New Delhi, February 25 (G’nY News Service): On January 8, 2016, the residents of Ghatbarra village in central India received a notice stating that their Community Forest Rights (CFR) granted on September 3, 2013 were being cancelled. The reason cited was that their rights were causing disturbance to ongoing mining operations. The letter justified this stating that the cancellation was legitimate since the villagers had received their CFR titles only after formal approval for forest diversion. This was granted on March 15, 2012 by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) and subsequently upheld by the Chhatisgarh government on March 28, 2012.
This controversy relates to the Parsa East Ketan Basin (PEKB) coal block in Sarguja district of Chhatisgarh. The mining operations are underway through a joint venture company of Rajasthan Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd (RRVUNL) and Adani Mining Ltd. The coal block is located within the Hasdeo Arand forests, which is known as central India’s largest unfragmented forest outside the official protected area network. The area is home to tribal and other forest dwelling communities who are dependent on the forests for their livelihoods. It is a biodiverse area, with a host of wildlife, besides being an important migratory route for elephants moving from Palamu Tiger Reserve (TR) in Jharkhand to Kanha TR in Madhya Pradesh.
This is perhaps the first time ever that legally recognized community rights have been recalled, and that too on grounds of these interfering with mining activity. What is important to understand is that the recognition of these rights was a mandatory precondition for the forest diversion to take effect.
A 2009 circular of the environment ministry makes the recognition of rights and a written consent or rejection of the Gram Sabha (village assembly) a requirement for approval. In the present case, even though the government might claim this to have been effected, the villagers of Ghatbarra have made several written complaints and opposed it through resolutions in their Gram Sabha. This is even before the formal approval for diversion had been issued. They have also recorded that proceedings of only one village assembly related to land acquisition for the mine was “fake.”
This decision needs to be seen the light of some other developments related to the mining operations. The advisory committee of MoEF is not pursuing the review of the forest clearance granted in 2012, despite the March 2012 orders of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) to do so. The SC has stayed part of the NGT judgment to allow for mining activity until further orders from the ministry. This means that while mining could continue, the approval would need a review on several ecological and social parameters. Meanwhile, the same committee has gone ahead and approved the railway line meant to transport the ore from the mine.
While mining operations continue in “business as usual” mode, several legal obligations seem to either brushed off or facilitated in favor of the project. even as the villagers continue to demand that laws and regulatory procedures related to recognition of their rights be followed.