Don’t bungle in the jungle
By Sachidananda Murthy IN THE WEEK
Law Minister Veerappa Moily has added fuel to the Maoist fire by blaming the Supreme Court for the unrest in tribal areas of central and eastern India. Moily, who has been tougher than his predecessor H.R. Bharadwaj in dealing with the judiciary, recently questioned the extraordinary activism of the apex court’s Forest Bench, which deals with environmental issues. He believes the court’s zeal to protect forests displaced a large number of tribals.
There have been such issues ever since the Indira Gandhi government enacted the Forest Act in 1980. Things worsened after the Supreme Court expanded the definition of forest to include all land described as forest in the Godavarman case in 1996. Environmentalists endorse the court’s overarching arm and say India’s forest cover has increased over the last three decades. But state governments and Central ministries are peeved with the restrictions imposed on releasing forest land for industrial or commercial use. In some cases, negligent revenue and forest officials had declared large areas which did not have much green cover, too, as forests, but the green benches in the Supreme Court and state high courts have been harsh.
One cause of friction has been the central monitoring committee which submits reports to the Supreme Court on the applications for release of forest land. The previous UPA government had questioned the existence of this all-powerful committee, which can overrule the ministry of environment and forests. But in UPA-II, ‘green’ minister Jairam Ramesh backs the committee and even holds structured meetings with it, much to the establishment’s dismay. Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan occasionally pulled up the committee for not noticing ground realities. However, Balakrishnan, who headed the green bench, supported the committee in most cases.
Political leaders argue that the courts have alienated tribals in the forests of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal, by not allowing them to clear trees for agriculture. The government has introduced a law to protect tribal rights, but political leaders feel it gives little freedom to the tribals.
Delegations of MPs from forest areas have been asking Moily for a law that would leave decision-making powers solely with the government. But activists believe such a move would only benefit the forest mafias, that include politicians, bureaucrats, forest officials and timber contractors, and those who want to set up mines and factories in forest areas. Now, the ball is in S.H. Kapadia’s court. The new Chief Justice has already cracked down on “frivolous PILs”. Even as the court has been adjourned for summer vacation, environmentalists worry whether their concerns would be viewed as “serious” or “frivolous”