Property rights of the poor in India are weak, at best. In the case of electorally marginalized communities such as tribes and forest dwellers, they were, until recently, non-existent. Change, however, is afoot. As reported in Mint on Tuesday, these rights received a boost after the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) made it mandatory to seek the approval of village administration before any forest land is diverted for industrial and non-forest use.
As reported, the move is likely to affect mining companies that are hungry for land. The usual practice to acquire forest land for such purposes required regulatory clearance that bypassed the local inhabitants. A majority of such acquisitions occurred in states such as Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa. These states are rich in natural resources such as aluminium, iron ore and coal, among other raw materials, but they are home to a large number of poor people.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
To make matters worse, these raw materials are located on the only resource the poor have: their land. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, changed this by enabling these poor to have rights over their lands. The MoEF letter gives the 2006 Act more teeth.
Will this change matters on the ground? It may or may not. In Chhattisgarh, for example, large mineral-rich swathes of the state are empty: Their inhabitants have been moved to camps for “security”. This happened after the savage intertribal fight between a state government-sponsored militia (the Salwa Judum) and Maoist insurgents. As a result, there is hardly anyone left in the villages to seek approval from. The state government, if it wishes, can use the old regulatory route to give approval for mining.
Things are not dramatically different in other states, too. In an atmosphere of Maoist terror, it is all too easy to press security concerns and other tactics to coerce such communities into submission. In the end, it is a question of the political will to implement these safeguards. There is plenty of room for scepticism.
It would be unfair to ignore the other side of the picture. Where does India get the raw materials to power its economic growth if the rights of the poor are a serious obstacle for sourcing these minerals? The conditions that rights groups would like to impose to secure these materials are often impossible to accede to: jobs for those who live on these lands and expensive financial packages. These are difficult issues and need resolution if economic growth is to be kept steady.
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