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Nothing straight about this line

Written By Krishna on Friday, February 08, 2013 | 8:09 AM

It is stark irony that the UPA government, which instituted an award to
make gram sabhas in villages function more effectively, has now decided
to disempower many of them and steamroll ahead with infrastructure
projects in forest areas. The goal of empowering gram sabhas as the
voice of the panchayats through Article 243 A of the Constitution was
to provide a democratic basis to decentralised decision-making. When
the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition
of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 became law, it strengthened that objective.
That the government has little conviction in what it does in the name
of the weak, however, is amply borne out by the decision to cut the
gram sabhas out of the picture, when it comes to sanctioning what are
being called linear projects — construction of roads, canals, laying
pipelines, transmission lines and so forth. The Ministry of Environment
and Forests, in the face of sustained pressure from the Prime Minister,
has acted in unseemly haste to modify a circular it issued in 2009 and
allow building activity in forest areas without the need for gram sabha
consent. Not long ago, the Minister for Panchayati Raj and Tribal
Affairs, V. Kishore Chandra Deo, reaffirmed the Centre’s commitment to
strengthen the role of gram sabhas, and asked that States make a full
video and audio record of proceedings of these grassroots bodies when
they convened to discuss sensitive, contentious and controversial
issues including those relating to land acquisition, mining and use of
natural resources. Now Mr. Deo’s ministry has also turned turtle.

It needs to be emphasised that the Forest Rights Act is an empowering
legislation, which seeks to strike a delicate balance between the need
to conserve the meagre forest cover in the country (most of which
exists only in degraded form) and recognise the right of communities to
live in their traditional homes. To treat citizens as obstacles to
development and disenfranchise them from voicing their views in the
name of administrative reform is undemocratic and oppressive. The
modified regime agreed to this week makes an exception in the case of a
few primitive tribal groups and pre-agricultural communities, but the
vast majority of India’s forest dwellers stand to lose. At work here is
a development model that ignores democratic rights when it comes to
appropriating natural resources. It builds on the woefully weak
national record of compensating communities who have been displaced,
often violently, in the quest for resources. The Environment and Tribal
Affairs Ministries should restore the powers of the gram sabha and stop
diluting due process. 

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