Recently, I received a query from Madhya Pradesh about whether a mining company was allowed to lop off branches and demarcate trees in a forest area. Such queries are common in many parts of the country where forest land is sought for “non-forest use” like industries, dams, roads, mines, and ports.
Confusion reigns, both among community organisers and affected people, about where the buck really stops, especially on what constitutes a “final” diversion of forest land and how the legality of some particular activity on forest land can be questioned. Legal aid practitioners (both formal and voluntary), affected people, and government agencies need to come out of this lack of clarity, illustrated in this case from Madhya Pradesh. The villagers, who had organised themselves into a sangharsh samiti (struggle committee) and had been resisting coal mining operations in the area, had seen the representatives of a mining conglomerate enter the Sal forests typical of this area. When asked by the villagers if they had permission to lop branches off and demarcate trees, these representatives reportedly responded that they had the approval of the Divisional Forest Officer (“DFO”) to enter the forest for such work. They also said that they had recently received permission from the Ministry of Environment and Forests (“MoEF”) to divert the forest land. The villagers should also be aware that it was only a matter of time before the company would be allowed to start mining activity.
On the other hand, local social activists had informed the protesting villagers that the MoEF’s approval was not enough for any mining company to start operations. With this information in hand, the villagers asked the companywallahs whether they had the permission in writing to enter the forest, and they were not able to provide any.
Laws applicable to diversion of forest land for non-forest use
The Indian Forest Act, 1927 (“IFA”), its corresponding state laws, and the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 (“FCA”) apply to the issue of diversion of forest land for non-forest use. In the Indian constitutional scheme, both the Union government and the state governments can make law on the subject of forests.
Anyone who wants to use the forest, whether it is a government department, or a private agency, or an individual, needs the permission of the relevant forest department, and the DFO in particular, to divert the forest land. The DFOs needs to inspect the site, prepare a report based on a series of criteria, and forward their recommendation on whether the forest should be given away for non-forest use. Based on the DFO’s recommendation, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (“PCCF”) should forward the proposal to the MoEF. This practice of taking prior approval from the MoEF by the state government was institutionalised through the FCA in 1980, when the Union government felt that the country’s uncontrolled and unprecedented rates of deforestation required central regulation.
At the MoEF, for cases like this, a Forest Advisory Committee (“FAC”) reviews the proposal and gives its recommendations. During this process of review, the FAC can call upon experts, take additional site visits, and seek any amount of additional information. In this case, the FAC had (as documented here) already reviewed the proposal thrice and had refused permission on the grounds that diversion would cause the loss of forests of a very good quality and that the coal from mining coal in the area would only last for fourteen years.
After extensive political and bureaucratic lobbying however, this company received approval in two stages — first in October 2012 and then in February 2014. In accordance with the MoEF’s practice, they received the first (in-principle) approval with a wide list of conditions including the recognition of the rights of tribal and forest dwelling communities under another critical national law, ensuring land is made available for compensatory afforestation, and carrying out a whole range of studies related to the cumulative impact of the mines on water and other resources. The approval at the second stage came amidst even more controversy.
Through this period, the affected community and local activists protested against the fact that the due procedures of law had not been followed, especially those related to forest rights under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (“FRA”). Before the final diversion takes place, the process under the FRA, including taking the necessary permission from the Gram Sabha (village assembly), needs to be complete.
The villagers, now armed with the relevant legal provisions with some help from local and national activists and legal empowerment practitioners, complained to the District Collector and the Minister of Tribal Affairs. Tools such as the Right to Information Act, 2005 were important for them to be able to procure panchayat records and verify the signature of the villagers. The company had and government had claimed that the process under FRA was complete as villagers had signed on their claims at a gram sabha meeting. Information accessed using the RTI Act revealed that many of the signatures were forged. What the company had hoped would be behind them, is now an issue that remains unresolved and open to a formal enquiry.
With the final approval from the MoEF, the coal mining company had entered the area to initiate the lopping and demarcation work. They still did not have the approval of the state government. They had applied to the State Forest Department for diversion, but without the permission required from the state government under Section 2 of the FCA and the corresponding provisions of the IFA, they cannot move ahead, especially if the forest is a “Reserved Forest”. At the time of writing this article, there is no information in the public domain that the state government has given its approval. The state government is waiting for the release of compensatory afforestation land in Sagar district of Madhya Pradesh before giving its permission. At the same time, the District Collector, based on the complaints of the villagers, has set up an enquiry on the process under the FRA and has been quoted in the media saying that his enquiry will only be completed after the national elections of 2014.
Now, the villagers have also filed a complaint with the MoEF and the state forest department. In their letter, they have said that the activity carried out by the company’s representatives was in contravention of the law and that action should be taken. While they are yet to receive any formal reply, the complaint has deterred the company from carrying out any further activity.
It is only a matter of time before the land required for compensatory afforestation is found and the collector’s report is finalised. The legal action might then move from the administrative and regulatory arena to the wisdom of the judiciary. All the build up till now, will then be the evidence, which is critical in any such situation to prove and illegality. In some of the future articles in these series, we will delve upon the nature of evidence in environmental law and challenges in being able to collect it and present it before a regulatory agency or judicial forum.
Many similar cases involving the issue of diversion of forest land for non-forest use may be developing across the country. Understanding the law and practice of forest diversion and recording illegalities will be critical for all concerned. Each case will be peculiar and as practitioners, we will need to delve deeper and work with the affected community to build evidence around it. Even when it comes to the environment, the law is best invoked when backed up with proof.
Kanchi Kohli (email@example.com) is an independent researcher and writer.