How Modi can lose future polls to land and forest laws

By issuing a controversial ordinance and notification, the Centre will be seen as infringing on peoples' rights not by legislation, but by executive actions.

 |  6-minute read |   06-04-2015
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Law and policy are inextricable from politics and at the heart of politics in a democracy such as ours is "the electorate". Seen through this lens, an ordinance that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP has passed is baffling. A notification, that is reportedly on its way, on the other hand, seems too predictable to merit analysis.

The ordinance is on land acquisition. Why would a party give its opposition the opportunity to usurp a sizeable section of its constituency - its poor landowners, especially farmers?

What is predictable? That the notification was reportedly drafted to bypass safeguards on tribal rights by the Forest Rights Act - essentially, the dilution of the clause that requires industries to acquire the consent of gram sabhas, which dwell in or around forests, before clearing them and displacing those who live there. Now why is this predictable? Well, simply because the tribal population, according to the 2011 census, is 8.6 per cent - 10.43 crores and of this, 89.97 per cent lives in the rural areas of this country. Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (working on forest rights) estimates that India has "10 to 30 crore forest dwellers".

Either way, going by these figures, the percentage of forest dwellers affected by the FRA, spread out across constituencies, may most likely not constitute a significant enough voter base for the BJP.

Indeed, the attitude of the government towards those affected by the FRA is best summed up in its consultations with respect to the World Bank's Safeguard Policies & Proposed Environmental and Social Framework. With regard to the World Bank's policy on "forced evictions of indigenous peoples", the government reportedly said: "This standard mandates that in three specific circumstances, free, informed and prior consent is needed before proceeding with a project affecting indigenous people. We are not comfortable with this provision."

The reason given: "The proposed clauses like free, prior and informed consent (replacing consultation process) can lead to legal complications, delays, increase in costs and delay in project execution."

It's not that those dwelling in India's forests always had the right to provide "free, informed and prior consent" to "a project affecting them". This explainer will give you a fair idea of the indignities (harassment, eviction, torture, sexual assault and being forced into bonded labour) they've suffered in the past, as well as this series of reports on the FRA.

Quick highlights

The Indian Forest Act (1927) seems to have been created primarily to serve the British's need of timber, and completely overrode the rights of the adivasis living in forests. The same attitude was written, surprisingly, into the Wildlife Protection Act, passed in 1972.

A high-level panel had told the central government that between 1947 and 2000, 60 million people were displaced to aid projects and an expert group on prevention of alienation of tribal land and its restoration stated that 47 per cent of those displaced were from tribal communities.

The FRA, enacted in 2006, was finally able to provide some relief to the forest dwelling communities only in 2009, when orders were passed under it. This was primarily because of the power of "free, informed and prior consent" given to the gram sabhas.

Even here, an RTI filed with the Tribal Affairs ministry has revealed that 82 per cent of tribal rights cases have been quashed since the act came into existence.

Here's how sociologist Luis Worth defined "a minority group": "A group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination."

The forest dwelling tribal population of India, sadly, has become an exemplar of the above.

It's not that they have no representation at all. The tribal affairs minister, Jual Oram, has been fighting tooth and nail, apparently, to ensure that the requirement for the gram sabhas' consent is not done away with.

Oram has good reason to do so. The first Union tribal affairs minister India ever appointed (during the Vajpayee government), he also holds the distinction of being the only BJP Lok Sabha MP to win from Orissa in 2014. The constituency from which he won is Sundergarh. The percentage of tribal population in the district of Sundergarh, according to the 2001 census, is 50.19.

However, in this government, Oram too seems to be a minority. How else would you explain this - Oram is a cabinet minister. Yet the PMO seems to have overruled his proposal to streamline and expedite the process of acquiring consent from gram sabhas (by coming up with a deadline clause in it, for instance) in favour of what Prakash Javadekar, a minister of state, is suggesting - diluting it to the point of inefficacy. Javadekar, a Rajya Sabha MP, does not have a direct constituency.

The questions of law and policy posed by the Land Acquisition ordinance and the FRA notification form the kernel of the great Indian development debate.

Do we need our mines, industrial corridors and infrastructure so urgently as to snatch away the basic rights of our people who have so long been denied them? Is it possible that the same category of people will fall prey to left-wing extremism that is still, mind you, a real and present danger in our country?

But let's return to the politics of it. For politics is even hazier than law and policy. In the aftermath of the storm the opposition has stirred, over the land acquisition ordinance, you are likely to find whispers in the countryside, across North India and in Maharashtra, which say, for instance: "This government is a rich man's government". The concerns expressed at the BJP's recently concluded national executive meet hint that the government and the ruling party are fearing the same.

So, while the move against tribal rights alone may not upset enough people to affect the BJP electorally, if you club it with such whispers, you may see an aggregator effect. In fact, the opposition may well be waiting in the wings - to catalyse this aggregation once the notification comes through. Then the forest-dwelling tribals will not be a constituency on their own, rather a part of a much larger constituency - a consolidation if you will.

What will make matters worse is that with both the Land Acquisition and the Forest Rights bills, the government will be seen to have infringed on peoples' rights not by legislation but by executive actions: an ordinance and a notification.

What then? Will the whispers consolidate into something loud enough to make the BJP regret its government's decisions in the elections to come? Or will it be able to reverse this perception somehow?

Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain. This is anything but a "comfortable" position for the government, or the party, to be in.


Rishi Majumder Rishi Majumder @rishimajumder

The writer is a Journalist/Writer. Associate Partner: . ; ; ;

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