Enraged by the severe changes in the Forest (Conservation) Act (FCA), the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) has called for nationwide protests on November 12, 2021.
On October 11, AIUFWP Chairman Ashok Chaudhary condemned the manner in which the draft proposal changes to the Act infringe on the rights of forest-dwellers and tribal communities. However, he stressed that this isn’t the first time the central government has introduced amendments to “turn the tide against the peoples’ aspirations and rights.”
On March 23, 2020, the central government issued a draft notification concerning Environment Impact Assessment rules (draft EIA 2020). At the time, the AIUFWP demanded a complete withdrawal of the same citing multiple reasons, not the least of which was the timing of the move.
Chaudhary wrote a letter to relevant officials in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), criticising the department for issuing the notification amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. That the draft EIA 2020 was circulated online in English and Hindi alone also irked union members, who could not understand these languages nor access the internet to read the document.
“As the weakening of provisions under EIA 2006 is now prescribed by this new draft, we find that forest-dwelling communities are one of the most vulnerable stakeholders who will be affected by these changes and hence their opinion on this should be sought,” said the AIUFWP in the letter.
It highlighted contentious aspects of the notification like the post-facto clearance mechanism that allowed projects to begin construction before availing an EIA clearance – rendering the whole process obsolete. Many new projects were included in the “Industrial Estate” category – Coastal Economic Zones, special investment regions, petroleum, chemicals and petrochemical investment regions, hydropower and renewables – that could infringe on basic rights of local indigenous communities.
“Draft EIA 2020 gives industries, corporations, and public projects licence to loot our “Jal, Jungle, Jameen” “Water, Forest, and Land” which is antithetical to the idea of national interest,” it said.
The AIUFWP also said that the draft EIA 2020 weakened state governments’ powers over such issues that will worsen the pollution in concerned areas. It may be mentioned that similar concerns have been raised about the draft proposals in the FCA as well. The draft EIA 2020 barely gave concerned social groups the time to respond to the sudden changes. This time, the MoEFCC extended the deadline for comments and responses till November 1.
Still members remain cautious, especially after how categorisation and recategorization of projects in the draft EIA 2020 were done through a ‘Technical Expert Committee’ that replaced public hearings.
“Not only is public scrutiny avoided, an objectionable pattern ignores “Project Affected Communities.” There is a need to look at the draft EIA 2020 in conjunction with other legal provisions in relation to forest, land, and rights,” said Chaudhary.
By this he referred to amendments like those of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, (LARR 2013) that gave free passes to government projects without public consent. Similarly, changes to the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 violate the Forest Rights Act and the Wildlife Protection Act that barred projects without gram sabha consent.
The AIUFWP considered the convergence of such changes, along with eviction threats and then the draft EIA 2020 as “anti-people.” Further, members said that the draft EIA 2020 violated constitutional norms and procedures as well as the founding principles of the MoEFCC. Citing the report of a High Level Committee, the AIFWP said the Ministry should “give due consideration to the views/opinion and objections raised by stakeholders including environmental experts.”
Above all, the draft notification also provided a 20-year increase in the validity of environmental clearances for mining projects: five years for river valley; eight years for irrigation and nuclear projects’ three years for all other projects.
“This is alarming for a number of reasons, for projects through their operations must be closely monitored,” said Chaudhary.
To make matters worse, the FCA changes suggest doing away with Section 2(iii), diluting mining lease procedures in forest land. It also suggests that “environment-friendly” technology like the Extended Reach Drilling (ERD) should be excluded from the purview of the Act.
AIUFWP General Secretary Roma Malik said on Monday that these changes are taking away gram sabha’s rights when tribal folks’ land claims are yet to be settled in courts. As a result, India’s federal structure is being centralised drastically.
To challenge such weakening of environmental laws, the Bhoomi Adhikar Andolan has called upon all tribal and rural villages to demonstrate on November 12 and submit a memorandum to local authorities rejecting such changes.
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