Pune: When the late legendary IAS officer Dr Brahma Dev Sharma was championing the rights of tribal communities, he never knew that the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Tribes) Act (PESA) and the Forest Rights Act (FRA), for which he struggled his entire life, would be violated by the government itself.
Violations of PESA and FRA are taking place in the Surjagad mountain ranges of Gadchiroli district, where mining projects are being passed and proposed by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) despite opposition from the Madia-Gond tribals of the area.
The Gram Sabhas of 70 villages from the region are opposing Lloyd Metals and Energy Ltd undertaking a mining project, which started in 2016. In this backdrop, the FAC has recommended a new mining project to be contracted to Gopani Iron Ore & Power Ltd on a 153-hectare forest land in the Surjagad Wooria hills in Etapalli tehsil of Gadchiroli.
In April 2017, the FAC recommended the lease to Gopani Iron Ore and Power Ltd.
One of the reasons given by FAC is that Lloyd Metals is already operating in the area. However, none of these leases have taken into account the resolutions sent by the villagers, who are opposing these mining projects, through the district administration.
According to a document accessed by Sakal Times, at a meeting held in April 2017, the FAC stated that the area is a very dense forest. “It is further observed that the area is backward and infested with naxalism. On review of past permissions given to other mines in the area, it is found that adjoining area to the proposed lease has been given stage II approval under the provision of FRA 1980.”
FAC conducted another meeting on Thursday (Oct 26, 2017) to discuss the proposal and recommend it further in order to lease the forest area to Gopani Iron Ore and Power Ltd. It is significant to note that on October 21, Gram Sabhas in Surjagad passed a resolution against the concerned mining project and have written in this regard to the FAC, Delhi.
Lalsu Soma Nagoti, a local and Zilla Parishad member of Bhamragad tehsil, said, “Gram Sabha is unanimously opposed to mining in our forests by anyone and in this particular case by Gopani mining company as it violates our socio-cultural associations with the forests. We have organised Gram Sabhas with regard to the proposal to divert (153.09 ha) forest land from our traditional Community Forest Resource (CFR) for Gopani Iron and Power (India) Pvt Ltd. Gram Sabhas have passed resolutions with the power granted to us through the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (Forest Rights Act or FRA). The Act has empowered us to preserve our cultural and natural heritage from destructive practices and to ensure that any decision taken by our village assembly to stop activities that will adversely affect our forests, biodiversity and wildlife will be enforced.”
“We belong to Madia Gond tribal group. Our cultural, subsistence and economic survival is deeply linked to these forests. Surjagad Hills are sacred to 70 villages of Surjagad Elaka and are closely linked to our gods of origin. This forest is our home and our source of survival. Where will we go if this forest will be destroyed by mining,” added Nagoti
Mahesh Raut, a tribal rights activists based in Gadchiroli said, “We have been agitating for cancellation of iron ore mining lease over 348.04 ha of forests granted to Lloyd Metals on these hills. These leases were granted without the consent of Gram Sabha. Local leaders, activists, and villagers who are involved in opposing mining have been targeted and harassed continuously by the police. CRPF battalions have been posted in the area to create an environment of fear and pressure to say yes to the mines. It is even more disturbing that the very Lloyd Metals that we have been opposing has been used as a justification in the FAC minutes to give clearance to another mine in the area.”
Shridhar Rammurthy, an earth scientist and managing trustee, Environics Trust, said, “What FAC and government are doing is totally illegal. As per the FRA they need an exclusive consent of the people to go ahead with mining projects. Not taking the consent of Gram Sabhas and going ahead with mining projects is a violation of the law.”
When contacted, Deepak Kumar Sinha, Inspector General Forests, Ministry of Environment and Forests and a member of FAC, regarding the recommendation of FAC to Gopani Iron and Power (India) Pvt Ltd for mining projects in Surjagad, he said, “These are irrelevant issues and we are not sitting here to give answers to your questions.”