NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A landmark law recognising the rights of India's tribes over forest land may be diluted to clear the way for infrastructure projects such as roads, railway lines, electricity towers and irrigation canals, Tribal Affairs Minister Jual Oram has said.
The government is mulling a proposal to amend the Forest Rights Act and exempt certain projects from the need for a village council vote as laid out by law, Oram told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Projects such as roads, railways and electricity and irrigation will help the tribal people too. So regarding these types of projects, there is a discussion underway," Oram said in an interview on Thursday.
"If there are projects (that) are benefiting the tribals also, then what is the problem in amending the Forest Rights Act to include exemptions?"
No decision has yet been made, Oram said, and even if approved by cabinet, any amendments would still need to be passed by parliament.
Activists say the move indicates how the pro-business policies of recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi could hurt the environment and poor communities, including indigenous people.
India's tribes make up more than 8 percent of its 1.2 billion population. Yet many live on the margins of society - inhabiting remote villages and eking out a living from farming, cattle rearing and collecting and selling forest produce.
Social indicators in these communities, including literacy, child malnutrition and maternal mortality, are among the worst in the country. Neglect by the authorities and a Maoist insurgency in the country’s central tribal belt have further exacerbated their plight.
But the biggest threat has always been to their land.
A lack of documents proving land ownership has meant that tribal people are often treated as criminals, exploited by wealthy land owners and money lenders, or face extortion by officials.
Many also live in mineral-rich regions such as Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, and risk displacement due to mining projects.
In 2008, India passed the Forest Rights Act which recognised the right of tribal people to inhabit the land their forefathers settled on centuries before. The law also stipulates that approval for all projects must be granted by gram sabhas, or village councils.
But the law is being blamed by industry lobbies for delays in obtaining green clearances to start projects, and is seen as an obstacle to investment and growth.
In January, a gram sabha vote in Odisha state resulted in London-listed Vedanta Resources Plc losing a seven-year battle to mine bauxite after villagers voted against it. The company had invested around $8 billion in the venture.
GOVERN FOR DEVELOPMENT, NOT DESTRUCTION
Social activists say one of the most worrisome trends displayed by the new government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is a policy to expedite environmental approval for industrial projects.
Wada Na Todo Abhiyan, a coalition of more than 4,000 civil society groups, said on Tuesday that Modi's government had exempted the expansion of coal mines from public hearings, and would allow mid-sized polluting industries to operate within 5 km of national parks as opposed to 10 km, as directed by the courts.
"The government's approach to preserving forests, natural resources and environment in general is of concern," said a report from the groups, reviewing the first 100 days of the new government.
"There is particularly apprehension, in light of the undermining of consent from communities, that land acquisition would be solely in the interests of business."
But Oram, who is himself a tribal, refuted the allegation, saying the government supported poor people.
“There is no doubt that we are a government for development, but we are not a government for displacement and destruction," he said. "We are not going to develop the country at the expense of tribals - that I can assure you."
(Editing by Megan Rowling: firstname.lastname@example.org)