By Mekdes Shiferaw ’23
Historically, Adivasis communities, many of whom live in India’s forests, have not been consulted when it comes to use of their land. They are often subject to forced displacement and inadequate compensation for ancestral or tribal land (See Thekaekara, 2019). The 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA) secured land tenure for forest communities and the Adivasi that obtain their livelihoods from these forests. The Act is a legal recognition of the rights of forest dwellers since it ascribes ownership, access, use, and disposal over Minor Forest Produce (MFP). One of the prominent purposes of the FRA is to undo systemic injustices Adivasis and forest dwelling communities face by recognising their traditional rights.
Recently, Prime Minister Modi announced the auction of 41 coal blocks as a way out of the economic stress due to Covid-19. The decision was announced by the Central Government under the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, as part of the Self-Reliant India government scheme. These development projects are expected to raise hundreds of thousands (unsustainable) jobs. The auction had minimal stipulations—making it accessible to direct foreign investment and the private sector. Such auctions pose threats to Adivasi communities. When the blocks are auctioned, forested areas are cleared, livelihoods and the environment are threatened, and Adivasi’s are displaced. Moreover, given that majority of the auction sites are located in areas where Adivasi’s and forest dwellers live, the central government failed to adhere to the FRA. They neglecting to consult with the Gram Sabha and further perpetuating the cycle of Discriminatory Development. The FRA explicitly states, under Chapter Two, Section two (ii), “that the clearance of developmental project shall be subject to the condition that the same is recommended by the Gram Sabha.” The decision to expand coal mining fails to uphold its core principle. It undermines the rights and self-determination of forest dwelling communities and dishonours their traditional rights. Prior to the FRA, these communities used to be criminalized and displaced for collecting forest produce and now, even with the FRA in place, the government chooses to violate their legal rights and continues to punish forest dwelling communities.
In addition to the FRA, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is another government scheme with the potential to uphold democratized decision-making between Adivasi communities and the central government. However, the 2020 draft diminishes the autonomy of Adivasis and forest-dwellers in regard to development of infrastructure that takes place on indigenous land. The EIA uses a “precautionary principle” to assess the economic and environmental cost and benefits in order to prevent environmental disasters caused by development. It seeks to increase democratized community participation in decision-making. Nevertheless, the 2020 EIA draft dilutes its principles, favouring development over the cost of livelihoods. One of the amendments of the EIA is reducing public participation by shortening the time allotted for public hearings from 30 to 20 days to fast-track the process of the development projects. The implication of the EIA draft disproportionately affects Adivasis and forest-dwellers; creating an anti-democratic space, especially since lack of access to information and technology inherently impedes their livelihoods.
As the EIA threatens its very own foundational principles, state governments, civil society organisations and Tribal communities in Odisha, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh have been vocal about the issue and as a result, there’s been a response from Maharashtra, withdrawing the Bander mine. Yet again, the livelihood of Adivasis and forest dwellers is left out of the conversation, when it is in fact those communities who are directly impacted.
The pandemic has already weakened forest dwellers livelihoods. Without consulting the impacted communities directly on the coal block auction and also the EIA, the cycle of marginalizing indigenous communities continues. The coal block auction and the draft EIA is only going to frustrate an already dire situation for Adivasis and forest dwelling communities. We will likely continue to see the displacement of Adivasis and forest peoples in the name of “development” unless the consultative process enshrined in FRA is respected.