Is the MoEFCC encroaching into the domain of Tribal Affairs Ministry?

A joint advisory by both ministries has triggered concerns, signalling the Environment Ministry’s intrusion on matters earmarked for the Tribal Affairs Ministry.

Published : Apr 03, 2024 19:42 IST - 4 MINS READ

A woman from a tribal community in Kalahandi district of Odisha collects mahua flowers

A woman from a tribal community in Kalahandi district of Odisha collects mahua flowers | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout

On March 14, secretaries at the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) issued a joint advisory: this pertained to guidelines to implement the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA). It touched upon a host of issues such as schemes related to the construction of houses, roads, hospitals, the provision of electricity and the maintenance of a record of rights or pattas

But a red flag is the fact that it was issued as a joint advisory from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and MoEFCC. In the last few years, the MoEFCC has slowly taken over FRA issues, a function that was supposed to be core to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs. 

When FRA was enacted in 2006, the then Union government made an amendment to Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961 giving powers to the tribal ministry to deal with matters related to forest rights. Following this amendment, the tribal ministry was officially recognised as the nodal ministry for the implementation of the provisions of FRA.

The decision-maker

However, the tribal ministry has taken a back seat in the last few years, and in some cases, its actions are led by the environment ministry. For instance, the tribal ministry failed to defend FRA in court, ultimately leading to the disastrous eviction order by the Supreme Court on 13th February, 2019. Then in July, 2021, tribal ministry issued a joint communication with the environment ministry allowing the latter a role in decision-making on FRA implementation. Then in December last year, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha on the status of community forest rights (CFR) claims, the tribal ministry said it doesn’t maintain segregated data of titles distributed and areas claimed by forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers and also that it doesn’t maintain village-wise details of resource-related CFR rights. This response in the Lok Sabha is worthy of criticism given the role the tribal ministry was designated to play i.e. the nodal ministry for FRA. 

“The concern is that the tribal affairs ministry has withdrawn from its role at a time when tribal areas are at the verge of large-scale diversion because of the amendment to Forest Conservation Act and Rules and privatisation with afforestation and other plantation projects through compensatory afforestation [CAMPA] and new Green Credit Rules,” said Tushar Dash, an independent researcher working on forest rights issues. Last year, the Union government amended the Forest Conservation Act and Rules that make it easier to divert ecologically rich lands for projects related to mining, building roads and railways etc. 

This reporter emailed a questionnaire last month, on these issues, to Bhupender Yadav, environment minister, Leena Nandan, secretary at the environment ministry, Arjun Munda, tribal affairs minister and Vibhu Nayar, secretary at the tribal affairs ministry. No response was recieved.

In 2014, under the UPA-government led by the Congress, the tribal ministry had written to the chief secretaries of all States and Union Territories and governors of scheduled areas that a circular issued by the environment ministry was bad in law because it exempted certain infrastructure projects from obtaining the consent of gram sabhas as required under FRA. The letter reiterated that “compliance to FRA is a mandatory requirement before forest land can be diverted. Failure to do so would be a violation of law.” K.C. Deo, who headed the tribal affairs ministry when it took this strong stance on FRA, said that in past 10 years, “political leadership at the [tribal affairs] ministry has gone into a deep freeze.”

Running battle

Shankar Gopalakrishnan from the Campaign for Survival and Dignity explained that ever since the FRA was passed, from the time of the UPA government, the environment ministry has tried to stall it. “FRA is the first law which recognises that the forest bureaucracy is not the dominant player when it comes to forest-related matters. So, [the forest bureaucracy via the environment ministry] has been trying to take back its territory and there has been a running battle between the two ministries.”

But, Gopalakrishnan added, since 2014, the political messaging that forest rights are an important issue has sharply reduced and the environment ministry has essentially taken over. “The tribal affairs ministry seems to have caved in completely.”

The joint advisory issued this March is also concerning in another aspect because it loops in the forest department for management of CFR lands. This is in contrast to provisions under FRA where gram sabhas have the authority to govern, manage and conserve forest resources.

The new joint advisory effectively hands back control over forest resources to the forest bureaucracy. “This will lead to community rights being controlled by forest department working plans,” Dash said.

Gopalakrishnan said there has been an “abdication of responsibility” by the tribal affairs ministry and also the Union government given they are legally bound to protect the forest rights of tribal and other forest-dwelling communities. “From its actions, it sometimes seems the tribal affairs ministry wants to do the minimum… not attempt to ensure full implementation of the law.”

Rishika Pardikar is an environment reporter covering science, law, and policy.

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