Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
New Delhi: A Bill drafted for the first time to protect and preserve areas of geological importance across the country has been criticised on the grounds that it does not take into account special governance mechanisms applicable to areas dominated by Adivasi communities. The Bill – titled Geo-heritage Sites and Geo-relics (Preservation and Maintenance) Bill, 2022 – also envisages empowering the executive with absolute powers in so far as deciding upon denotification of any of these areas for the purpose of infrastructure or industrial development.
The importance and urgency of the Bill, particularly in the light of rampant and unregulated industrial activities in areas with potential geo-heritage importance, have been acknowledged by experts from across many diverse fields. But at the same time, the absence of focus in the Bill on participatory governance, as a possible model for the conservation of geologically important areas, has also been pointed out. The draft Bill was put out on the website of the Union Ministry of Mines on December 15 for public consultations.
So far, 32 sites with rich geological heritage have been notified as National Geological Monuments by the Geological Survey of India (GSI), a central government organisation mandated with the responsibility of creating and updating of national geoscientific information and mineral resource assessment. In future, the Bill envisages acquiring land, for the purpose of notifying geo-heritage sites, under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.
However, it has been pointed out by experts that heritage impact assessments are necessary before notifying any area as a geo-heritage site.
Retired bureaucrat, EAS Sarma, a 1965-batch IAS officer, told NewsClick that, as a part of the Environment Impact Appraisal (EIA) study under the Environment Protection Act, 1986, a “heritage impact assessment study” should be mandated within 10-km radius of a geo-heritage site before the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change approves the sites for notification.
“The Bill, in its present form, extends its application to the whole of India. However, some geo-heritage sites may be located in tribal tracts in Scheduled Areas. A special clause needs to be inserted in the Bill to ensure that provisions of the Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 and such other special laws which are applicable, in so far as it applies to the areas notified in the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution, are fully complied with, before any restrictions under this Bill become applicable. The Ministry of Mines may seek the considered views in the matter of the National Commission for the Scheduled Tribes, which is a Constitutional authority. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs must also be consulted,” said Sarma.
Notably, areas with pre-ponderance of the Adivasi population are designated as Scheduled Areas under Schedule V of the Constitution of India and are accorded special governance mechanisms. The Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 ensures that the rights of Adivasi communities living in Scheduled Areas are protected vis-à-vis diversion of land from these areas for the purpose of industrial development. This Act ensures protection of the rights of Adivasi communities by making it mandatory for the government to obtain the consent of Gram Sabhas (local self-governing councils comprising all adult members of any particular village) before diverting or notifying land for any purpose.
However, the Bill does not take into consideration the aforementioned rights which experts point out would be necessary because most sites of geological importance are perceived to be located in areas with preponderance of Adivasi population.
Section 4 of the draft Bill states: “Once a site is declared as a geo-heritage site of national importance under section 3 [of the draft Bill], the Central Government may acquire such area under the provisions of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, as if the acquisition were for a public purpose within the meaning of that Act.”
The Bill defines geo-heritage sites as sites of rare and unique geological and geomorphologic significance having the geomorphological, mineralogical, petrological, paleontological and stratigraphic significance including caves, natural rock-sculptures of national and international interest. It defines geo-relics as any relic or material of geological significance or interest like sediments, rocks, minerals, meteorites or fossils.
As per provisions of the draft Bill, the GSI will be empowered to acquire a geo-relic if it apprehends that it is in danger of being destroyed, removed, damaged or misused. On these grounds, the GSI can decide to remove a geo-relic from the original site and put it in a public place.
The central government has justified the framing of legislation, as has been envisaged under the Bill, on the grounds that though 32 sites have been notified as geo-heritage sites or national geological monuments, there exists no mechanism in the country at present for protection and maintenance of these sites.
“… due to the absence of any legislation in the country for the protection, preservation and maintenance of the geo-heritage sites, these are increasingly threatened with destruction not only by the natural causes of decay but also by population pressure and changing social and economic conditions which is aggravating the situation,” states the ministry in a note on the aforementioned Bill.
However, though the Bill mentions changing social dynamics, it also fails to take cognisance of the diversity of population and natural resources existing for centuries in areas that could potentially be declared as sites with geological heritage.
“This is an extremely important Bill which recognises geological heritage sites as natural heritage which need to be mapped and conserved. However, the framework of conservation is based on conservation through acquisition of rights the implications of which require parliamentary and public debate,” said Kanchi Kohli of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based leading policy thinktank.
Moreover, the only model for the protection and preservation of the geological heritage of the country that has been envisaged through the Bill is that by the government after taking over land and geo-heritage resources from the control of local communities.
“Different models of co-governance, participatory governance and community-based governance can also be considered as options, especially because these geo-heritage sites overlap with culturally, ecologically and occupationally important spaces,” added Kohli.
In addition, no public consultation has been envisaged in the Bill prior to the denotification of any particular geological heritage site for the purpose of industries, infrastructure or any other purpose. The entire onus of clearing or rejecting proposals on or near notified sites of geological heritage has been sought to be envisaged with the GSI which, as per the Bill, has been sought to be designated as the competent authority.
“The Director General or the officer authorised by the Director General in this behalf shall consider the application made under section 10 [of the draft Bill] and the impact of such construction or reconstruction or repair or renovation (including the impact of largescale development project, public project and project essential to the public) and shall, within two months of the receipt of application, either grant permission or refuse the same after giving an opportunity to the applicant of being heard,” states the Bill.
Experts say that even though the entire Indian sub-continent is a rich repository of geo-heritage sites, a number of important sites in the country have already been destroyed due to a lack of knowledge about the resources and the pressure on land for infrastructural and economic development. The ministry’s note to the Bill itself lists a number of geo-heritage sites that are located in various parts of the Indian peninsula including the Himalaya ranges, the Deccan Traps, the Precambrian Indian peninsula, the Thar Desert and the rain-soaked areas of Northeast India. Important sites listed out in the note to the Bill include the dinosaur fossils of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, marine fossils of Kutch and Spiti, wood fossils of Gondwana, the oldest life forms viz. stromatolites of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and the vertebrate fossils of Siwaliks.
“The world’s oldest metallurgical records of gold, lead and zinc in Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh are still preserved but are under great threat,” states the note to the Bill.
Dr Om Narain Bhargava, a professor of Geology at the Panjab University in Chandigarh, said many sites with rich geological heritage have been wiped out from the Indian sub-continent owing to unregulated and unscientific developmental activities. He said developed countries are increasingly waking up to the need for conserving sites with rich geological heritage. China, for example, has notified as many as 41 areas as geoparks because of their geological significance.
“In India, a number of sites have been lost already. A coral reef in Spiti Valley, which was almost 240 million years old, was lost because a canal was constructed above it. Areas with high geological significance need to be conserved in order to build our repository of knowledge and for the purpose of academics, study and research. In certain instances, our geological heritage can help us predict and build models for dealing with possible extreme climatic incidents in the future,” said Bhargava.