An Unresolved Legal Question About Forest Rights

Human Rights Law Journal, 9 April 2018

Ghatbarra village, located in Sarguja district of the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh is home to Gondtribals, recognized under the Schedule V of the Constitution of India. Their home lies in HasdeoArand forest area, considered to be one of the last remaining contiguous patches of forests outside the legally recognized Protected Area (PAs) in Central India. The Gram Sabha (village assembly) of Ghatbarra and nineteen other villages has communicated their position to constitutionally oppose coal mining in the area back in 2015. Today, with a Supreme Court matter dealing with the validity of the ‘forest clearance’ affecting the village and the High Court case on the cancellation of forest rights pending decision, Ghatbarra is set to become a case in point in the near future. 

In January 2016, the district level authorities revoked the Community Forest Rights (CFR) granted to this village as per due process of law. The reason cited was that the exercise of these rights was coming in the way of coal mining operations in the area. Even as the final decision on a petition challenging this revocation is pending in the Bilaspur High Court, this paper seeks to examine two legal questions that arise out of the case. First, is the cancellation of conferred forest rights legally permissible as per the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA, 2006)? Second, can the use of forestland for mining be approved under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, without recognizing or compensating for the pre-existing rights of the tribal communities living in and dependent on the forests?