2013 promises to be a year in which the fate of large swathes of India's forests are determined. January has already witnessed two potentially significant developments in the ongoing war over coal mining in some of India's last remaining forests.
First, The Hindu reports that Minister of Environment and Forests Jayanthi Natarajan and Minister for Tribal Affairs KC Deo would fight attempts by the Prime Minister to weaken the Forest Rights Act in order to make it easier for companies to mine in forest land. The dispute concerns a 2009 provision making it mandatory for gram sabhas (village councils) to give their consent to any forest diversion proposal.
The second development was the MoEF finally making public a July 2012 report by the committee formed to suggest parameters on which areas would be closed for mining. While the parameters suggested are a good beginning, they do not go far enough, and have totally ignored the element of livelihood dependence, and the need to safeguard forests within a 10 km buffer of Protected Areas from mining.
Not too many years ago, the Congress party was touting the Forest Rights Act as evidence of its commitment to the poor and disempowered – in this case tribals and forest-dependent communities. Yet over the last year, Manmohan Singh and his coterie have made diluting the FRA one of their key objectives – ignoring the concerns raised by tribal communities and their representatives and by environmental organisation concerned at the forest destruction that could be unleashed. Members of Sonia Gandhi's own National Advisory Council and senior ministers like Jairam Ramesh have opposed any attempts to dilute the law, but with the Congress in disarray, the mining and industrial lobbies have ratcheted up the pressure on the Prime Minister's Office.
Greenpeace has joined other civil society voices asking the Prime Minister to uphold and strictly enforce the FRA. This week, the PM is scheduled to meet with both Ms. Natarajan and Mr. Deo. The outcome of their meeting will determine whether the Congress goes into the next election as a defender of tribal livelihoods or an accomplice in their displacement. Watch this space for updates.
Ashish Fernandes is a Senior Campaigner at Greenpeace