Kinnaur Tribal forest rights

Accusing Modi Govt. of diluting Forest Rights Act, Congress itself doing exactly same in Himachal

Petition comes at a point when Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi is gearing up to travel across several states focussing on the poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act by the BJP and other parties.

SHIMLA-While the Congress is accusing Modi- led NDA government of diluting and poor implementation of Forest Rights Act 2006, and even Vice-President Rahul Gandhi is gearing up to visit tribal areas calling himself protector of tribal people, Congress ruled Himachal is trying exactly opposite.

Congress Government in Himachal Pradesh has filed petition in apex court challenging rights of traditional dwellers on forests around their habitat  provided under the Forest Rights Act. The petition, filed by state-run Himachal Pradesh Power Corporation Limited (HPPC), slammed National Green Tribunal’s decision to seek consent from the affected tribes for forest clearance for construction of 130 megawatt (MW) Kashang hydropower project. The government stated in the petition that tribal people are unskilled and should not be allowed to interfere in matters of forest clearance for hydro project.

The move could tarnish Congress leadership’s  attempts to boost its pro-tribal credentials in and outside the Parliament.

A petition by Himachal government’s power corporation was heard on Monday in the apex court, challenging a National Green Tribunal (NGT) judgment, which requires the state government and the power corporation to seek consent of 19 tribal gram sabhas (village councils) before going ahead with the 130-Mw integrated Kashang hydropower project on their forestlands.

For the state government, the state power corporation, with the chief secretary as chairman, have contended, besides other things, that the gram sabha consists of only unskilled persons and local residents and the state government cannot comply with the directions of the NGT. The power corporation has asked that the NGT judgment be set aside, as it is not practicable or enforceable and that the judgment was outside the domain and jurisdiction of the tribunal.

It has cited the 2000 SC order in the Narmada case, that pre-dates the existence of the Forest Rights Act to plead gram sabha consent is not essential. It has questioned the ability of the tribals to take a decision on the impact of the projects on their lands, stating that the question of silt load in rivers being dammed involve technical issues which requires scientists and experts. It has said these issues are being looked after by the funder of the project, the Asian Development Bank.

The need for a consent from impacted tribals’ and other forest dwellers’ village councils under the Forest Rights Act to use the traditional forest land for building any project was last reinforced in the SC order in the Vedanta Niyamgiri mining case.

The petition by congress-led Himachal comes at a point when Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi is slated to travel across several states focussing on the poor implementation of the Forest Rights Act by the BJP and other parties. Only recently the central Congress leaders made much out of it forcing the NDA government to address their concerns on keeping tribal consent powers at the heart of the Compensatory Afforestation Act.

The Congress has also held press conference to condemn the BJP state government in Chhattisgarh for doing away with the rights of tribals to favour Adani group’s mining of a coal block in the state. It has repeatedly accused the central NDA government of often trying to dilute tribal rights provided under the Forest Rights Act.

Congress leadership, particularly Vice-President Rahul Gandhi, has tried to claim the pro-tribal leadership ever since the UPA government cancelled Vedanta’s proposal to mine the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha for bauxite against the wish of the Dongria Kondh tribals and the apex court gave a stamp of approval to the same.

But, the Himachal state government’s move could potentially take the wind out of Congress leadership’s future attacks against the government on this count.

The case began when the the Lippa village in Kinnaur district filed a case against the Kashang Hydro Electric Project before the NGT. Besides other arguments, the village contended that the project was given a forest clearance despite the fact that the project developers – the state power corporation – had not sought the mandatory consent from the village council. It raised other issues of potential environmental damage from the project for their lands not being considered while giving the clearance.

In May 2016, the NGT gave its order against the Himachal Pradesh government and its power corporation. it said that they “shall ensure that the entire proposal pertaining to Forest Clearance in respect of Stages II and III of 130 MW Kashang Integrated Hydro Electric Project is placed before the Gram Sabha of 19 villages Lippa, Rarang, Pangi and Telangi in Kinnaur District of Himachal Pradesh as prescribed.” The tribunal asked that the proceedings of the gram sabha be submitted to it in the form of a report by the state government.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for September 9 that runs contrary to the decision in the Vedanta matter and the Congress leadership’s pro-tribal plank at the Centre.

Earlier,  the green tribunal in its order also expressed concern at the large number of hydel-power projects coming up in Himachal Pradesh, and hoped that the state government would reconsider its decision for projects where work has not commenced or just commenced.

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