That the Indian Government has finally granted forest clearance to the POSCO project in Orissa shows once again that the MoEF lacks the political will to implement the Forest Rights Act in right earnest; in fact, the clearance letter issued today by the Minister of Environment and Forests, Mr Jairam Ramesh, makes explicit that the Government will not pay even scant heed to the laws of the land. The way our respected Minister interprets law is turning into a bad joke; his explanations for rejecting POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti’s (PPSS) contention that the Palli Sabha gave no consent to the projects are incredibly naïve—so naïve that it is impossible to believe that he himself believes that!
Mr Ramesh is welcome to his beliefs and disbeliefs: he states in bold that his belief in Orissa Government’s version of events stems from his belief in federalism (whatever that may mean) and that he therefore believes there are no legitimately convened Palli Sabhas in the project area, and hence the provisions for Palli Sabha consent for forest clearance as stipulated under his Ministry’s August 2009 guidelines won’t apply. He supports Orissa Government’s stand that the Palli Sabha resolutions submitted by the local people are false and invalid: he cites three specific reasons for this:
1. There were no quorums in the meetings of the Palli Sabha where such resolutions were taken; only a handful of villagers attended the Meetings.
2.The Palli Sabhas were not legally convened; according to the FRA Rules 2007 the Gram Panchayat should convene the Gram Sabha (here Palli Sabha), and that did not happen here; though the concerned Sarpanch certifies the resolutions, he apparently was “acting without the authority of the Gram Panchayat”! How this is proved? Because the Orissa Government says so, and disbelief in what the Government-appointed bureaucrats like the SDO and the Collector say apparently weakens our federal system, according to the respected Minister.
3. The Resolutions were not kept in the Book in prescribed format and therefore according to Orissa Gram Panchayat Rules, these are invalid.
These so-called reasons or arguments did not deserve serious response. However, because the Government of the country expressed so, and because these opinions will inevitably lead to yet more repressive actions by the Orissa Government on the agitating villagers led by PPSS, let us examine them in detail:
1. There were no quorums in the meetings of the Palli Sabha where such resolutions were taken; only a handful of villagers attended the Meetings: This is a barefaced lie. The Palli Sabha resolutions were adopted in meetings where most, if not all, villagers attended, and their signatures – which ran for more than 70 pages – were submitted to the Orissa Government as evidence. The MoEF has copies of these evidences and yet it decides to champion the blatant lies of the Orissa government.
2. The Palli Sabha not legally convened: The FRA Rules indeed say that the Gram Sabhas will be convened by the Gram Panchayat. Neither the FRA nor its Rules provides definition of the term ‘gram panchayat’ and nowhere it has been stipulated or hinted that this will be bound by any state government’s interpretation. In a case where the Sarpanch of the Dhinkia Panchayat himself certifies that Palli Sabha resolutions are genuine, what is the point in saying that the Palli Sabha Meetings were not legally convened? As to the Sarpanch transgressing his jurisdiction and acting without the authority of the Gram Panchayat, what does this precisely mean? Does the FRA recognize any other Gram Panchayat authority than the Sarpanch while Gram Sabhas/Palli Sabhas are being convened? Is there any legal requirement for this?
It is clear that the Respected Minister is not too sure about this; he says that in case of the Orissa Government failing to take action against the errant Sarpanch of Dhinkia he will think that there’s something amiss, and his belief in Orissa Government’s veracity will be shaken. So, there is a possibility of Orissa Government’s being wrong after all!
Invoking Orissa Gram Panchayat Rules unnecessarily is proof enough that both the Orissa Government and the MoEF are finding it hard to wriggle out of the FRA and the August 2009 Guidelines; when everything else fails truth has to be manufactured afresh. The contention that Palli Sabha Resolutions under the FRA have to be recorded in Books as provided by the Orissa Gram Panchayat Rules is legally untenable and invalid; these are some of the ploys that the state governments in league with a bevy of vested interests greedily eyeing the forest resources keep on using—to deny Indian forest communities their justified and legal control over the country’s forests. The FRA is a central Act and the most potent in its domain; no other central Acts, let alone state Acts can be used in overriding its provisions.
The Respected Minister apparently knows this well: his recent reply to the Maharashtra PCCF’s letter on the Bamboo rights issue in Menda-Lekha shows clearly that he does not consider state Acts germane in implementation of the FRA, especially in restricting ‘rights’ stipulated by the Act. He also knows, despite his new-found belief in ‘federalism’, that like all Governments past and future, the Orissa Government too can lie fluently, especially where powerful corporate interests are concerned; to wit, his denial of forest clearance to the Vedanta at Niyamgiri.
The Minster wants to reassure people that he is serious about the FRA; isn’t he the person who made the August 2009 guidelines? What he forgets (or, decides to forget) that the laws of a country are not toys to play with: one can’t sometimes embrace them playfully, and sometimes discard, citing development priorities (Jaitapur) and other reasons (federal principles, here). The laws are there to be rigidly, strictly complied with. This compliance is not subject to any Minister’s belief system, however well-meaning and important that might be.
The MoEF and the Respected Minister have been caught and trapped in their lies. On behalf of the forest communities of this country, we reject these lies and demand that the Minster immediately revokes the utterly illegal forest clearance accorded to the illegal POSCO Project.
We reaffirm our solidarity with the struggling communities working under the PPSS banner. Any measures of repression unleashed by the Orissa Government in the wake of this dubious forest clearance will be countered not only by the people in the project area, but throughout the country
Sanjay Basu Mullick
On behalf of the Secretariat (Ranchi)