapithel dam of Thoubal Multipurpose Project which has attained 37 years of construction, directed to comply the necessary conditions under the said act within three months.

This is one clear indication of the nature of project developer in the state where Forest Clearance has been ignored. Those mega projects such as Singda dam, Khuga dam, Khaupum dam, Loktak project, Trans-Asian Railway project, ADB sponsored Highway projects seem to have been or to be constructed without maintaining the rules required by the FCA, 1980 & FRA, 2006 where either direct purchase of forest land or other means were resorted which even invokes another question of violation of the provisions of the article 371 C of the Indian constitution.

Forest Clearance is Mandatory under FCA, 1980 & FRA, 2006: The FCA, 1980 and FRA, 2006 operate through corresponding rules and guidelines. Section 2 of the FCA, 1980 provides certain guidelines which state Govt. cannot proceed without approval of the Central Govt. in the following activities- De-reservation of reserved forest land, Use of forest land for non-forestry purpose and Assignment of forest land through lease or otherwise to any private person or any agency/corporation/organization which is not owned/managed/controlled by the state govt. clearing of trees that have grown naturally in a forest land or portion of it, for the purpose of using it for re-forestation.

The FRA, 2006 was passed mainly to Undo the 100 years of historic injustice done to the forest dwellers in India. Thus, it adds another scope to the forest diversion procedure, as the recognition and exercise of forest rights is impacted by diversion of forest land.

Further, as per the Union MoEFCC Circular of 03:08:2009 on FRA compliance under section 3(1)I, 3(1)e and 4(5), a series of documental evidence are required to be enclosed to prove the compliance of FRA.

The whole process of taking community forest owners clearance should be Video-taped and video made publicly accessible to ensure transparency and reduce manipulation and disputes, a letter from the state Govt. certifying that the complete process for identification and settlement of rights under FRA has been carried out for the entire forest areas proposed for diversion, with a record of all consultation and meetings held, a letter from the state Govt. certifying that such diversion (with full details of the project and its implications, in vernacular/local language) have been placed before each Gram Sabha of forest dwellers, who are eligible under FRA, a letter from each of the concern Gram Sabhas, indicating that all formalities/processes under the FRA have been carried out, and that they have given their consent to the proposed diversion and the compensatory and ameliorative measures if any, having understood the purposes and details of proposed diversion, a letter from the state Govt. certifying that diversion of the forest land for facilities managed by the Govt. as required under section 3(2) of the FRA have been completed and that the Gram Sabha has consented to it.

Still the project developers have to produce a letter certifying that discussions and decisions on such proposal had taken place only when there was a quorum of minimum 50% of members of the Gram Sabha present, Obtaining the written consent or rejection of the Gram Sabha to the proposal, letter from the state Govt. certifying that the rights of primitive tribal Groups and Pre-Agricultural communities, where applicable, have been specifically safeguarded as per section 3(1)(e) of the FRA, any other aspect having bearing on operationalization of the FRA. The state/UT Govts., where process of settlement of rights under the FRA is yet to begin, are required to enclose evidences supporting will be initiated and completed before the final approval for proposal.

Additionally, as per the FCA, 1980, a cost benefit analysis is required for all proposals involving forest land extending over more than 20 hectares in the plains and more than 5 hectares in the hills. Since the enactment of The FRA, forest dwellers became eligible for recognition of a wider set of use, access, management and socio-cultural rights. The overall cost benefit analysis therefore will have to give due consideration to all such rights being affected.

Conclusion: In the light of the above discussion points, it is apparent that there has been extemporaneous approach in project execution in Manipur state without proper and serious concern for the mandatory procedures and negative impacts upon the community people who occupy the forest land traditionally. Absence of forest Clearance kills the Indigenous people’s right of Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC).

The aged old practice of state project development manner sidelining the significance of the set up Indian constitutional framework on Forest and Environment literally undermined the customary rights of the forest ownership of the indigenous communities. The long access of the state Govt. on implementing major projects involving forest diversion by way of direct purchase, on pretext of consent being obtained without inculcating the purpose of the FCA, 1980 and FRA, 2006, highlighted Forest Clearance in spirit sans letter.

This practice makes the National Green Acts a ridiculous in Manipur state. Moreover, like mentioned earlier, culture of purchase of forest land even violated the Article 371 C of the Indian constitution when it comes to context of hill areas in the state. Finally, it is my cogitative observation that the tribal/indigenous community people require a close watch and aware of the lackadaisical style of the project developers who every time sidelined the mandatory clearances assassins our rights of forest ownership.

Therefore in conclusion, it is my grave concern as we take steps and push forward for implementing Forest Clearance as mandatory based on the exact rules and guidelines enshrined in the aforementioned Green acts in any up-coming development projects including dams and mining that involve forest diversion.

* Jajo Themson wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on December 26, 2017.

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