Shimla: Green activists in Himachal Pradesh have strongly opposed the Union Environment Ministry's decision to wave off approval from the locals for diverting forests to projects under the Forest Conservation Act.

In a missive to Minister of Environment and Forests (MoEF) Jayanthi Natarajan on Saturday, the activists have objected to the ministry's "unilateral" decision, saying the rights of forest-dwellers should be settled after securing consent from the affected 'gram sabha' (village councils).

"The arbitrary decision is against the provision of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (recognition of Forest Rights) Act of 2006," Rahul Saxena of Himdhara, an environment action group based in Palampur town, told reporters on Sunday.

He said it was also violation of the ministry's own circular of August 2009 that made mandatory for project proponents to get non-objection certificates (NoCs) of the affected 'gram sabhas' and compliance with the forest rights act before diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes.

Saxena said the environment ministry, acting on the representations of the state last September, dispensed with the condition for consent from the project-hit as their rights have already been 'settled' under the forest settlement process in 1970s.

"Now the MoEF has decided to accept a certificate by the deputy commissioner stating that there exist no pending claims under the forest rights act as sufficient evidence to meet the procedural requirements. Thus the requirement of the gram sabha's NoC has been done away with," he added. Himdhara, one of the signatories to the letter to the environment ministry, said the ministry had agreed to such a demand for allowing forest diversion without NoCs without having consulted the ministry of tribal affairs, which is the nodal ministry for the implementation of forest rights act.

Nek Ram Sharma of Satluj Bachao Jan Sangharsh Samiti said: "More than 10,000 hectares of forest land since 1980 have been diverted for hydropower projects, mines, transmission lines and roads." "The state forest department should have compensated all the forest dwellers whose rights have been compromised by this diversion, if it claims to have already recognised these rights," Sharma said.

"Allowing the deputy commissioner to certify that claims have been settled would directly affect the rights of the affected communities who have individual and community rights on the forest resources," said the letter, signed by various environmental bodies.


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